An Alaskan in Alabama (continued…)

March continued –
Birmingham continued…
Since I don’t have a ride home from Birmingham to my town, I search for the Amtrak and Greyhound stations. The Amtrak sign leads me in the right direction, but I can’t find the station. Finally, after a long walk past it and round the block, I discover that the building of some sort built under the low train tracks, which I had thought abandoned, or some old freight/shipping entrance, is all the station that there is. There is no sight of what might have been in the past, what I’d hoped to find: a buzz of transit, a glimpse into B’ham’s past.

In Oregon, many of the train stations have been restored: gleaming wooden benches, marble, old murals, black and white tiles in the bathroom. Portland’s station is a vast affair, and one gets a little shiver as one imagines all the people who’ve waited at its counter, gone past the murals of outdoor scenes, and waited on those long benches. What there is of a waiting room in B’ham are a couple of short red coaches in a low, narrow space, hot with the bodies of all the people waiting to board. The space looks like something cobbled together out of the old freight room: tiny, claustrophobic, nothing.

What happened? There is a park just a bit further down the street and across the tracks which seems to have some vestiges of old train tracks: maybe there was once a vast rail yard. Perhaps there was once a station with shining brass and wood, the voices of travelers going Northeast and Southwest. What remains is dingy and higgledy-piggledy. The parking lot outside the building is full of grass and glass and wires. The place seems abandoned, though people keep being dropped off. They are taking the one train of the day south; the one train to the north will be passing through soon.

I ask about the Greyhound station and am directed some blocks away. Making my way past the gleaming white classical grandeur of the court house, I find the Greyhound station. In The Inferno, I believe, Dante writes about the 7 Circles of Hell, each one unique and dreadful in its own way. There is a special hell for this space of the Greyhound waiting room: the smell of old cigarettes, the noise of an ancient arcade room, its bleeps and crash sounds bleeding into the florescent main lobby. People in their last stages of exhaustion are collapsed on scattered seats, some facing a flat screen TV: an improbable piece of modern tech in a landscape that seems fixed somewhere in the 1980s, or earlier. I ask the customer station agent about buses back to my town. Did the bus, as a friend told me as I set out for B’ham, really stop 3-4 miles out of town? The woman didn’t know, and she didn’t care; she told me the address: somewhere along one of the highways—the number she gave me meant nothing to me. How close to downtown was it? Would I be safe? She didn’t care, and she didn’t know. I walk out through the lobby, past the saddest café in existence. It looks like part of a chain, but it doesn’t have the pretend cheerfulness and scrubbed plasticity of a chain; instead, there are layers of grubbiness on the plastic, the tile, and on the signs advertising food that looks like it too has faded away within this begrimed, unlovely florescent space.

I swing the doors to the station open with relief and move back onto the streets of B’ham. I have a few theories about the placement of my town’s new Greyhound stop which is, I later learn, at a gas station that is about 6, rather than 3-4, miles from town. Some weeks back, I found an old Greyhound station right in the downtown area. As I walked around the exterior and peered inside, I discovered a smallish, seemingly-abandoned building. I saw a couple of bays for the buses and signs inside the lobby with bus times, both of which appeared promising, but the lobby deserted. Despite its lack, that station seemed more joyful than the B’ham station and, no doubt, the gas station on highway X where the current stop can now be found, no doubt buffeted by the sounds of the freeway and redolent with the smell of gasoline. I recall, wandering the streets of B’ham, that I’d heard something about the station being moved, but I thought it was moved to the Amtrak station, which is about 7 blocks from downtown. It’s a small red brick building that had little of the charm one might expect of its age, but certainly more than the B’ham train station. There’s also a much larger, more ornate train station right in downtown. It’s yellow brick with frosted glass windows.

I was puzzled by the two train stations. Considering the history of the area, a friend wondered if one might have been, in the segregated past, the station for Whites, and the other for African Americans. The red brick station is the one still in use. It is near the end of a long street that begins near the main street, not far from the university. There, its full of large, impressive homes, but here the houses have dwindled and declined—they’re all faded paint and sagging sides. The wealth of those earlier blocks has faded away. The faces I see as I walk through the areas are largely African American. Could the choice of the train location and the change in the Greyhound station be linked to race, to class, to ideas about who might come to town on those Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses? Or are these decisions simply another reflection of this car-centric culture, in which a person without a car is, necessarily, an automatic member of the ‘Bama version of the great unwashed?

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