Begley came here first, and the way I understand it, the fence surrounding the site hadn’t begun to unravel yet, so he had to enter subterranean style. He lowered himself through the sewer grate right out there on Kendall, under the old shuttered newspaper shed, having faith somehow it would lead him here, right under the old train station. It did, by the utility rooms and employee lockers, three floors down from where we’re sitting.
I like to sit here and imagine a train will come in, somehow. Blur your eyes and you can pretend there’s no wire fence cutting across the tracks, and you’re just waiting for a train to Grand Central, then maybe a change to Atlanta. Speaking of the tracks, I guess there was a lot of garbage on them when Begley showed up. He started a tradition of trying to keep them clean, brushing the gravel away and patting it down neat so you can see the ties. So we’ve taken it in turns to maintain that.
There’s a great beauty to it. The promise of the tracks, stretching out to the horizon. Not that anyone’s likely to ever use them again, until the second coming of the Erie Lackawanna line, which might not happen until after the Second Coming itself.
The white figures are rather striking, aren’t they? I rather like the old man with the hearing aid with the little dog. You have to get up close to appreciate it. The loneliness is palpable. I guess I’ve seen something like them at malls and such, but the posture is unusual, you’ll grant us that? The first newspaper story about us, the writer said they reminded her of Pompeii, which I guess is apt in a way.
Of course, there was nothing like that when Begley arrived. Just an abandoned rail station. Begley tells it there was a whole nest of turkey vultures — yes, turkey vultures — up there in the cupola, and he had the devil’s time getting them to depart. He wanted to turn the old waiting room below into his bedroom and he said the jostling and squawking and croaking was unendurable at night, not to mention the general aroma.
Despite his disillusionment, he’s a humane soul and didn’t want to hurt them. He scoured the streets one night until he found two dead cats and what he hoped was a dead possum, bagged them, and then placed the contents on the tracks in sight of the cupola
That morning, while the vultures squabbled and nattered over their smorgasbord, Begley slipped inside the cupola with the boards and nails he’d gathered in advance, and secured the space. Years later it is now spanking clean and serves as our general storage area. Too high for rats to get to it, which is great.
Purpose? The woman who did the first story asked that too. We don’t particularly have a purpose, but we’re not criminals or drug users either (not enough to brag about, anyway) as some of the town people seem to think. I guess our art is our purpose.
Christ, no, I didn’t see myself ending up here. I am the Penman, because of what I did before and my modest ability to turn a phrase, so that makes me the historian, I suppose. I run the meetings too, such as they are and keep track of inventory. I write down the stories, including the ones that came before, like Begley’s.
That’s not his name, of course. Lester called him that, for looking like that gangly actor, and the name stuck. Back in Amsterdam, Begley was a tour guide, taking people on canal rides and then showing them historic houses. In between the tours, it was his job to maintain the historic sites. A freshly painted door here, accessible hand rail there, replacement and updating of fading legend cards.
If you look hard beneath the brooding layers of defeat, you can still see the intelligence and determination that allowed Begley to shoulder such a reputable position.
His pride and joy was the Visser house on Keizersgracht, the beautifully preserved three story home of 18th century fish merchant and arts patron Diederick Visser. An original grandfather clock in the main hallway showed, etched in gold on its pendulum bob, a tableau of Visser receiving a chalice from William IV for helping to save one of the city’s wooden bridges from the ravages of a fire in 1741. Begley was proud to take care of Visser’s house.
All that went out the window when Begley found, while refurbishing closets, a pastry box 20 or 30 years old with words scrawled in Dutch reading “Not for public.” Inside were copies of 18th century papers documenting Visser’s investment in and co-directorship of a fort on Africa’s Gold Coast, a launching point for slave ships taking their human cargo to South America.
Begley put the Xeroxes back in the closet, after making his own set of copies, which he sent to a history professor he knew at the university. But he took it hard. He was done with history and tourism.
Begley quit his job and country and came to New York, seeking an American woman whom he’d known when she’d been an exchange student in the Netherlands during his university years, hoping she would help him resume his early interest in fine arts and perhaps other pursuits. But the meeting in the East Village did not go well. Her memories of their time at university did not match his.
He applied for and received a green card on the false basis that he was undertaking research on Diederick Visser’s trading interests in America in the 1700s. Always a frustrated painter, Begley took up with a performance art group in the East Village. He enjoyed their nighttime guerrilla maneuvers to paint intestines and veins and arteries on the slender snaking shapes of residential fire escapes. But when the group’s leader announced that all their members must henceforth identify as supra-gender, and that they would evolve to painting penises and vaginas on the fire escapes, Begley saw it was time to move on again.
