Michael is insisting that the one moment that changed the course of my life occurred on the Empire Builder between Minneapolis and Chicago, Thanksgiving of 1972. “If you hadn’t spoken with the young man sitting across from you and the lady from Kalamazoo [yes, it’s true, she was from Kalamazoo], you and I would never have met,” he said. And then he sobbed a ragged breath and laughed a little gulp of truth.

This was a couple of days ago and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about happenstance and circumstance and how my life has been a series of turning points, like Sol Lewitt connecting all the ifs, ands, and buts with green lines on a page of text. (Green being a favorite color of mine…remember that for my obit, will you.)

From here, sitting here today, at this moment, it looks as if he may be right. In my examination of other people’s lives, their decisions, their life decisions never feel as dependent upon random moments of inspiration—if that’s what I dare call it—it’s possible that instead of inspiration, these moments are more burr-like, a little sharp and uncomfortable, you know, like the truth always is. Instead, they accept the course set for them. My cousin, Rodney, comes to mind. And you, over there, yes, you; you, too. More of the ‘one foot in front of the other’ acceptance of what life’s given you.

I don’t reject that idea of accepting the inevitable as a part of my own life, especially as I grow older, but if I’m honest, and I should be, you are strangers, after all, and what do you know of my truth anyway? Yours being as fictitious as I make mine. It’s those little lies — so easy in the internet age — and kindly, some of us have grown as close as 0s and 1s will allow, but the vastness of the world interferes with our sense of  order and if we passed each other on the street would it have even come to this? And I won’t deny that for many people it is their positive acceptance of their moral obligations, family, a course as true and straight, paved with all of the best intentions, pre-ordained and happily accepted. For some, then, that is it. There is no internal argument about where they are headed—of course, there might be moments of equivocation and fear, of “do I select A or B?” but even then, it’s only two choices.

But for me, since I was able to first start making my own decisions about my life—and it started earlier than you might imagine, and that freedom was given with as much love as you may or may not have experienced in your own life—it’s been quite something else for me. I dread using the metaphor of the wind blowing me here and then there, like a plastic bag. I’ve not thought of my life as rubbish to be tossed along the road side—although there was that one time in 1979 when I did think I’d come to the end of my life, but then decided “no, not yet,” and went onto something else much better because of a chance I took that it could be better.

Mind you, each of these twists and turns were not accompanied by the “ah ha!” moment you would expect. Now, in retrospect, yes, but not at the time. so, here I am sitting on the Empire Builder, having boarded at the Fargo, North Dakota (I am a sophomore at Minnesota State University across the Red River in Moorhead) Amtrak station in November of 1972, headed to Springfield, Illinois to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my paternal grandparents.

I like taking the train, or I did when it was the only option because of budget concerns and still a step up from the Greyhound bus. it is an adventure that puts people together for a longer period of time than a plane ride and it offers you the opportunity to get away from them as well—dining car, observation car—riding between the cars.

Yes, the lady from Kalamazoo. My memory of her is shrouded in the myth and mist of the past, but I do recall a chignon, red lipstick, and a dark fur coat, whether mink or marmot, I couldn’t tell you. She was eager to talk and we circled around our lives until she said she’d been a chorine on Broadway in the 50s and had danced in “________” and “_______”. I’m sorry I don’t remember her name and for this story it’s unimportant — as it was then, there no Google to confirm her truth or not. What mattered was that, like her, I was an actor (the word poseur also comes to mind) and so she shared her stage life with me, and in a way, she may have known more about me then than I did, because I distinctly remember her stories about the male dancers and the fun they had after the shows, and all the ‘stage door johnnies’ that waited for the girls, and boys, after the curtain rang down at the end of the show.

Then, at the station in Minneapolis, a young man comes on board; he’s got beautiful long sandy blond hair (as opposed to my also long, dirty blond hair) and he’s tall like me, and lanky, and little bit aloof seeming, and he sits across the aisle from Madame Kalamazoo and I — studiously ignoring the both of us — until in the empty space of a conversation between strangers, I ask him what book he’s reading. “Arthur Lessac’s The Use and Training of the Human Voice,” he says and shows me the cover of the book. “It’s our bible at the Goodman School of Drama where I go to school in Chicago.”

Tyler and Kalamazoo get off the train in Chicago in a flurry of “nice to have met you” and “be safes” and “happy Thanksgivings!” as strangers do when they part and will never meet again. I go onto Springfield, and back to Moorhead after the break—also by train, but then filled with the thought of attending the Goodman School firmly planted in my brain.

I can’t tell you what Tyler said to me about the school or how to get into it or if he even thought I had a chance. Did we flirt? I can’t remember, most likely not, as my flirt-o-meter wasn’t working well then—probably still isn’t, I’m a more of ‘ask and ye shall receive’ kind-of-guy. But the idea of being a student at the Goodman grew inside me and later that winter I made another trip to Chicago to audition for the school and in the spring was accepted as a first year acting student. I moved to Chicago early in September 1973. Nine years later I met Michel and we’ve been together since. So yeah, Tyler made a difference in my life in that one chance encounter of strangers on a train.

Photo: union station, Chicago, February 1973, Hasselblad viewfinder, from a proof sheet processed by me in Moorhead that spring.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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