Tonight I descend the stairs at the Pleasant Hill train station, in a sluggish fog of thought about what to prepare for dinner when I notice that my fellow passengers and I have continued past the ground floor and descended even further below the concrete building, as though following a silent order from an unseen omnipotent character. I also observe the absence of train station sounds – no turnstiles sucking transit tickets into the exit gates and no accompanying electronic beeps. Instead, just a light cadence of footsteps marching alongside and behind me. As usual, I have been counting the number of steps. It’s something to do, it relieves my impatience. I don’t actually know the precise number of steps from the platform to the exit, because I never remember to start counting right away. It is usually somewhere midway that I get going. I’m guessing it’s about 28 steps total. I don’t know. But tonight I’ve easily reached over 50. No one seems perturbed. We are all rhythmically proceeding downward.
I am tired. The phone had rung non-stop at work and there were several calls that required troubleshooting of some kind, my expertise. One woman was considering filing bankruptcy, but she had not heard back from her attorney and was distraught; she needed considerable calming down. A man phoned for his psychiatrist, who is on vacation in Tahoe for the week – his medication had run out and he was desperate for a refill. The last call of the day was a foreign man, maybe Japanese, who wanted to know where to order the best zinfandel grapes in Northern California.
You may be wondering where I work to receive such disparate requests. I am the receptionist at Simpson International, a headquartering firm. Which means that you can run a business in our offices, use our fax, postage meter and copy machines, and heck, even use our coffee machines. Plus, you get me. Veronica. Your office receptionist. When inquiries come in an LED screen tells me to which business the caller desires connecting. Dennis Johnstone, D.D.S. Or Napa Valley Wine Exports Limited.
The Pittsburg-Bay Point train is a popular line. I looked to my sides and not surprisingly, people were clutching their transit cards, their reading materials, their backpacks and briefcases. Many were texting the person picking them up or listening to music. No one looked at me. I turned my head back to the front and kept walking. I wondered if there had been construction. Why had the stairwell grown so increasingly long? Where were we being routed to? Would I come out near the bank of ticket machines? Or the bus pickup area? Or the parking garage? I kept stepping. Down. Down.
After 200 steps, I lightly touched a young woman’s arm to my right. She wore a faux leather coat with a fuzzy fur-trimmed collar. “Do you know what’s going on here?” I asked. She did not reply. I turned to my left. A young man in a Brooks Brother suit (I noticed the label as his arms swished) and soft leather case with a strap walked practically in lockstep with me. “What happened to the stairs?” I asked him. He did not reply either. I glanced behind me to see how many people were behind us. A man older than me, with a fit, elegant frame, his neat grey hair combed with gel, smiled. “Do you know what’s wrong with the stairs?” I was practically pleading with him. He nodded. I paused for a moment to let the others pass me, but the pulsing group nearly lifted me up and forced me to keep moving. It wasn’t rude or pushy, but there was no resisting. The group’s strength was far greater than my own. But wait, I thought. I don’t have to go down. I’ll go back up to the platform and take the elevator down. Or I’ll board the next train, pick up one of the phones on board and report the stairs. Yes, that’s what I will do.
“Pardon me, excuse me, I forgot something on the platform,” I said, attempting to ascend. Though why I felt the need to fib to strangers is beyond me. The man with the gel in his hair shook his head, smiled, and placed his arm about my shoulders, rotating me back in the direction of the throng. I whirled, leaning harder and said, “But I forgot something up there!” I ducked my head like a sprinter, propelling myself up with my elbows. I made it up three or four steps before being turned, gently as you please, back into place, the gentleman behind me, the young girl in the short faux leather coat to my right and the man in the Brooks Brothers suit to my left. Brooks Brothers smiled at me and winked. He was devastatingly handsome and I smiled back.