The names of the Amtrak lines make me want to buy a ticket, board a train, and never return. The glorious-sounding Hiawatha Line runs to Chicago, and the Empire Builder runs through Minneapolis and St. Paul, all the way to Portland. I’ve never been on a real train before. The subway doesn’t count. But I am the only one in this tall fish tank of a train station who will not be boarding either the Hiawatha or the Empire Builder.
“I have to switch trains. It’s certainly a learning experience.” The woman to my left is on her phone. She laughs. “I was terror-stricken, because he checked baggage and I had 2 big suitcases. I said, I’ve never taken the train before, will it be OK?”
The Amtrak information desk is on the southern wall of the station, next to the platform. An old couple, with matching, scratchy-looking red plaid blankets thrown over their shoulders, walk away from the desk. They look as if they’re wearing a particularly malevolent breed of poncho. “She was real nice,” Mr. Poncho remarks to Ms. Poncho. “Most of ’em are.”
Everything in the station is glass or metal or tile or vinyl, and when a woman’s voice comes over the intercom, I only manage to gather that she’s talking about a 3pm departure having something to do with Amtrak before her voice is scrambled by the cavernous room. The Amtrak station is an unnecessarily tall, filled with the pale white light that streams through the walls, more window than support. Hanging precariously over the southern half of the space are two stories of offices, each with matching white blinds, most of them shut and opaque. It’s a huge atrium, at least 300 seats. They’re arranged in banks, back-to-back, in groups of 3 or 4, or occasionally 2. I’m sitting in a row of 4, bordered on the left by the woman with her cell phone. To my right is a boy wearing a winter hat with a Corona logo on it, who can’t seem to decide whether or not he’s napping. He’s got a little green Grateful Dead bear tattooed on the outside of his wrist.
The three-story atrium in which we sit, waiting, is lined with windows on the entire north wall, chopped up by a seemingly randomized pattern of white cross-beams. They split up the glass into segments – some clouded, some clear, some half-and-half, horizontally striped. I see security cameras on the ceiling, but only just – they blend in with the pristine white of the rest of the space. I hate the windows. The heating system hums aggressively; I’m sure it cultivates a healthy animosity for the endless stretches of glass, which refuse to insulate, even with the constant threat of the WE Energies building visibly looming on the horizon. The windows themselves provide no useful vantage, instead looking out on nothing but ugly warehouse, freeway, and the endless wheeling of Milwaukee’s seagulls.
Conversation is rare; most people wait alone and in silence. The exception is my neighbor with the cell phone. “Oh shit, I forgot,” she exclaims, loudly. Luckily, the space eats her voice before it carries much beyond me. It certainly does not reach to the line of people waiting to board the Hiawatha line. A little boy, clinging to an ice cream bar with both hands, jumps on and off the carry-on luggage scale, like it’s a trampoline, before his mother scoops him back into line with her. “Is Joni able to deal with it?” the woman to my left whispers. She’s tapping on the metal handle of her suitcase with her red nails nervously, but I don’t think she realizes it. Behind her are three huge fake trees, festooned with fake ivy.
An elderly woman at the far end of the atrium, sitting alone, has been knitting what looks like a baby sock for fifteen minutes. She sits across from a pair of old men, who are talking vehemently. I can’t hear their voices, but I can definitely hear their hand gestures. The taller one reminds me of my grandfather.
Down at the west end of the terminal, there’s a claw machine that emits random, frightening bursts of music every so often. It’s filled with little stuffed animals – “Kung Fu Panda”, “Space Chimps” and SpongeBob are all well-represented, and they also have Garfield dyed every color of the rainbow but the color he was originally assigned by Jim Davis. I especially admire Fuchsia Garfield, but not enough to waste the quarter trying to get one. In any case, I’ve been skittish of those machines ever since Toy Story came out.
In solemn contrast to the singing claw machine are the real vending machines, lined up against the wall in military order. There are at least ten of them, but about half of them are unlit and empty. They sell soda, chips, ice cream, and terrible coffee. Mr. Poncho breezes past me with an instant cappuccino for Mrs. Poncho.
To my right, Corona boy has decided sleeping is overrated and retreats into a book – “Fear And Trembling,” by Søren Kierkegaard. Knitting woman has made significant progress on her baby sock, and it is now big enough so that across the room, I can tell it’s a knobbly variegated blue. Behind her is a group of boys, dressed all in neon shades of windbreaker and taking smiling pictures of each other on shiny silver digital cameras.
“Yeah, I’m in the Milwaukee train station with a really diverse crowd,” my neighbor to the left says. I can’t tell whether she’s being diplomatic or judgmental. “I don’t know what the bus station looks like but the train station is pretty nice,” she says.
The same people disappear, and then crop up again, having purchased a coffee or a bag of chips from the brigade of vending machines that line the wall to the right of the platform. They’re comforting; the one real dash of color in this bleached-white, impersonal, transitive place. The automatic doors swoosh open and closed as people rush to catch taxis and trains.