Two Alexanders

One morning in 1926, a boy named Alexander Gregory was hurrying to school when he came upon rail tracks near the tiny Gaithersburg railway station. The station superintendent on duty was Alexander Dunn. Dunn asked the boy to wait, and so he did. A light snow was falling as a slow train passed them. After the last carriage went past, the boy started to cross the tracks and then he froze. Dunn shouted at the boy to warn him as an express train bore down on him from the parallel tracks on the other side. Then, taking matters into his own hands, Dunn, who was 62 years old, flung himself at the boy to separate him from the tracks. He was too late. Witness report that the impact threw the  Alexanders into a ditch dozens of feet away, and killed them both instantly.

For the last three days, I have been eating my lunch at the Gaithersburg railway station. It is still the same little building of red brick, except that very few trains pass. Now and then,  an Amtrak train roars past without stopping, or a long goods train ambles in a slow and tired way. On my morning and evening walks, I haven’t seen a train stop here yet. Perhaps, Olde Town Gaithersburg is not really one of the hot spots en route to Washington DC. It gives the impression of a town past its heyday. There are immigrant workers from South America, either doing tough jobs or waiting beside some of the TexMex restaurants and old specialty stores which might have been quaint at one time. The old town rubs its antiquated shoulders against the economy of the Beltway – that ribbon of asphalt is quite close, with exits to countless office suites where men and women work for government agencies.

Inside the station is what appears to be a functioning Amtrak ticket dispenser. There are a few wooden tables and the place is very clean. Some paper flowers adorn the walls, and there is a time table of bus routes. There is only one other room, in which two Asian women run a cafeteria with a predictable and disappointing name: Java Junction. The ladies don’t talk much but they make very good sandwiches. Their servings are small, unlike the huge Virginia-style portions that they serve at the hotel in which I am lodging. I have half a mind to ask these ladies whether they have bought the station premises and whether the ticket dispenser is just a showpiece, like the steam engine from the museum next door.  But I find it hard to communicate with them; they are not exactly loquacious. They are also quite short and most of the counter is half a foot taller than either of them; they remain  invisible busybodies who surface with sandwiches, take your money and retreat behind the glass.

So, like the two afternoons before this one, I take my sandwich and go to the empty  room with the paper flowers and the Amtrak machine. There is a clean, but now defunct ticket window. In front of the window’s railing, are some black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings from 1926. One of them carries the title, “Two Alexanders Perish”. The other describes how Dunn posthumously received the Carnegie Medal of honor for trying to save the little boy.  I read this article again, just like I have for the last two days. Some details commit effortlessly to memory, like the light snowfall on the morning of the accident. I think of the snowfall, and imagine the train rumbling through the flakes. I think of Mike Daisy’s fabrications about Foxconn factories in China, and wonder whether the snowfall had really occurred.

It is calm inside the empty room. Well lit and not at all gloomy. I replay the story of the two Alexanders for the third day in a row. But, I don’t think about the grizzly details of the accident, or the families of the dead. I feel exhaustion sweeping over me slowly and recall the never-ending commitments at work in recent weeks. For three months I have been counting the days until these deadlines go away and leave me alone. Without complaint, I mentally tick off the checklist of fear, worry, petulance, expectation and sadness that have accompanied these ten workweeks from hell: Each project, each paper, each program, each collaboration, each deliverable has been its own self-sufficient bedeviler. I note how it has been impossible to make anyone else understand this. I think of the classic loneliness of our time, where each person is truly an island, and no one really understands him. We listen to one another and think to ourselves, “I know how that feels”. Sometimes, we really do want to know how that feels. But mostly we can’t. We don’t know people’s private demons because most people do not or cannot share their private demons. Every person is unhappy in his or her own unique way.

Why this story of an improbable tragedy calmly brings me face to face with an existential crisis, I cannot say. I allow myself the admission – exceedingly rare for the optimist I imagine myself to be – that work and life may not all turn out well, that arbitrary and terrible things could happen at any time and that the most one can wish for is to have some equilibrium between tragedies. Strangely, the out-of-control negativity of this does not alarm or depress or worry me as it would normally have done. I step out into the cold, but there is still no sign of the airport shuttle that was supposed to pick me up. I look for telltale signs of the ditch where the old man and the boy must have fallen. I don’t find them.

On the other side of the building, a steam engine looms in repainted black and silver, like a dragon meticulously groomed in a coat of new mail, but dead without its flaming breath. I become interested in the ridiculously large brakes and dampeners on the wheels. Behind it, a metal carriage from the old Baltimore and Ohio railroad briefly catches some sunrays. In the carriage windows are reflected vistas of tree branches with spring-green leaves and a cloudy sky on the other side of the railway tracks. Their incongruous beauty intrudes on my emptiness a little, and I stop to take a picture or two. Then I haul my bags and walk away.

