November 24th, 2004
It was around 8 o’clock and there was still a swarm of holiday travelers in Penn Station heading towards a destination of home or what used to be. It was a hyper version of the usual scene’s I’d get a particularly intimate and regular view of in my train station days. Families and lovers saying goodbye or reuniting after some time, bedraggled and bleary eyed commuters dragging along the ball’n’chain of briefcases and laptops, There was a kind of majestic choreography about it and during the holiday rush it was only heightened. I’d lean my back against a wall, slide down and disappear from view and it would all slow down. Hours, days, weeks and months would all pass as I’d take in all the details, hearing all the hushed whispers and loud guffaws.
"You really seem to know you’re way around this place”, she said as I grabbed the two heaviest of her bags. It was only for three days at family in Philadelphia over Thanksgiving but Allyson had seemingly managed to compartmentalize all of her belongings into three pieces of luggage. Muffy and Buffy, the larger ones I took over, and a simple day bag.
“Keen sense of direction.” I smiled and we settled in on one of those overpriced bar grills to kill the hour before her train left. I nursed a bottled Amstel and she devoured a bag of trail mix plucked out of her day bag which I now imagine was completely filled with snacks. Maybe she had low blood sugar? I watched her gnaw at the seal of the bag to open it and pry with her nails. Adorably she always seemed to make even the simplest missions into a painstaking quest doused in the kind of tension usually reserved for the final act of a spy movie.
It was in between her mission she told me all about the tradition in her family coming from all over the country and meeting at an Aunt’s in Philadelphia. It had started when she was a child and the Aunt was immobilized to a health issue. Everyone came to the ailing Aunt, bringing a veritable pot lock of treats and home cooked goodies, eventually becoming it’s own tradition even as the children grew older and spread out further. In some way she described it the good intention yearly reunion became less about family and good food and more of just a tradition of burden, an empty ritual you did because… well, it’s what you did. Where else were you gonna go?
Of course my brain immediately went into processing her stories through a detatched and cynical filter—because I’m nothing if not detatched and cynical, especially when it came to holidays and family gatherings. It was less an assortment of bitter and painful memories then a complete and vacant lot of no memories. My family was not big on holidays, rituals and traditions so I was at a loss of comparative experiences on which I could fully appreciate her experience. I understood the idea of rituals for comfort; I had a few of my own. I even completely grasped the cheer, security and warmth of what family, home and the celebration of had to offer from the simple looks and gestures on the faces of the travelers I spied on a daily basis. It just didn’t register on a personal level. It was more like being one of those sociologists on an expedition in an uncharted jungle, watching and even living amongst a foreign tribe and eavesdropping their varied cultural habits. For someone who’s own holiday ritual had become a day volunteering at local missions and then heading to a warm and worn traditional Irish pub and cozying up to aged single malt, trying to relate to Allyson on this or many other experiences would be no different than being an astronaut marooned on a distant planet and trying to maintain amongst the aliens and their sort. I’d just never “get it”.
The closest I’d come to any Norman Rockwell version of this holiday was a year prior, a few weeks after settling into my first real flat in the city. It was a rent controlled, run-down and honest-to-Craig’s List one bedroom in the East Village in an old building that I managed to scrimp and save for. I had nothing more than a TV and mattress I’d culled form the streets in those pre-bed bug days and a garbage bag of clothes. It was walls and a roof and eventually the only real home I’ve ever known in this city. I’d been conjuring visions of annihilating my kitchen, breaking it in and cooking up all the fixings of a Thanksgiving dinner. The lack of any friends in town or dollars in my bank account immediately put a head shot into any of those fantasies and I decided the best way to say thanks for the blessings that had just come my way was to give back.
I spent the day volunteering at the local mission dolling out glammed up versions of turkey TV dinners to those also lacking in their holiday traditions and cast aside from the norms of the day. I brought three men I’d had particularly lively chitter chatter with back to my empty flat where we indulged in boxes of fried chicken and a case of PBR, cursing at the bad football plays on the television and staining the screen with chicken grease. It was memorable and alive and great.
Back in the station Allyson stood in line waiting to hand over her ticket and proceed to her train. I returned possession of Muffy and Buffy and began the awkward-unsure and rushed goodbye dance—you know, that dance?
This time was different, though. She paused and looked at me, looked up and down and almost through me to where, for a split second, I’d wondered if I’d caught fire or had grown some kind of horn. A homeless unicorn, perhaps?
“I’m really lucky to have you in my life.”
It was said with such sincerity and heart capped off with that ring of welled up tear on the lower left eye, that I instantly knew this was the kind of person you kept close in your life forever. This of course ended up being not at all the case, but looking back—well, you had to be there, I guess. She blushed a bit from her burst of honesty, withdrawing with a smile, curling her lips and not baring any teeth. Chalk it up to hormones, adolescent infatuation or some kind of intricate train station fluorescent lighting scheme that hit her face, anchored by dark hair and jeweled with large, almond eyes; but I don’t think she ever looked more beautiful or further away.
Instantly I wanted to say everything. EVERYTHING. I wanted to be completely honest and jump up and down, shouting everything and—
Nothing. More then a couple beats I couldn’t move or speak, I think I blinked but otherwise completely paralyzed, not by fear but perhaps conscience. The eve of a time of thanks and reflection, of happiness shared amongst families is not when you drop an emotional nuclear bomb on someone you care about, someone who has become so close to you yet, for all they truly know, you are a complete stranger.
“You just made my decade.” Robotically go to witty but meaningless saying 6,324 and watch her smile, melt and board with a kick. I wander back past the bar and grill, hoping to dig myself into an extra Amstel or two with a whiskey chaser but they are closing up. I decide to find libations outside before rising the next morning into my own Thanksgiving tradition of volunteering at the missions, but find myself stopping and slouching against the familiar cold wall and watching again. I stopped watching and closed my eyes, exhaled. I took a minute that became an hour, finally plucking myself up and re-arranging my black coat before heading out into the chilly night and a peacefully calm city.
November 24th, 2010
I open my eyes and find myself six years later slouched in the same spot and wonder if I have just woken up from a coma that started when I closed my eyes that previous holiday night. I laugh at the thought, quickly going through a highlight (or lowlight to some) reel of the last six years; graduating and eviction, (mis)adventures on different continents, love and loss, making and losing a film, the transitional “homes” and souls that came in and out like travelers at the station… what a beautiful and twisted dream it was… I’m thankful for it all, the good and the bad. The people I met and are in my life as well as those who are footnotes and ghosts of memories passed.
I toast as I usually do: to friends, family and those along the way that become them. To home.
To the everlong quest for finding home…