Train stations are useful portals. As gateways to our workplaces, other times as the gleeful prelude to an exciting outing in “The City” for a play or dinner with friends. In other words train stations are a passing through point for the bourgeois. Urban planners refer to them as part of the public sector infrastructure. They are solid, dependable, well planned and efficient, a piece of an inextricable network that we take for granted.
The Summit train station sits at the very nexus of this hub. The more than 3,600 people a day who course through its doors and across its platforms are; students and teachers, hedge fund managers and hedge trimmers, artists and art patrons. They occupy this space temporarily, a weigh station between home base and a destination. It is a round trip of defined duration.
But there are other habitués of the Summit train station who exist in a sort of locomotive limbo. They aren’t coming or going. Their timetables and schedules are frozen, much as their fingers and toes are frozen by the cold air blowing just outside the double doors of the central waiting room.
In the waiting room they sit … and wait.
They wait for the warmth of the industrial strength heaters to blow through their shabby layers of clothing. They wait for the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee to deplete. Nursing the drink as they nurse a sense of despair sprinkled with hope. Hoping that a police officer or NJ Transit employee will look the other way as they pass through rather than roust them from the bench and sternly warn them of the official loitering policy. Loitering seems like such a casual word to describe the need to stay warm in the winter.
This is a modern portrait of Summit’s homeless or hopeless population.
The regulars at the station are unique and colorful in their own special ways.
There is “Sarge” the large black man who wears his US Army fatigues with pride. His transistor radio provides a distraction. No need for iTunes and a smart phone when 60 year old technology will do just fine. He proudly and defiantly sits on the same bench on the westbound side of the waiting room like a king on his throne. Or perhaps more like Patton or McArthur commanding a view of the battlefield. The demons he battles are known only to him.
Or the slight, sad and scruffy man who has skillfully staked out a small alcove at the top of the main stairs coming up from the Track 1 platform. He is invisible to the police and transit officers who make cursory sweeps of the waiting room but may not see him curled up, out of sight. In contrast to his outward appearance, he always has a tote bag, of the weathered, worn LL Bean variety with his meager necessities, a roll of toilet paper, and an extra pair of Hanes underwear. During the evening rush hour the busy New York commuters returning home stream past him as they trudge up the stairs. They are weary and spent from 12 hour days spent laboring in the glass towers of Manhattan. The sad man sleeps, or pretends to; no less weary than they, for less noble reasons.
Trains are designed to take us from one point to another, safely, reliably every day. How can we ensure that Summit’s less fortunate are transported from their point of despair to a point of dignity? How can a town like Summit with the resources and conscience and responsibility allow this unconscionable, irresponsible offense?
In the children’s book Alice in Wonderland, Alice falls through the rabbit hole or looking glass into a world of contradictions. She is confronted with situations were the same word can mean different things. There is no clear definition, no moral clarity. The Rabbit Hole is a portal into a misguided world that bears no connection to reality.
Is the Summit Train Station our own Wonderland? I wonder what we can do to find the answer.
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