An Alaskan in Alabama (continued)

Stuck –
One of the hardest things I find about life here is the feeling of being stuck, in every way. First, there is the literal stuckness of having no way to get out of town. Without a car, your options are severely limited. I hadn’t thought this was the case when I moved here, given that the town is only an hour away from a major city center (Birmingham) and that bus and rail lines come through town, or used to do so. I figured that there would be some way out, if only a bus to that city center or a train to a further destination.

Unfortunately, this is not really the case. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Greyhound used to go right to the center of town—there’s an old bus building not far from the main road and the ruins of the old capital building—but the bus station is closed, I’m not sure how long ago, and the buses now stop at a gas station miles from town, which makes the whole point of bus transit—transport for people without cars, who are unable to use cars, or just don’t want to use them—difficult, if not impossible. There’s the train, but there’s only one train in each direction—northeast and southwest—a day, and these do not work schedule-wise, with the one departing town arriving in Birmingham hours after the only return train leaves. This means that despite the closeness of the city, you’d have to time travel in order to make a one-day visit work, leaving the city before you left town in order to get back to where you started. That would be a neat trick, if such a trick were possible; given a distinct lack of time travel options, the reality is that one would have to stay overnight and go back the next day, which would take the simple act of an hour train ride to the city to the level of an expensive vacation with hotel, meals out, etc.

The state constantly touts its beauties, but it seems difficult, if not impossible, to see them. One of the sad ironies is that this town once had two rail lines, and Birmingham, with its single trains running to and fro, used to have 76 trains going in and out per day. There was once a vast, beautiful train station with a neon sign, many stories high, which welcomed visitors to Birmingham, which the sign proclaimed “The Magic City.” I can imagine that a visitor would have certainly been impressed when he/she pulled into that vast palace of transportation and saw that sign. Now, there’s nothing left of the train station, which was pulled down in 1969 and never rebuilt. The Amtrak station is a tiny office under the train tracks, where there’s barely room for a small portion of the travelers to sit. Most stand, lined up along the corridor between the office and the freight depot, or smoke outside. The platforms themselves are open to the elements, a place of cracked pavement littered with debris, including that of cigarettes from past passengers. For today’s passenger, the process of waiting for the train is made less pleasant by the smoke of numerous passengers who consume cigarette after cigarette, forcing everyone, children and adults, to inhale their second-hand delights.

My town used to have two rail stations. One is now an office for a catering company that seems largely defunct, the other is the current station, located at the end of a city road that begins with fancy, prosperous buildings and ends in dilapidated houses. It’s the second station, the first having been torn down in 1920s or so. There’s a bit more of a waiting room here than the Birmingham station, despite the relative size of the two locations, but it’s nothing like the train stations I visited in Oregon, refinished to their former glory: gleaming wooden benches, tiled bathrooms, posters of train travel and, in the Portland station, vintage murals of Oregon beauties. In Alabama, waiting in the train station, there’s a palpable feeling that you’re waiting for a train to nowhere: a once-great system that has been left, through neglect or deliberate sabotage, to molder. It’s one illustration of how the democratic promise of train travel, a service open for a small fee to all, has been ignored, tossed away. It is, needles to say, but I will, a shame.

This physical sense of being stuck is only a part of the problem, a problem that I do not face alone; there is also the sense of emotional and intellectual stuckness, which is probably worse than the physical, although sorting out between the physical and the emotional feels useless: sand poured between my hands, an ocean moving in and out around my ankles. There is also the sense of loneliness, which feels like a great drum stretched all around, constantly touched, constantly reverberating with the sound, the reminder: one, still one, always one.

I need new input, raw colors, fresh sounds, new textures to rub my hand against, new smells and voices to startle and delight. But here it is always the same: the same broken glass, the same trash lying about, the same big trucks hurtling past, the same few shops, the same noisy bars, and the same walk over the vast parking lots towards the buildings where I struggle to make sense of my life here. I work to find my feet, to put them under me, to hold my body up, but sometimes I feel like I’m in the midst of a stream that runs too fast, balancing on rocks that are too uneven, sometimes there is no standing, no stillness in my core, too much motion, too little motion.

A friend tells me I must enjoy what I can here or anywhere, let go my frustrations, work for the future but dwell fully in every day, without letting the bitterness, the unrest dwell in my belly and turn all to bile, the black bile of imbalance, the melancholy shaggy black dog that dogs me, warm breath along my legs, a huff of breath in the cold, the scent of sadness smoking the air…


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