He became sullen when, as I was writing this down, I asked why he took a Greyhound bus west from Port Authority. He wouldn’t answer, so I’m forced to speculate. I’ve heard him talk with guarded admiration of the Mormons. I believe he had some notion of reaching Salt Lake City and vandalizing the great religious edifices, not to disgrace them but to elevate them in new and unheard of ways involving depictions of figures from Norse mythology.
He might have been a little confused at that juncture. In any event, he became very drunk on the bus, thanks to the hard ciders he’d jammed in his backpack before boarding, which he mistakenly believed to be non-alcoholic. So he disembarked here in Schonberg, Pennsylvania, possibly thinking it was Salt Lake City. He found on the main drag no hotel, only the hardware store, dime store, Army recruitment center and, thank goodness, the Food King, but he kept walking until he ended up here at the abandoned railway yard.
As I mentioned, he had to enter through the sewer. So much for the glory of being a pioneer.
After finding his way, he had a kind of epiphany standing here. The two tracks on one side, two on the other. Here, in the middle, the station. Fences hemming the place in, nothing but warehouses to the east, condemned highway ramps to the south, the Benson Housing Projects to the west, and Sidcup Avenue on the north.
He felt somehow as if he’d returned to Diederick Visser’s house. The tracks represented the canals of Amsterdam … but new and unstained, at least in Begley’s eyes, by the great weight of European history. Brimming with possibility. For what, Begley was unsure.
Now, when Lester arrived, he was merely looking to take some photographs. Begley saw Lester loitering outside, and pointed him to a place you could lift the fence and come in, Begley’s point of passage when he needed to go to Hemmings Avenue to buy groceries.
“You look like Ed Begley, Jr.,” said Lester by way of thanks. Begley didn’t know who that was but stood by as Lester took photos of the faded old station house.
“This is a standard design,” said Lester. “This place was built in 1908.”
Growing up in San Pedro, Lester wanted nothing more than to take artistic photographs, and to one day have an exhibition. As a young adult, he took photos of salami being sliced in a dingy sandwich shop. Retired racing dogs living at a refuge. World War II veterans who barely remembered their own exploits. Kites shaped and groomed to resemble Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf at a literary festival on the beach.
Nobody wanted his photographs. He hired a high school kid to design a web site for him to show them off. But the need to generate traffic to the site defeated him.
He tried stringing for newspapers but that was just as print began to die. The little money he made taking pictures of Little League games, city council meetings and job fairs was ridiculous. He was 28 and didn’t feel like a grown man.
He seemed depressed, so his mother told him General Thomas H. Ditterle, distinguished commander from the Spanish-American War, was a relation. Why not take some photos of the war hero’s statue in front of Peach Lane middle school? Lester didn’t think there was any money in it but thought that maybe he’d accrue good career karma by documenting his forgotten relative. He spent a couple hours taking shots of the statue one afternoon, thinking all the while that his relative resembled Norman Fell of “The Ropers” if he had worn a sash and carried a ceremonial sword.
The next day, he spent six hours at the police station being questioned about loitering on middle school grounds during a school day. Two officers examined prints of his photos with a magnifying glass, drawing red circles every time a child appeared playing in the background. The prints were better quality, deeper in color and shadow than the ones Lester made in his own basement darkroom, which depressed him. After they let him go, admitting there was no evidence on which to hold him, he asked if he could keep the photos that had no red circles on them. The request was denied.
As Lester settled in at the train station, claiming his own bench for a bed in the waiting room a few rows from Begley, he became intrigued by a project Begley had begun in the year he’d lived there alone. In the second level basement, Begley had found a cavernous records area lined with hundreds of filing cabinets stuffed to the gills with every kind of station-related record possible: Employee background checks. Lawsuits from members of the public. Invoices, of course. Memos from the city government. Even hard-to-account for materials like copies of pages from piano repair manuals and rules for crowd management at city events like the long discontinued German American Bund Pride Parade.
Using a service sink from the janitorial closet, he began to mix up papier-mâché from all this fuel, and sculpted life-size human figures. He thought he should start inhabiting the station with figures other than himself. Begley fashioned and mixed figures from different eras. A lady wearing a World War II era dress and holding the hand of a boy waving a small flag. A mohawked teenaged girl sitting wearing a 90s style cassette Walkman. A running naked man. A woman in doctor’s robes staring at a cell phone. They weren’t painted or otherwise decorated; just shapes planted at various points on the platform, each with the same off-white finish.