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Ecstatic Road to Nowhere

Think if you and I had a car like this, what we could do. Do you know there’s a road that goes down to Mexico and all the way to Panama? – and maybe all the way to the bottom of South America where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside? Yes! You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go, – right? [Jack Kerouac, On The Road]

Shortly before I graduated and left California, my good friend made me a present of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Inside the cover is an earnest note of farewell in Italian-accented English and a helpful explanation – The road is a metaphor for life. And so it is. [Spoiler notice: Only a few disconnected events are described in this post without giving the thread of the story. My view is that the events themselves are less important than the novel’s overarching mood of wild sadness, which is something that can only be felt while reading it. Still, if knowing about stray events ruins your enjoyment of a novel, please refrain from reading this post. The book is much much better 🙂 .]

On the Road is a frenzied account of the adventures of the narrator, Sal Paradise, who drives, walks, and hitchhikes his way across the length and breadth of the United States in the late 1940s. Traveling with him are his friends, Carlo Marx, Ed Dunkel, Old Bull Lee and above all, the mad Dean Moriarty. These trips are largely aimless, the destination being decided on the fly, for no other reason than that one has to “dig” the streets of Denver, dig Larkin and Geary and Embarcadero in San Francisco, dig the jazz in New Orleans, dig Hollywood, dig penniless musicians and singers in decrepit bars, and dig women in all places. It is a mad romp that never looks like it is going to stop; for there are always more places that Dean has to see, more cars that he must steal (not out of malice, not with any plan whatsoever, but just as an outlet for his inexhaustible nervous energy), and more women to be inebriated with. Dean has all the energy in the world – He can steal two cars within half an hour, dance madly for hours unmindful of the pool of perspiration at his feet, make Denver to Chicago in seventeen hours in a “borrowed” Cadillac without any sleep, talking nonstop on the way.

Dean is in a perpetual search for ecstasy, or bliss, or whatever he chooses to call It – unhindered by the trappings of every day life, unapologetically borrowing money, food and vehicle from friends and relatives – and Sal follows in his thrall. For a few fleeting moments, perhaps while swerving away from a sure accident at breakneck speed, or while holding the gaze of an enraptured jazz singer, it seems that they find It, but it is never enough. There are times when Sal and Dean think of settling down, trying to work for a decent living. But, they are just not made for a mundane existence. As Dean searches in vain for his lost, drunk and homeless father, swaps arbitrarily between his vivacious Mary Lou and his possessive Camille, one has to naturally ask whether his hopeless inability to stay with a job or a woman or a place has something to do with never having a settled family to begin with. Are Sal and Dean free spirits, or are they rudderless wanderers? Both? Neither? As Kerouac puts it, they are “two broken-down heroes of the Western night.”

It has often been said that On the Road is a novel about the “beat generation”, but we seldom find an explanation about what it means to be “beat”. Kerouac once said that it means “beatific”. This invokes images of gods, sages, dervishes, hippies, drunkenness, and already, this amalgam is a little too complicated to pin down. But, while we find it so hard to define, we probably have a vague internal notion of what it means to be Dean and Sal. In a few areas of our own lives, we are probably like them. In their case however, the road is not merely a metaphor for life. The road is their life, their goal, their prize, their refuge, their anesthetic. Undeniably, their lives are colorful, but the colors always blur into each other.

Reading On the Road is a little bit like reading The Catcher in the Rye. I found it more engrossing than Catcher; for a variety of reasons that have to do with timing and age more than anything else, I felt closer to Sal than to Holden. I find myself thinking many times about Sal’s and Dean’s rueful admiration for the places that they travel to, and feel that I know some of the pain that they would not admit to themselves. They were, as Sal says, the mad ones – “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time“, and I felt that I understood at least a fraction of that madness – and the insane jagged helplessness that comes when the world just does not understand, when there are no kindred spirits to be found, when all of one’s talk is just words, tiresome and meaningless in the horrible void. Different people choose different entry points into a book – hooks with which they adhere themselves to the story, burrow inside it and look around; mine was the air of desolation behind the screen of ecstasy.

[Two weeks ago, I was reading On the Road on a bench outside a railway station in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was a gray evening in the city of Jack Kerouac’s birth. One half of my mind is prone to thinking of this as some sort of sign. The other half scoffs at the suggestion, but retains just enough silliness to smile at the coincidence.]