AS LONG as I can remember, I have been obsessed trains. Not just the grand locomotives and passenger cars, but the stories that fill and surround them, the symphony of comings and goings that comprise the story of railstations
Growing up, I connected the trip across town to Union Station with the much-anticipated visits from my New Orleans grandfather. Although he’s now been gone more years I had with him, I still do; I still hope to be the first to spot him in his stingy-brim straw fedora and his crisp summer blazer, keeping his own rhythm. Union Station — the “Last Great Station” was his daughter’s — my mother — gateway into Los Angeles as well; it was her first glimpse of the “pretty city.” These stories still swirl around inside me, feel very present so many decades gone.
Next month marks the 75th anniversary of Union Station and to commemorate there are a couple of new books about the station and an exhibit at downtown’s Central Library that opens next week. All of it serves to celebrate this auspicious milestone, and so I know that this means similar there-to-here narratives still swirl around within many other Angelenos, as well.
Yesterday on my way to a meeting, I passed through the terminal and found myself lingering — dithering, really — taking in all the busy rehab and refurbishing progressing around me. I’m still sad about the now roped-off leather chairs that edge the concourse. An intricate web of scaffolding laced across the grand entrance windows. Crews in hard hats and emergency-hued-neon vests spidered up ladders. There are both subtle and dramatic signage changes you’ll encounter; new destination and arrival boards and even the ceiling has been given a big scrubbing so you can glimpse the beautiful tile and wood. As happy as I was to see so much effort put into beautifying the building (readying it for its birthday close-up) — it’s hard to watch the change from the past to the future. I don’t want all of the those stories, conversations, memories to be stripped away.
As I made my way from across the concourse to meet my ride, a lone traveler stopped me. She didn’t have a question, she wasn’t lost, I quickly discerned. She just wanted to chat. She was from the South — Arkansas — and was staying with her daughter and son-in-law, she told me. Her story circled around: She’d been in L.A. for three days and in that time had criss-crossed the region, “pretty remarkably,” I had to tell her, for such a short stay. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I don’t want to wear out my welcome. I want to be invited back. Longer next time.” Before I knew it, I was being introduced to the daughter and the son-in-law. It was like something out of not just another place or another time — but another lost impulse.
What made her stop me? I don’t know. She said it was “something about my face.” But the reassuring message I took away from our intersecting was that despite upgrades, the elbow-grease that was rapidly sloughing off generations of dust and more, was that there was something about the spirit of that place — of train stations — that still encourages old-fashioned encounters — conversations and stories that don’t have goals but rather are gateways to something else — a need to make all manner of connections.