Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Piquancy Not Unlike A Lesser Horror

Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

It was dawn on a summer morning a long time ago. I was riding the once-elegant, now-threadbare Twentieth Century Limited, sitting on the elevated sofa facing the sinks in a day car men’s lounge, en route from Chicago to New York for the first time.

I’d been up all night, reading and smoking, too excited to sleep. Now I was watching the Hudson River Valley emerge from the dark two hours north of the city.

A round, gray businessman pushed his way into the lounge. He wore a rumpled brown suit, walked like his feet hurt, and lugged a big, well-traveled, Gladstone suitcase, which he heaved onto a low luggage rack. He opened it and began his morning toilette.

I was watching a master traveler from another era at work. This guy had freshened up aboard this train before. The suitcase had a divider down the middle and he opened the side that held a week’s worth of clean shirts and his shaving kit.

Taking off his suit coat and hanging it on a hook, he removed his tie and laid it across the open suitcase. He stripped off the shirt in which he’d slept, then he appropriated one of the sinks.

Standing there in his undershirt, he seemed to be shaped like a doughy toy top. His chest spilled down and out over itself, down toward a navel-level equator, which was demarcated by a thin brown belt that secured a vast pair of William Frawley class trousers. The man tapered back in from there, continuing south past the baggy pant knees toward those two small, tired feet in their worn-but-shined shoes.

Chin up, chin down, one side, then the other, he examined his face in the mirror. He grimaced to study his teeth, then used the tips of his fingers to push his jowls and several chins up. For a second, I could see how he must have looked as he freshened up on the train forty years earlier.

He opened the shaving kit and pulled out a safety razor and a package of Gillette Blue Blades. He twisted the razor open, changed out the blade, twisted it shut, and slipped the old blade into the used blade slot on the back of the blades. Producing a tube of shaving cream, squeezing a dab onto the palm of his hand, he spread a thin soapy lather on his cheeks and jowls and went to work.

He had the pudgy dexterity of a fat man and, fingers probing and prodding, he gave himself a good close shave—a shave that would have cost him two dollars at Grand Central. He worked almost absent-mindedly, as if he were planning his day—the clients he’d see, the details he’d tend to, the room service dinner in the moderately priced business hotel.

When he finished shaving, he brushed his teeth with tooth powder, then poofed some talc into his armpits and creases. He took a fresh shirt from the suitcase, flapped it open, put it on, buttoned it up and tucked it in, then re-tied the tie. Reaching into the shaving kit, he pulled out an old brush that fit the palm of his hand and curried his thin gray hair.

He took one more look in the mirror and, satisfied, he put everything back into the shaving kit and put the kit and the dirty shirt back into the Gladstone. He closed the bag, shrugged his suit coat back on, and slipped out of the lounge on those sore little feet.

The Twentieth Century Limited stopped running a few years after that. My fellow traveler probably stopped running about the same time. The moment has been with me all these years.

Almost as old as he was that morning, I can’t walk across a set of railroad tracks without bending down, touching a rail, and thinking of him and generations of day car businessmen freshening up before getting into Grand Central aboard a ghostly Twentieth Century Limited that runs forever.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Atomic Balm

They called it “Atomic Balm”—B-A-L-M. Balm.

It was a mentholated rubdown compound of some sort—an industrial strength Ben Gay that came in a red can with a mushroom cloud on the label and all but blistered your skin when you put it on.

Coach kept it locked in the training room cage—out of reach of the practical jokers on the squad—the towel snappers and water bottle squirters and the guys who waited until everyone was in the shower, then flushed the toilets so the water would go scalding hot for a second and send everyone out of there hopping and swearing.

Football seasons come. Football seasons go. The smell of Atomic Balm abideth forever. When two-a-day practices arrived in August, you wandered over to school to pick up your equipment. The locker room may have been locked and unventilated all summer, but the vaguely medicinal scent of last year’s Atomic Balm was still there.

Coach let team captains and star running backs use the stuff all the time. The rest of us never got near it unless we had some sort of major injury. Then he’d slather you in it.

His faith in the curative powers of Atomic Balm seemed rockbound. It wasn’t just for major muscle groups. No. He prescribed it for deep contusions and sprained joints. He seemed to think it could fix anything. You got the idea that, had Mrs. Coach gone into labor, he would have reached for that red can with the mushroom cloud on the label.

He made believers out of us too. All these years later I wouldn’t be surprised to learn researchers at Mayo have discovered Atomic Balm can repair torn knee ligaments in running backs or eliminate the need for Tommy John surgery in baseball pitchers.

I just Googled Atomic Balm, and there it is—still for sale everywhere on the Internet—no longer in the red can, no mushroom cloud on the label—but still there, still for sale.

And even though it’s been decades since I played, it’s two-a-day practice season… That old football knee always twinges and aches a little more this time of year.

What do you think, Coach?

Is it time for the Atomic Balm?