The sketching, sculpting and weather proofing required for each figure was labor intensive. It was fortunate that other members like Lester began to trickle in, and were intrigued enough to assist. Ruthie Jane was another.
She was 18. Slightly unkempt brown hair. Red plastic rimmed porthole glasses. Deep-set intelligent eyes, plus that brilliant, disarming smile. She joined us right after graduating from high school, having experienced an epiphany as she sat in her graduation robes in the soccer arena, waiting to receive her diploma along with her fellow seniors.
The next step for her after graduation would have been to read technical manuals all summer, in preparation for Omaha’s Millennium Agrarian Academy in the fall, admission secured in May. (Her entry essay, “Corn! A staple with unlimited uses … bound only by our imagination!” was returned with an admiring exclamation in red ink: “Exhilarating!”)
She’d admired corn all her life. From an aesthetic point of view, she’d loved strolling the rows at her uncle’s farm since she was little and the stalks towered over her. And she loved the taste for sure. But while she appreciated its many uses and styles, she was a purist about eating it. Fresh on the cob only, with heaps of butter.
A girl Ruthie Jane’s age had died of cancer that senior year. During the ceremony, it was the girl’s younger brother — only a freshman — who wheeled her empty wheelchair up to the podium and accepted his sister’s honorary diploma from the principal on behalf of the family.
As Ruthie Jane watched that little drama unfold, a fragrance of freshly mowed lawn from the adjacent playing fields irritated her nostrils. She promptly said “Fuck Corn!” out loud, which caused the boy next to her, a sweet-faced Jehovah’s Witness named Carlton, to gaze at her astonished. She waited long enough to receive her diploma, but after a painful week of convincing her family she needed to take time to “find herself,” she set out on her journey which led to her our little community.
She is rather gifted at shaping hands for the white figures.
I’ll try not to belabor my own story. I’m the only from right here in Schonberg. Most of us are from someplace else.
Do you remember that building collapse on Bennet Avenue, five years ago? August 8. Yes, terrible. They said 200 hundred dead, but they couldn’t count all the sweat shop kids in the cellar. A couple of them got out alive, thank God. Well, there was no official proof the sweat shop existed, so it didn’t feature in the stories, not in your paper or the other one, or on TV.
There were three floors of legitimate businesses too. The beauty school. The tax firm on the third floor. You know it took days to get the bodies out, all the ones they could.
Well, I was PR director for a hospital. You know the one. The hospital played a key role in the recovery after the collapse. Our people were on the scene, and we provided beds and care to survivors for weeks afterwards. Nobody was billed for that, which is something anyway. Something to feel good about. We got good press for that, I made sure.
The police got good press too, and the fire fighters, all the responders. But I guess there wasn’t enough good press to go around.
I was involved in the lawsuits. Some of them confidential. Remember, I’m not giving you my name, nor the name of the hospital or any of the parties involved. It wasn’t a pretty thing. Some of the survivors and their families sued the city and the building’s owner, naturally. The owner sued the city for inadequate inspections. Our hospital put out statements about the collapse, and we got sued for misrepresentation, and we countersued. The hospital sued the fire fighters. The fire fighters sued the police. That hometown hero, the movie star, he put on that benefit for the survivors, and even he got sued, but I can’t exactly remember what for.
I was kind of glad to settle here after I retired. Everyone helps out here. We need supplies, and funds run low, you know. But everybody pitches in. A few who aren’t too proud take turns begging in the financial district. Francine sells single poems at Conner Park. They’re not bad. I have my retirement savings, so I kick in a few hundred a month into the general kitty. Occasionally, we get a contribution from someone who read the last story on our little community and liked the statues. Honestly, that’s why the others wanted me to give you some time today. So I hope you’ll take plenty of pictures.
After I arrived, I caused some consternation about that, I can tell you. The statues, I mean. I made the suggestion to Begley, that they all should have a single hand thrown up, as if warding off a calamity from above.
At first I thought Begley wanted to strangle me. But he’s a fair minded man. We discussed it, the group of us. And it seemed right. Ruthie Jane said of course we had to do it that way, and that clinched it.
It wasn’t easy. It meant altering every existing figure, and there were nearly 20 at the time. Some, the seated figures, we only managed a sort of guarded raised hand. All the standing figures though, we made sure the heads were tilted back, and one arm outstretched, as if in supplication. Or perhaps disavowal. That’s really up to the individual, the interpretation.
Of course, all the new figures we’ve added since then have followed that model.
No, I would never go back. I am with my friends. We have found our place. And we know the world for what it is.
Banner Image: Author’s own work.