Spending New Year’s Eve On a Train With No Midnight
Joseph Keckler: Citizen of the Future
Remember the 2012 apocalypse? It was big in 2008. That’s when various shysters began selling their books by invoking some inscrutable Mayan prophecy, cobbled together with ominous bits of scientiﬁc jargon about the magnetic poles switching, and various distressing—and likely accurate—statistics about the environmental catastrophe currently aﬀecting the planet.
At the time I had friends who went around Brooklyn muttering forebodingly about the day our world was to go asunder: 12/21/12. These same people spent the next four years squeezing in every hedonistic life experience they could possibly imagine, and then never mentioned the apocalypse again. When that date ﬁnally rolled around, even the most occult-oriented and nihilistic among them approached the coming Christmas weekend with little more than a humdrum air of pre-holiday malaise. Some even went shopping.
I had the distinct sense that my friends weren’t relieved that this apocalypse wasn’t on its way, but that they were resigned to the fact we wouldn’t all be meeting such a tidy and magical obliteration. Once the world had failed to end on schedule, I promptly came down with the stomach ﬂu in my parents’ quaint and cluttered West Michigan home, late on Christmas night, and ended up missing my ﬂight back to New York City. My mother avoided me for several days, addressing me from the other room as “Typhoid Mary”—a name she assigns to any family member who is under the weather.
My father read to me in bed—some meandering essays by Carol Bly, no doubt harder for me to follow in my state of delirium—and he sang me “Dark as the Dungeon” and other bleak lullabies about miners, and hobos on trains, just as he had done when I was a child.
After a blurry couple of days, I awoke on New Year’s Eve and felt back to myself again. It was too late to make my evening plans in New York; I discovered that ﬂights were far too expensive, but train tickets for midnight that night were available and reasonably priced. Many people would ﬁnd the prospect of spending a holiday on a train unappealing, but I am a glutton for awkward experiences. Therefore, instantly convinced that New Year’s Eve on a train would be a night to remember, I insisted on heading back to New York that night, by train. Why, I couldn’t wait to see all those strangers on Amtrak, whooping it up in the aisles, shaking their stuﬀ in the café car, to welcome 2013. Perhaps some passengers would kiss one another. What a strange situation, I thought: to be in motion, barreling through the night, while arriving into a new year.
I bought the ticket. At once I contemplated all the New Year’s Eves of my past and all the train rides of my past. Tonight the two tracks of memory would converge. Finally the sense of restrained festivity I associated with trains could become, well, a bit less restrained, I imagined. I thought too of the impossible expectations that characterize New Year’s Eve—all that heedless drinking in hopes of achieving some unprecedented metamorphosis. At least on a train, I thought, we would have a reachable destination.
My parents complied in driving me down to Elkhart, Indiana—the train to NYC is much shorter from that station, and it’s just an hour from their house. I sat in the backseat, just as I had on family car trips when I was a child. At one point my mother turned to my father and remarked, “You are going to outlive me. But if I were to outlive you, I want you to know that I would never remarry.”
My father shrugged and, without taking his eyes oﬀ the road, replied, “It’s not like I’m gonna be ghostin’ around.”
Once in Elkhart, the three of us passed several businesses with names so generic as to be almost outrageous: “Easy Shopping Center” and “Quick Video.” I didn’t know video rental outlets even existed anymore, but this one seemed to be appealing to those who were at once behind the times and in a hurry. Vowing not to do it again in the new year, in our fresh new lives which would begin in roughly an hour, my parents and I scarfed down McDonald’s cheeseburgers, ordered from the drive-thru. As we proceeded to the train station, I thought about trains and why I like them so much. For one, the culture of ground transportation in general is much less police-statey than that of air travel; one can express one’s personality, even eccentricity, without having to worry about being suspected of terrorism. This is partly because crime on trains and buses in the United States is not so often politically motivated. For instance, that one man who decapitated another on a Greyhound wasn’t a follower of any cause—he simply wanted to show oﬀ to his fellow passengers. Chatty schizophrenics, the Amish, anarchist types, babies with joie de vivre, temperamental Europeans, the unwashed, and the unhinged—these are the people of the ground. Of course the atmosphere of the train is more sophisticated and delirious than that of a bus. And because the heyday of trains belongs to another era, riding the train makes you feel like you are somehow in the past. Even the most contemporary vignette, viewed through the windows of a slow-moving train, appears to be history.
“Your father had an idea for a sitcom,” my mother smiled. “It’s about a woman who has six cats, like I do. And when she dies, her husband is left to care for the cats. And he can’t see his wife’s ghost, but the cats can. So he communicates with his wife’s ghost through the cats!” They both laughed. “Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”
“I do,” I said, amused and troubled.
