[6/28/2011] Perelman Tonight: California or bust -- Part 3 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)
Illustration by Al Hirschfeld
My movements, to be candid, were not aided
materially by a torrent of salted nuts and fruits.
materially by a torrent of salted nuts and fruits.
"By Cedar Rapids, our quarters, while far from ideal, were in fairly adequate confusion. The seats were heaped with torn comic books, crossword puzzles, rubbers, playing cards, toothbrushes, and underclothes bulging from half-open satchels, and there was a mulch of luggage and food on the floor, pullulating with flies, that promised complete bedlam before Denver."-- from tonight's installment of "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down"
The Swiss Family Perelman
Chapter 2, Low Bridge -- Everybody Down
Part 1 of 3
The engineer of the Admiral, crack flier of the Pennsylvania's New York-Chicago run, leaned out of the window of his cab, cast a practiced eye at the moonlit, rolling Indiana farmland speeding past, and withdrawing his head, addressed the conductor in a brogue that was an almost equal blend of John Jamieson and County Clare.
"Faix, and 'tis the exthraordinary request yiz is afther makin'," he observed, wiping his honest Hibernian countenance with a capacious red bandanna and abandoning his accent to make his dialogue less nerve-racking to the reader. "Am I to understand that you wish me to slow down abruptly so as to jolt the everlasting daylights out of the occupant of the upper berth in Room A, Car 138, a sorely tried paterfamilias tropic-bound as the result of a woman's relentless nagging, an aching desire to escape from the treadmill, and a callow romanticism pardonable in a stripling but preposterous in a short-winded neurotic of forty-five?"
"Precisely," the conductor nodded, consulting his, turnip. "If my calculations are correct, he has just finished his eleventh cigarette since retiring, verified his bank balance for the hundredth time, and is lapsing into a tortured doze. Give him the business." The engineer nodded. Three seconds later, the person they were discussing -- and now I make bold to drop the domino: it was indeed myself -- was catapulted violently upward in his bed. As my head caromed off the bed-lamp and struck the bridge of my daughter's 'cello, with which I was sharing the berth, the compartment was flooded with light and my wife's strained, anxious face came into view below.
"The Angostura!" she squealed. "Quick! It just fell into the sink!" No cardiac patient bereft of his digitalis could have packed quite as much anguish into so few syllables. Swinging from the berth with the grace of a kinkajou who has temporarily mislaid his eyeglasses, I seized a huck towel and neatly sopped up the precious lifegiving fluid, not forgetting to include several shards of glass. My movements, to be candid, were not aided materially by a torrent of salted nuts and fruit which chose this moment to cascade from a bon voyage basket overhead, nor by the presence underfoot of five suitcases, a foot-locker, two flight bags, a portable apparatus for condensing drinking water, and an incomplete file of the minutes of the Royal Geographical Society.
"There now," I said cheerfully, rubbing a few bacilli into my lacerated palms to insure gangrene and shrewdly scanning the graying horizon. "We ought to be in Chicago before long. What do you say to a steaming dish of farina and some grilled kidneys?" My companion told me without hesitation what she would say, and lulled by the staccato rhythm of the square wheel directly beneath our heads, we sank into a refreshing slumber. Our eyelids had scarcely granulated before the unmistakable sound of children belaboring each other filtered through the door of the adjoining compartment. Four or five strokes of the cat, administered so as to stimulate circulation without actually breaching the skin, put the young into a more docile humor, and soon our foursome was seated in the diner. While waiting for coffee, the preparation of which consumed no more time than the reconstruction of the Portland Vase, I familiarized the fledglings with the locale outside, explaining the operation of the stockyards, the grain elevators, and the complex railways that make Chicago a hub. Luckily both youngsters were at that impressionable age -- twelve and ten respectively -- when childish curiosity knows no bounds. Eyes round as saucers, they gave vent to repeated exclamations of wonder.
"Jiminy crickets!" breathed Adam in an awestruck voice. "Listen to the old gephompheter behind me work his false choppers!" The old gephompheter, a dropsical burgess patently on his way to Battle Creek for the waters, turned and favored him with a glance that was pure corrosive sublimate, but the lad refused to quail. "Hiya, fat stuff," he said easily. At that juncture, I realized with a start that I had neglected to wear my trousers into the diner, an oversight which afforded a good excuse to retire and take the boy with me. It is interesting to note that to this day, a full year and a half later, one of his earlobes is still over a centimeter longer than the other.
The Chicago stopover was brief, merely sufficient to heat the drinking water and sprinkle grit on the towels, but it enabled me to dash out and procure some Danish pastry, bananas, and popcorn. Frankly, I had become a trifle disturbed at the paucity of flies in our compartment; the careless shrug I received from the Pullman conductor when I complained convinced me I would have to remedy the situation myself. Although the cheese buns were not as sticky as I would have liked and the bananas were hardly overripe, we managed to make do. By Cedar Rapids, our quarters, while far from ideal, were in fairly adequate confusion. The seats were heaped with torn comic books, crossword puzzles, rubbers, playing cards, toothbrushes, and underclothes bulging from half-open satchels, and there was a mulch of luggage and food on the floor, pullulating with flies, that promised complete bedlam before Denver.
Of the dozen-odd transcontinental trips I have made in the past decade, the present was unquestionably the most circuitous. As nearly as I could ascertain, we reached San Francisco less by steering a westerly course than by closing in on it in decreasing circles. Every few hundred miles, our car was shunted onto a siding and attached to a railroad whose dining cars were even more unspeakable than the last. High in the list were the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Denver, Rio Grande & Western; by exercising constant vigilance, their maîtres d'hôtel and waiters achieved a degree of insolence and incompetence unmatched outside Egypt. If no railroad was available at the moment, our sleeper was hooked to trolley cars, stagecoaches, wagon trains, pantechnicons, manure spreaders -- anything that happened to be rolling in the general direction of the Bay City.
TOMORROW NIGHT IN PART 2 OF "LOW BRIDGE -- EVERYBODY DOWN": The arrival in Oakland, and then the arrival in Los Angeles
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