Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Tour Notes #1: Schulz

May 29

I don't know where he came from and I don't know where he went, which is fine with me.

As I predicted, there wasn't a single unreserved seat on the train from Berlin to Cologne, four hours' journey in a high-speed InterCityExpress train. I've done this before, and wound up hurting all over. The curves are taken at speed, and your body reacts by leaning into them, but if you don't have something to hold onto, you stagger and, often, fall. Also, the only place to stand is between cars, and that part isn't air conditioned.

Karen told me the thing to do was to head straight into the restaurant car, grab a seat, and order a juice. I should have listened to her; as it was, I went from one end of the train to the other looking for a seat and not finding one. The World Church Days was on in Cologne, there was a rumor the Pope was going to be there, and the football finals had just ended in Berlin, which drew another sort of crowd, so the train was packed with people you'd ordinarily cross the street to avoid.

I wound up in the bar, which was packed with football fans and their wives celebrating the discovery of Deutsche Bahn's Weekend Special: a coke, mineral water, or Warsteiner for €1.85. Naturally, theirs was Warsteiner. There must have been 40 people, all drinking, all chain-smoking, in that end of the car. The other end had tables, and they were completely full.

So the little guy with the battered bag stood out. He walked in, took a look around, and then leaned against the wall, his bag between his feet. I'd guess he was around my age, with hangdog eyes, thinning hair, and skin the color of clay. The expression on his face was clearly that of someone who'd been told he could never have another drink again. He'd obeyed, but he didn't like it. He took his jacket off and lit a cigarette.

The bar continued to fill up with people buying things to take back to their seats and people from the non-smoking section who'd gone in there to smoke. My eyes were stinging. The guy next to me put his cigarette out and draped his jacket over his bag, then squatted.

We came to a station, and nobody got off, but some people got on. Among them was an Indian couple who didn't appear to have reservations. The little guy saw them come into the restaurant end of the car and his eyes tightened. They had two big bags, and were dragging them along, this middle-aged couple with the air of bewilderment I see on a lot of Indians here: why on earth did we come to Germany, they seem to be saying. It was real tight getting into the bar, and as they squeezed through the corridor linking the bar to the restaurant, the Indian guy's shoe touched the jacket.

"Hey, nigger! That jacket's clean!" the little man barked with a ferocity I'd never have credited him with. I'm not sure the Indian guy even understood. At any rate, he didn't register a thing and moved on.

At Bielefeld, about half-way to Cologne, some people got off, and one table in the restaurant cleared out. The little guy made a beeline for it, and, after a moment's reflection, I did, too. A young woman was picking at a breakfast, and a skinny guy with too much cologne on was reading a newspaper, underlining bits of it, and making notes in the margins. I sat next to the woman, and the little guy sat next to the other guy, who occasionally took out a notepad on which he was writing a numbered list.

Man, it was good to sit down. I ordered a Pepsi (Coke has been usurped on Deutsche Bahn) and nursed it like crazy, since it was one of the little Weekend Special glasses. Not only was I sitting, but there was no smoke. I took out my precious New Yorker, which had cost me €10.50 despite a $4.95 Canada/Foreign cover price, and started to read. The little guy pulled out a cell phone and dialled. "Uwe? Schulz! I'm on the train. Hallo? Hallo?" He stared at it, then clicked it off and put it back in his pocket. Meanwhile, the list-maker and the young woman were conversing, she, it seemed to me, reluctantly. As we drew into a station, she made a move to leave, packing her stuff up. I hadn't heard any of their conversation, but he drew out a card and handed it to her. "Perhaps you will have need of my services," he said, and I could hear the "Uhhh, sure" tone in her voice as she thanked him. I scooted over into her place. Schulz took out the phone again. "Uwe? Schulz! I'm on the train. Hallo? Hallo?"

Another guy sat down. He, it developed, was a liturgical choreographer, which fascinated the list-maker, and, naturally, precipitated a torrent of conversation from the choreographer. I read the New Yorker.

It was getting greyer outside. I knew it'd have cooled off by the time I got to Paris, and that it'd probably be raining. There would be a reserved seat on the Thalys, the Dutch/Belgian/French train that would take me from Cologne to Paris Nord. There wouldn't be any liturgical choreographers, either.

And no Schulz. He finally managed to hang on to the connection with Uwe long enough to tell him the train was on time. Then he got up, adjusted his precious jacket, picked up his funky suitcase, and shuffled away.

I found myself entertaining a fantasy. The Indian was a doctor. At some time in the not-too-distant future, whatever condition had mandated Schulz's sobriety would act up and send him to the hospital. The doctor would save his life, which, after all, is his job. And Schulz would go on living, pissed that he would now have to endure a few more miserable years on this earth.

Good-bye, Schulz.

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