The Elkhart station was small and old-fashioned, currently quiet and empty. We were the only ones there except for the attendant, who listened to a radio behind her glass window. She looked as though she wanted to be left alone, so we tried not to bother her. We just sat on a bench, watching a clock on the wall, and conversing in whispers. We didn’t even raise our voices to countdown to the new year. “Five, four, three, two, one,” we mouthed in a huddle, as though marking a tradition in the midst of hiding from a predator. A low screeching echoed outside, precisely at the stroke of midnight. “That old freight train sure dragged in the new year,” remarked my father. Then, sustaining our hushed boisterousness, we waited for my train to arrive. It was due at 12:30 a.m.
My train was younger and sleeker than the freight—it didn’t sound anything like a wraith as it came streaming through the darkness a half an hour later. My parents walked me outside, we kissed goodbye, and I stepped aboard. I waved back at them from the stairs and then turned towards the future, readying myself for the real party.
I found myself stepping through the door into a pitch-black corridor. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to make out the shapes of people, curled up and draped over their seats. Many were under blankets, cushioned by bulky winter coats: bundled against the world. Some had their shoes oﬀ and were snoring. I wheeled my suitcase swiftly down the aisle into the next car. It was the same, as was the next. In each car I found rows and rows of sleeping bodies—an endless cemetery of the tuckered-out.
Had they simply partied too hard early in the night and all passed out long before the clock even struck twelve? I had seen that happen once at a party in Kalamazoo. Or for most people, was choosing to take a train on New Year’s Eve the signal of a certain kind of resignation, an opting out of merriment? I wondered, in distress: Had a few tyrannical early-to-bedders ruined the fun for everyone? Was I the only bon vivant on board?
Finally, in the last car, I spotted one seat with its light on. A man and a woman were there, awake, drinking from plastic cups. Aha. The last soldiers standing. I wheeled my suitcase towards them and settled into the seat across the aisle from theirs. “Hi,” I said. “Happy New Year!” The man turned to me. He didn’t wish me a happy new year but a grin spread across his face.
“Weee like smokin’ weeeeeeeeed,” he growled happily. The woman laughed.
“We’re goin’ to ‘New York City,’” she said, as though this might clarify her companion’s remark. She said New York City as if there were quotation marks around it, like it was a city that didn’t or shouldn’t really exist.
“Not cuz we ‘want to,’” added the man.
“Cuz we ‘have to,’” said the woman. She paused and then explained, “We’re goin’ to a wedding.” She nodded at me slowly. “Was there a party on the train?” I asked. She opened her bleary eyes a little, like someone had just turned on a bright light.
“We’re having a party,” replied the man, several beats later, holding up his plastic cup. Pink liquid swished around in it.
“I can see that,” I smiled, masking my general concern. “What about the other passengers?” I asked. The man stuck his lips out and moved his head side to side, as to indicate a little here, a little there. “What happened at midnight?” I asked.
“Midnight,” one repeated. They looked at each other, drunkenly and quizzically, as though faced with some tricky bit of historical trivia. Midnight? For the life of them, it seemed neither could recall.
I sat in my seat and looked out at the passing trees. Midnight had only occurred an hour ago, I thought. Not even. And it was a rather important midnight, after all. I watched darkened backyards and then ﬁelds. I began to think about the route of the train. In a moment it dawned on me: the train was coming from Chicago and had to cross time zones once it hit mid-Indiana, where it was an hour later. So if the train crossed at, say, 11:20 p.m., then it suddenly became 12:20 a.m.
It had never been midnight on this train. Its passengers had missed the passage into a new year.
I looked back around me at the people, fast asleep. Slugabeds all, slumped awkwardly in their seats. Suddenly, I viewed them as an unfortunate lot of lost spirits. A zombie clan of sleepers. The ones time forgot. For them, was it even 2013 yet? Or were they children of 2012? Orphans of its forgotten apocalypse? And how lucky was I not to be one of them. I had my midnight. Why, I was a citizen of the future, I thought, gazing out the window at backyards and closed shops.
Or was I? Was I just the one most aﬀected by this lapse in time, the chief mourner of the lost midnight? After all, I’d invested in this train, in these people, a heady sense of possibility. I thought of this night, these passengers, and the entire scenario the way most of us think of each coming year: as a promising stranger. A promising stranger who inevitably disappoints you, as it turns out, once you actually get to know her.
I was getting drowsy myself. The train slowed down and became a bit jerky. Still, I drifted oﬀ, becoming one among the sleepers, only waking up for a moment, here and there, as we all went lurching forward on the train with no midnight.