It began one mid-January morning when me and my old high school buddy Ned were riding the train between his home in a more affluent suburb and the city.
"I'm stuck here because of my wife," he complained. "Even so, if I got a job offer like you pretty much had handed to you, I'd consider divorce."
Ned and I were having lunch that afternoon, a chance to reminisce after not seeing each other in nearly a decade. Afterward, I was off to a job interview, one I already knew I was likely to get.
"It isn't a sure thing, but I do like the money," I admitted, looking out the window, looking at the odd no-man's land of railroad tracks and warehouses separating downtown from the neighborhoods.
"And California!" Ned said, emphatically. Goodbye to all this snow. The long months of gray skies. And don't forget what they say about California women."
I nodded my head. Married fifteen years with three kids, Ned was already looking for a trophy wife. I remained stoically single, not actively looking for anyone, but not blind to any female attention.
Except for the engineer, nobody realized a railroad switch had been pulled the wrong way. The train entered a tunnel leading to a small rail yard next to some sort of factory. The complex was enormous. I could see the smokestacks billowing dark gray plumes and hear the grinding clamor of machinery. But there was no indication of what sort of factory this was.
We were instructed to exit the train and wait on the platform. The locomotive was uncoupled from the other cars and sped off. Then a stubby little locomotive coupled with stranded cars and dragged them from this siding, carefully maneuvering through the maze of tracks, onto another siding over 100 feet away on the other side of the yard.
Twenty minutes later, a large woman wearing a fuzzy black overcoat arrived. She told us to wait inside the factory, it being more comfortable than the below freezing weather outside.
She was mostly right, for we were immediately taken from almost-arctic conditions to a strange mix of tropical heat and gusts of frigid air from the outside. But yes, stay away from the furnaces and open doors, and it was quite pleasant.
The next time I saw her, she was walking towards us alongside a tall, stocky man with a beard and curly hair. "We have over twenty people stranded here," she said, expressing urgency.
"What am I supposed to do?" he replied, annoyed but not angry. "We're short of manpower as it is." After considering the matter for a moment, he shrugged his shoulders. "Number 27 needs a team of workers. Show them the shovels and leave it up to them."
She nodded her head. "That'll work."
"Now," he said, a chuckle in his voice, "Gimme some tongue." Their arms wrapped around each other and their mouths pressed together. I felt an odd sweetness to the moment. A very odd sweetness.
He walked away, whistling happily and she rejoined us. "You have a choice," she said, "you can wait, free to move about the place, or you can make a little money." She pointed to a large furnace and a narrow track with small wagons filled with coal. "Keep that fire stoked, and at the end of the shift, you can line up with all the regular employees and receive a fair day's pay."
"Can't we just leave?" I asked.
"Good luck with that," she said, laughing. "The shuttle between here and the city will be here at 3:05. Four hours isn't that long of a wait."
"A bus?" I asked.
"A old switch engine and even older passenger car," she said, amused. Makes its way between the downtown terminal and here three times a day."
I thought about my plans for the day. Four hours was far too long if I wanted to make my appointment. Yet when I looked around for Ned, he was already shoveling coal.
So I decided to find my way out. I walked toward a large collection of gears, pulleys, and levers that seemed to work together somehow. The whole place was filled with odd, seemingly Victorian contraptions.
What about my cell phone? I pulled it from my pocket and tried to get a signal, but there was only static.
A tall black fellow with the name "Virgil" embroidered onto the name tag on his bib overalls started to laugh. "Too many steel walls," he said as he approached me, still chuckling.
"Is there a land-line around?"
He put his hand to his jaw. "I'm sure I've seen them," he said, thinking. "The offices have 'em, but I've never had no need to be there. Don't really know the way."
"A way out, perhaps?" I was beginning to feel a weird sense of desperation, as if I'd died without my knowledge and this was hell.
