My old friend Glen. I can see him skinny at 13, playing Casino with me nightly across one of his twin beds, dealing to the playlist that rocked out of his new transistor radio. He was consumed then with curiosity about cars and God and sex. I remember him in college, still scrawny and growing a beard that looked like armpit hair, wrestling with metaphysics, long chess games, and ideas about nonpossessive sexual love. I have Glen’s summer letters from then, missives out of Southern California where he was stuck with his alcoholic mother or his ever-silent dad, unfurling communal plans and trying to make changes so he’d like himself.
I can also see him a few years ago, telling me I’m the only person he knows whose childhood was happy enough that I can afford to recall its unhappiness. I remember thinking those words were wise, or at least charming, at first. Now they sound like something an autistic might say if he were trying to identify with a willful person.
For Glen doesn’t get it. He says no to himself; I say no to others. He grows more bitter every year.
He knows about his letters in my footlocker. Three times in the last five years I’ve offered them to him. “It’s fun,” I told him after I read my teenage diaries. “Really: it’s not as embarrassing as I thought it would be; I actually got into it and found myself rooting for the writer! I only wish I’d used full names and recorded weather and prices…”
But he declined. Didn’t even indicate he might read them sometime. He shoved the subject aside like astrology or prayer.
I could never do that: know there’s information available, easily available, and not look. That would be like refusing to unfold the map; fine if you’re playing a game but not if you want to get somewhere.
Glen used to travel for work. He used to say the only way to do it was to keep moving, as much as possible in the direction of your goal. But that was awhile ago. I doubt now he remembers his own words.
I remembered yesterday. I entered the downtown Berkeley BART station just in time to overhear most of a conversation between a potential passenger and the station agent.
They were both well-dressed, attractive, middle-aged, African American. The station agent was a woman with coppery curls and wide-open big eyes. The passenger was portly and male, wearing a brown suit, short hair, polished shoes. He carried a brown briefcase and greeted the agent with courtesy:
“Good morning, ma’am. How are you today?”
She answered pleasantly, softly, smiling, in about three syllables. I was passing them then on my way from the fare gate to the stairs.
“Can you tell me when the next train comes for San Francisco?”
“Let’s see…” and I could imagine her running a manicured fingernail across a schedule as I descended. I slowed to hear her answer because I was later than usual and could use the information myself. “Ten-forty” she said, as I read 10:30 on my watch and 10:31 on the platform monitor.
“Then I’m going to be late,” I heard the man say. I had two thoughts: “I don’t want to wait 10 minutes either” and “Well, sir, if you’re going to be late it isn’t the train’s fault.”
“I want to get to One Sansome,” the man continued.
“That will be the Montgomery Station,” said the agent.
“But there’s no train till 10:40?”
“Then I’m going to be late.”
That’s when the platform monitor began to flash: FREMONT. 6 CAR TRAIN. BOARD CENTER. Standing with half a dozen others I heard the whine of the wheels on the track and felt the pushed air in my face. I looked around for the brown-suited man. I wasn’t surprised not to see him. He’d made the mistake of asking a system employee instead of a rider. He had probably headed streetward, either to give up because he was going to be late or to spend a lot of money and risk time anyway, on a taxi.
A 9-car San Francisco train pulled in opposite ours at MacArthur. I crossed the platform and took a seat and rode it to the city on time.