STARLIGHT BY COACH
by Steven Steinbock
This week’s Bandersnatch is coming to you from seat #22, car #14 of the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The old man in the seat kitty-corner to me is watching “Uncle Buck” on his little DVD player. I can’t help myself; I keep glancing over at the seven inch screen. I’m laughing at the funny parts and getting choked up at the sentimental parts. I guess I’ve seen the film too many times.
A woman with wild gray hair and wilder gray eyes has walked up and down the aisle a number of times. I think she’s looking for her seat. Aren’t we all?
In the seat in front of the old man watching “Uncle Buck” is a little boy who has tired of the ride and is antsy after sitting in the same train car for six hours. Despite the father’s reassurances, the boy is telling his dad that he hates him. Poor kid has another sixteen hours of rail travel.
I’m taking the trip to central California to see some old friends. I’m getting older and the friends I’m seeing are even older than that. It’s kind of a sentimental journey. Several of the people I’ll be seeing – one man in particular – helped inspire the book I recently finished writing. He’s no longer the same man who first sparked the idea, but he continues, in strange inexplicable ways, to inspire me.
The whole summer has been that way. While in Seattle I’ve contacted people I haven’t seen in years. I called one man that I haven’t seen in more than forty years. (That’s not precisely true; I ran into him once in 1976 when he was working at a car wash). He was my best friend until my family moved two miles to the west and the friend and I lost contact. Two lousy miles. And the years go by. He and I are staying in contact and will try to get together when I return to Seattle four days from now.
I hadn’t planned it this way, but the train ride is turning itself into a metaphor before my eyes. As the world passes by through the window, I feel the days and years, and the people I’ve known pass by. Mile by mile the trees rush past while the clouds keep watch, seeming not to move.
You can’t go back. Thomas Wolfe said it better than I ever could. You can’t go back home to a young man’s dreams. But sometimes as we move forward, the people we’ve loved follow us like those clouds in the distance. Sometimes they’re lost behind the trees and buildings. Other times, as my train emerges into a clearing, they glow in the sunlight.
Nostalgia is a bitter-sweet box of chocolates. When you bite in, there are no assurances what to expect. You can choose which pieces to take and which to leave. The tastes are usually sweet but often surprising and sometimes you need to rush for a napkin so you can spit out a flavor that you don’t like any longer. Each piece you take leaves an empty spot in the box.