I had worked for a small underwriting firm for many years but one day me and my co-workers were pressed into service to help staff an upscale restaurant across the street. It was up the long-ignored steps that ran between the Blight Falls Five-Cent Savings Bank and the Commissary Exchange Trust. At the top of the steps was old outdoor business arcade I had never seen; it backed up to the rear wall of the hulking Bureau of Missing Information. I spotted the Blackburn Grill and unhappily stepped inside.
My boss, who had just gone from CEO of his own firm to assistant maître de, assured me it was OK. He pointed to a back room where I could put on my waiter’s uniform. As I changed, I reflected on how thirty years ago I swore to myself that I would never work in food service again. But now it seemed I had no choice. Back in the diner-less dining room, I stood around waiting for something to do. There were two young women at the hostess station who were giggling because they thought I was some sort of “Good-Time Charlie” who knew where there was a party after work. I bantered with them as best I could.
The head waiter appeared. He was a tall, stern man “from Senegal” who told the wait staff that a large party of free-spending “Roman” tourists due to arrive at 7 PM. They had specifically requested that nothing be sprayed in the dining area while they were there. He said this could mean anything from a spray bottle of water to wipe down a surface, to a travel-size hand sanitizer or even the sudden application of “Brut deodorant.” I stifled my own giggle, but the head waiter wasn’t smiling. He told me to go into the kitchen and tell my former office colleagues of this directive. When I did they looked at me as if I had five eyes and each one was a different color.
I went back to the dining room and waited for something to do. The hostess who had introduced herself as Valentina looked across to me with an uncertain smile and upraised palms. I seized on the notion that I needed to fill a metal carafe with water for our fancy visitors from the Eternal City. I headed out of the building with the peculiar idea that the purest water could be found elsewhere. Skipping down the granite steps between the two banks, I headed towards the riverside, finding myself on a spacious empty avenue I never noticed before. It crossed the broad, fast-running town river where the “water under the bridge” passed for all time. A railroad trestle bisected just beneath the road bridge. Moments later, a freight train with open, brightly-painted box cars passed through. It held quite a few passengers.
I looked down at the still empty carafe and made my way back downtown in the fading light. I remembered the brass water bubblers in the back lobby of Municipal Hall, under the Regency murals and behind the statue of Grover Cleveland. The night watchman, unconcerned that I had just passed thru the locked doors, nodded to me as I filled my container.
Back at the restaurant, the evening was already winding down. The dining party that was to be so fussed over had already left. My old boss told me the Romans had been well satisfied with their meal and had “made it rain” when it came to the gratuity. Valentina bounced out from behind the hostess station and grabbed my arm, telling me that my share of the tip was on the table next to the time clock out back. I couldn’t believe it: sitting there was a thick and bewildering pile of cash of many different currencies. I pocketed the free money and never returned to the Blackburn Grill.
The next day, I skulked over to the Blight Falls bank, furtively looking up the granite steps in hopes I didn’t see anyone from the restaurant. I apologized to the teller in advance for any exchange rate issues. She said it was no problem and a minute later handed me back a deposit slip that my eyes light up. I sat around in my apartment for a few days, wondering if I would ever need another job. Then one morning I found a flyer had been slid under my door. It had information about the strange freight train I had seen that evening. The top of the flyer bore the slogan “Nothing of Light is There for the Losing” and the bottom had a one-week-only coupon that allowed one to ride between stations for a dollar each stop.
That night I drifted over to the old one-room depot over by the riverbank, as instructed by the flyer. It had been in disuse since the city built the modern station nearby in the Eighties. But there was an attendant there and one other potential passenger with a hefty backpack. Five minutes later the crazy train pulled up. The attendant rolled up a portable staircase and I went up into the boxcar where semi-comfortable chairs had been bolted down. A motley but agreeable cross-section of humanity sat around, one man welcomed me and the other newcomer to the “Hobo Express.” It was true. One could ride across the land at the coupon price of one dollar per stop, stepping down whenever you wanted to see what remained of once-proud cities.
On the seventh day, I walked quite a distance into the town after disembarking for the evening stop. We had three hours “shore leave.” I usually tried to lose my fellow passengers before making my daily ATM withdrawal. Following the usual pattern, I hit the local diner then roamed around, gazing up at public buildings, seeing if there was a bookshop or library that was open and wondering if I would ever see Valentina again. That particular night, I stood on Main Street and gazed up at a banner that had been strung up across it. One end was tied to the flagpole of the shuttered Chamber of Industry and the other to a light pole in front of the Reclamation Brew Pub, which was very much open. The banner read “Make, Believe” and had two dates listed but I could not make them out in the gathering dusk.
Up ahead on the sidewalk, I heard a familiar strumming guitar and keening tenor voice. There was a folksinger on the train that I had befriended, and I stopped to listen. “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time.” After the song, I dropped him a fiver and pointed out the pub across the street. He nodded. I sat down at the bar and ordered a pint of black lager, stared out the window at the banner. “Make, Believe.” I now knew that there was still some mission for me to perform. But it was the seventh night and I rested.
(The preceding excerpt came from a travel diary picked up off the side of the tracks by a railroad employee along the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania. We at the Bureau of Missing Information are much indebted to him for his donation of the notebook. We know from him that the shadowy “Hobo Express” passed through there once or twice a week for about three years. We at the Bureau would like to find out more about the author, who we now know as R. Swain, for its ongoing urban folklore project, “In a Dream of Strange Cities.” We have recently inquired at the mentioned Blackburn Grill. The maître de, Valentina Kay, told us what little she knew and asked us if we found out more to let HER know. The restaurant’s manager, a certain Mr. Diallo, confirmed that the mystery man was employed at his establishment for one day. He also made the point that he would hardly refer to Swain’s contribution as “work.”)