Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lennon Assassinated

Hitchhiking home to Trenton from the middle of Ohio, I couldn't get a ride. Eventually had to give up and take a bus from Steubenville to Pittsburgh and a train from there. Plus, I had to change trains in Philadelphia, where I got to the old Reading Terminal somewhere around 2 or 3 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1980.

So at this moment, 30 years ago, I am on an empty train, taking it's sweet time crossing the black farmland along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I am 22. Full of wonder at the world, writing songs as steadily as breathing (most of them bad, but I was making progress), irresponsible and uncaring about the present, uncertain about my future, terrified and thrilled at the impossible twists and turns my life would take.

The hitchhiking and waiting for the bus and the train and the rides themselves, all of it had taken something like three days. Maybe longer. A long, long time for such a short trip. One scene I remember is standing by an exit ramp, my thumb out, where I'd been for many hours, when I flock of white birds landed all around me like a surreal snowfall. I walked out of the birds and soon after got a ride a short distance. Then more waiting.

The oddest part was, I had dreamed about the birds a few nights before, lying in a dorm bed on Antioch campus, where I was visiting. Both in the dream and in reality, they were a beautiful spectacle.

But the rides were few and didn't last long. And after all the weirdness and delay, after finally giving up and taking the bus to the train, I found myself, days later, in Philadelphia.

Reading Terminal was a cool, gigantic cave, with these focused breezes filled with dusty smells that would blow, wrapping around your legs and making your clothes and your hair smell of metal millwork, concrete dust, pale engine exhaust. It was one of those old-fashioned railroad stations like I imagine might still exist somewhere in Europe. Great iron beams arching over the tracks and platforms, the ceiling laced with dim, filthy glass, wooden benches in wide rows in the interior waiting and ticketing area, a dozen concessions all shut tight.

It's not like that now. Now it's a shopping mall, linked by walkways to another station a few blocks away and filled with lights and noise. The modern ambience is as connected to the machinery of the trains as a penthouse is to the services in the basement. But in 1980, the station and the trains were still one. Imagining the industrial age as a living being, these giant buildings were like lungs. And I was standing inside one of those, the organ of a massive, busy monster, as it slept, feeling its breath curl around me.

Waiting there, it was hard to get comfortable and impossible to sleep. But I was waiting for the next train to Trenton, had already bought my ticket back in Pittsburgh, in fact. I had no choice but to wait. I overheard a young black man telling the woman he was with, shaking his head, "I couldn't believe that was who they were talking about when I heard it, you know? It didn't make any sense." That was all I heard.

I waited. Another hour, maybe two. Now it's about 5:30 a.m. and I give up on the song I'm trying to write in my head and the daydream surrounding it that had for a couple hours held out some hope of escape from the grind of the station. I look around and get up and start to walk and I pass a man with a newspaper up in front of his face and the headline says, "Lennon Assassinated" or something to that effect. I think it was the Daily News. I remember for a fraction of a second thinking it couldn't possibly be John Lennon--assassinations happened to political figures and John was a pop star. But then I immediately put that headline together with the scrap of conversation I had overheard and realized that, if it was true, then I was having the same reaction as that young black man. I, too, simply couldn't get my mind around the information. And I realized, before I knew for sure, and partly because it was so incredible, that it probably was true. It probably was John Lennon.

I had already bought the new John and Yoko album, Double Fantasy, and had owned all the Beatles' albums at one point and of course each of the Beatles in turn had been a boyhood fascination. But as an adult, only Lennon had remained a hero--for his intelligence, his wit, his artistry, his characteristic struggle to use his public image to overhaul public sentiment on a variety of issues. His songs were the best Beatles songs, I was convinced. And his voice, among the many pop stars who spoke on public issues, was singular in its ability to make compassionate, critical sense of the world and to demand more from it. I liked the other Beatles, but Lennon stood apart--from everyone.

So there I am on Dec. 9, 1980. I had walked over to the guy with the paper, asked him where he bought it. I thought all the concessions were still closed. No, he told me and pointed around the corner. I went and bought my own paper and read as much as I could of the account. Asleep, traveling, bored for all of Dec. 8, alone and far from a radio or TV, I had missed it completely.

And now, in the train station, my train is boarding. I am 22. Lonely. Exhausted. Stunned. The sun is coming up over the tracks, shining in line with the trains straight down the tracks, straight onto the concrete platform, red and gold and glorious.

On Facebook

No comments:

Post a Comment