"Ah," he said, beginning to walk away a bit. "Most of us use the shuttle. Keep up," he said, looking back at me. "Mister and Mrs. Slattery use the supervisor's lot, but you need a special key to use that door. The main entrance, though, it's something talked about, but most people avoid it."
"Let me tell you about this place," Virgil said as we passed under a stone archway. "A city is built on its past. Well, this is that past. You see, if it weren't for us working our asses off 24/7, 365 days a year, this whole town would collapse into a heap of concrete, iron, and broken glass."
"Is this hell?" I asked, still considering that possibility.
"Sometimes seems like it," he said, laughing even louder now. "Nah, this is just one of them little secrets only those folks who need to know do know. Not really a bad thing, I mean, seriously, do you personally need to know why some cities are healthy and some ain't? Isn't it better to just sit back and let things happen?"
"I'm not sure," I said, shaking my head. We walked a way further, past some old steam-powered machines to a more vacant area; a large room whose doors led to a small waterfront pier.
"I'm sure," he continued, as we stepped onto the pier, "you've heard people talk as though a city's a living thing. Well that's true. And we're the folks keeping it alive. Every wagon of coal, every bucket of water, every ounce of sweat, helps keep it going. Look at this place here, during the canal days this is where the barges brought coal to be unloaded."
"So much of this whole place seems dead," I said, looking at the old canal, an oily slime covering the surface.
"What's living is always built on top of what's dead," he explained. "We have to eat dead things in order to survive, be they plants or animals."
I tried to look past the pier to see if there were any possible exit. Seeing none, I turned back inside. "Funny," I said, continuing the conversation, it's a lot easier to think of a cow as a living thing that it is an ear of corn."
"Yeah, but I have a funny feeling most corn stalks don't like getting their asses chewed on any better than a cow does."
The next several hundred feet had the definite look of being inside a mine, complete with supports and cross-beams. Then we came to a tunnel. I shuddered as I looked at the rows of niches lining its walls. Most were hidden in shadows, but a few clearly showed they contained skeletons.
"In the early days," my guide continued, "new employees were brought down this tunnel, sort of a rite of initiation. Back then the bosses thought they should be reminded of the consequences of slacking -- that the work done by their predecessors would all be in vain. A lot of people think it's been downhill since they ended that."
"With all the crime and poverty around nowadays and it's hard to argue with them."
Virgil nodded his head.
"Civic pride isn't what it used to be," I added.
"Those people had it," he said, pointing inside the tunnel.
"So that's the only way out?" I asked, wishing there were a less gruesome exit.
"Unless you want to go back and grab a shovel."
"No," I said, extending my hand, "but thank you."
"Not a problem," he replied, shaking mine.
I entered the shadows, trying to keep my focus on the center of the floor. Using my two hands as blinders, I tried to avoid the sight of human bone. Yet my head kept moving. Lack of focus turned into sharp focus. Soon my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I could see clearly the shelf-like rows of niches carved into the granite walls, I could see the remains of so many past residents. And I could read the small brass plaques beneath each niche.
How a few of them left wealthy families for a chance to strike out on their own. How some left prosperous cities to be part of something new. And how many more lived and died here, most seeming to never have had the slightest notion of living elsewhere.
Then I came to a simple putty-colored factory doorway, pushed the bar to open it, and stepped outside. The sign outside the door read "City Employees Only." I was in a small, pleasant park with a few trees, benches, and a small fountain in the middle.
A bus stop was at the corner of the street. I recognized the route number and knew if the bus came soon, I could make my appointment. I sat down at the nearest park bench, feeling the warmth of the bright sun.
The bus arrived about ten minutes later, but I remained seated. Sure, I might complain about the snow. I might shrug my shoulders when friends asked how I could stand living in such a blighted area.
But I looked around me at a city graying and out of shape -- actually a lot like me. Yet I could still feel its vibrance, I could still see the glow that had enchanted me as a young man. This was a part of me, and one I realized letting go of would be a mistake.