Monday, January 26, 2009

where the sky is so blue!

I’m coming to you live from Kansas City, where Vee has a conference, and where Kiddokabiddo and I are living in a hotel room for the next couple of days.

We’re staying at a hotel I’ll call The Jestin (review forthcoming tomorrow), which happens to be attached to a MALL (very Old Capitol-ish in its selection) as well as UNION STATION by a series of UM-Duluthian-style tubes sheltering us from weather. This would have been an intelligent use of civic money if WE WERE SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN KANSAS CITY, where the “summers last until October,” as I was informed by a clerk when I was buying a dress for Kiddokabiddo.

Yesterday, Vee was on break between sessions, and I was sick of strapping Kiddokabiddo into her wrap just to take the 400m trek around the mall, so we ventured through the tubes to Union Station. Union Station is GORGEOUS in that “why don’t we take trains any more?” lamentable way. All Art-Deco and spaciousness. We were marveling at these beautiful old brass bank tables which had been repurposed as USPS delivery confirmation/insurance/etc .holders when we were visited by the Ghost of Union Station Past.

GUSP struck up a conversation with us, informing us that “no one looks up and sees that mural when they come in this room” (AND INDEED! I had not noticed the mural of Westward Expansion, Ho! until he pointed it out) and then told us that the room we were standing in was formerly the men’s bathroom. GUSP then led us underneath a curtain (seriously) into an adjoining room with grand two-story windows and told us that room used to be where “men would wait for their trains and smoke.”

Our GUSP gave us his life story, recounting how he was born in “Pu-eblo, Colorado,” then moved to Denver, then Kansas City when he was in the fourth grade. He pointed through the window to the general neighborhood he grew up in and noted that “those were Depression years, so my job was to come down here to the tracks and pick up coal.”

Did we know why all the old chandeliers used to have exposed light bulbs? We did not. GUSP told us that, back in 1914 when the station was built, not too many people had electricity or had seen light bulbs, so they made all the light fixtures open so that people could gawk at them.

GUSP walked us through the Men’s Smoke Room to a little vestibule currently housing a bulletin board display of train history. “See how they set that up there?” GUSP said, hopping up on the little ledge, “This is where the shoe shine stand used to be.” Like Thomas in the Bible, he put his fingers in the holes on the worn down ground and pointed out where the little shoeshine foot rests used to go. You could see the indents in the marble where decades of shoeshine guys’ knees had worn through. THROUGH ROCK! I’m not kidding!

We were having a boogie time with GUSP, but we had to chow down because Vee had a session to get back to. GUSP walked us back out to the seven-story soaring main room, and told us if we really wanted to, we could take an elevator up to the seventh floor and “walk around in the rooms over those arches.” Vee exclaimed, “But there’s no windows in there—it must be pretty dark.” “Oh yeah,” said GUSP, “the boogerman’s up there. But I’ve been there. Don’t believe a word I say, though.”

The parting words of the Ghost of Union Station Past: “I used to work in one of those offices here—I had a $240,000 contract with one of the steel manufacturers who worked for the railroad. That don’t sound like much nowadays, but it was pretty big back then.”


Our GUSP vanished back into the city and Vee, Kiddokabiddo, and I ate lunch at one of the Harvey House lunch counters. The extraordinarily beautiful vintage Art Deco fixtures (the door handles! The light fixtures! The insets on the walls!), the tales of our GUSP, and my general sad love for the aged days of regular rail travel made Union Station such a REAL place. I lamented to Vee about how, even if people were taking the train the way they used to back then (GUSP also fondly reminisced about how, “back then, you used to get dressed up to travel. Put on your nicest suit, nicest shoes.”), it wouldn’t be the way it is now—that men’s smoke room would be full of business chuds all in their own iPod/BlackBerry/cell phone worlds and no one would be striking up conversations with each other.

(“Like GUSP did with us—just struck up a conversation with strangers—he’s from the old school,” Vee narrated.)

I’m not really one to talk, because beginning conversations with strangers makes me really nervous, but SOMEHOW, ROMANTICALLY, I feel like, if I was a lady taking the train to visit my relatives back in the earlier part of the last century, sitting in what SURELY must have been the counterpart to the Men’s Smoke Lounge (a Ladies’ Sitting Room?), working on my embroidery or knitting, or just sitting with my gloved hands neatly folded, I would pass the time by asking the lady to my left where she was headed.

The Ghost of Union Station Present? RAIL PASSENGERS!


Shawn said...

This was such a great story! You're so lucky that you met the GUSP! Who was he? Just a random guy that knew all about the history of Union Station, right? He wasn't a tour guide, was he? Can you imagine knowing a place so well and seeing it change over the years? Walking to a spot in holes in the floor and recesses where the shoe shines used to be? That is incredible! That's like a novel! This sounds like a man that can take you through a field and show you which flowers are sweet when you suck the milk out of them and other secret, hidden knowledge. This is what I want all men to be -- myself very much included! This was great!

Sarah Von said...

Awesome and awesome. What is equally awesome was your passing reference to UMD! Are you a displaced UMDer?

kristine said...

Shawn--NOT A TOUR GUIDE! GUSP was just going to his post office box! (Which is equally awesome to me, that he treks all the way in to Union Station to get his mail. RELIVING THE DAYS OF GLORY PAST! Then again, if he is a ghost, I think HE NEVER LEAVES...)

Sarah--my dad's a UMD alum (and most of my extended family lives in the Cloquet/Duluth area) so my siblings and I have been to the stomping grounds of ye olde glory days