Saturday, September 1, 2007

Saint Louis Station

The station had once been a grand bank. But the intricately painted ceiling panels and Doric columns did little for the people lining up at gate four at 3 in the morning. The line of bags and suitcases was interrupted, after a mere 10 yards, by a row of seats. There was a small gap in the middle of the row through which one person could squeeze, to the bathrooms or to the “Target: Terror” video games lining the walls. This small opening made me think the line ought to go through it and curve around along the wall and the arcade games. The statuesque woman with the small child with the Spider Man backpack got behind me, and the 3 Amish men and one woman formed a small covey behind her.

But all was not settled. An Indian man I recognized from our last bus soon walked up, asked, “Are you waiting for gate 4?” and plopped his bags down near mine, where I was sitting. I should have told him right then, nipped it in the bud, him and the jolly Mexican man he hung with, told him that the line was back there behind the Amish folk. If I had said something, then maybe the small Mexican woman with her children might not have showed up with their fleet of bags and sowed further confusion by indignantly refusing to budge.

But I said nothing. And of course Greyhound did nothing. I can imagine a Sidney Milgram of sadistic inclinations reaping new data every night from the chaos and bad tempers brewing around gate 4. More and more people drifted into the orbit of the “line,” accreting to it in some available niche until its course was a matter of some debate – at least from those, mainly between the benches and the arcade games, who felt the interlopers were stealing ahead of them.

My incipient disquiet deepened, and suddenly came out into the open. The hard faced Indian guy, grinning, said, “I was here a long time ago, with this woman. And this guy [meaning me] is right behind me.”

“I was in front of you,” I said, and his grin disappeared. My brother Scott was lying down on the edge of the marble floor. Seeing the crowd tighten its muscles for a struggle, I picked my way through its byzantine structure of bodies in order to alert him about boarding before things got to crazy to allow me to break away. He lay on his back in his baseball cap, utterly asleep, deaf to the seething movements of the “line” on one side and the snack bar on the other. He squeezed behind me, eyes floating in some other place.

Already I noticed several people planted ahead of us who had not been there before. Though I was indignant at the immediate injustice done to me, my protests failed to have any effect because I did not whip up the anger of the other people behind me. the Indian man, suddenly, was directly in front of me. “Why are you in front of me?” I said.

“Everybody’s pushing up,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said, but he did not budge. “I was here when you lined up!” He stood there saying nothing more, and my anger flared. “Are you in front of me?” I asked of a black woman to my left. Finally she relented, striking a deal that “let” me go ahead of her, while not having to give up her ill-gotten gains over everyone else.

“No one’s gettin’ in front of me,” said the young mother behind me, but to no effect.

When a young woman in the screwed over section by the arcade games began calling out that the line ran back there, I piped up again. This time I singled out the plump woman and her family who had crowded in behind the Indian man. “This is not the line,” I said, “it is back there.” As usual in these deep in the night debates, logic mattered less than fierce tenacity. She fought back in words at first, mentioning this or that person she had come in with – nothing to any logical connection to the matter of the line. And when I persisted, arguing firsts and laters, she simply clammed up like the Indian man and refused to move.

Then came an announcement came over the PA system, murky but just legible enough, that all holders of reboard pass 341 should proceed immediately to gate two. I knew this was for the Chicago bus, but I said nothing when the Indian, his Mexican buddy, and even the Desert Storm vet I liked, got all lathered up and scrambled over to gate two (we all held the same pass). I watched them go gleefully. I had got them out of line without openly attacking them. When they straggled back a minute later, my backpack was in the face of the Indian man – a trivial victory that left the larger state of affairs intact except that I was in front of him, a gratifying win. The war vet and the New York Mexican with the Che shirt simply hung about at the front of the line. And then it began to move.

The Indian and the black woman and the Mexican matron gave way before me, but they gave nothing to the wronged folk – including my brother – behind me. As we nudged forward and out the door, the cemented fault lines of rage finally broke, and people tumbled forward in a mad bid to hold their position against everyone else. each time I looked back for Scott he was further back, just ahead of the bewildered bearded faces of the Amish men in their straw hats. When I finally reached the tall fatherly bus driver (whose name tag read Guy) I blurted out, “Those four Amish people got pushed back by all those people, you ought to let them on first.”

I was surprised that he responded. “Where?” he asked, looking up, and I pointed them out and his finger followed mine, picking out their Hobbiton faces and drawing them helter skelter through the detritus of the crowd. “Thank you,” he said to me, and I found two seats for me and Scott. The tiny Amish woman in black bonnet and dress pressed up the aisle long before he made it, face flushed with frustration. Plumping down in the seat I had saved he vented his rage, quietly but with plenty of amazed “What the fuck??”s.

Think of conditions of civil war: it is not a moment when ancient hatreds resurface, but when people kill out of a sense of pervasive insecurity. The state breaks down, captured by one group, which suddenly threatens all others, and to push another out is only to protect oneself. Civil wars do not merely happen in the Old World, where hatreds flourish in the soil like hardy grape vines. They can happen here. The grievances that give rise to civil wars are as old as that three-second flame of rage at being cut off on the highway, or in the ticket line. Generalize these flames to entire sections of society.

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