Sunday 26th August
7.32am somewhere in Virginia aboard the Amtrak Crescent train.
Endless banks of greenery pass to my left. Kudzu-covered trees, poles and wires. Originally introduced to halt land erosion, it quickly took hold thanks to the warm moist climate of the south-eastern United States.
Breakfast service has finished.
‘We will shortly be stopping in Washington, our nation’s capital. You may take this opportunity for a smoke stop. Please stay train-side. Once again, ladies and gentlemen please stay train-side. I remind you, ladies and gentlemen, if you choose to go upstairs to the station there will be no announcement for our departure. If you leave train-side just remember, the train did not leave you. You left the train. We ask once again please stay train-side.’
The carriage sways and lurches along the tracks out of Baltimore. Dark tunnels plunge my sleeper into darkness.
Abandoned buildings, For Lease signs flapping in the breeze.
Empty streets, rubble strewn fields, rows of tight houses, satellite dishes crowding the porches. A depot half full with the ubiquitous yellow school buses. Patriotic flag fly high above stores, homes and government buildings.
Injured in an accident? 1-800-JUSTICE
Billboards dot the highway spruiking religion, law firms and medical centres.
Lush, verdant verges abut the train line, broken by mobile home parks, auto mechanics and distribution warehouses.
Weatherboard houses in alternating shades of beige, off-white, taupe and cream. Straight up and down, no over-hanging eaves to soften the box. Neatly-trimmed lawns are punctuated by abandoned bikes and outdoor chairs.
12.39pm North Philadelphia
Stacked rusting shipping containers. Empty car parks. Auto repair yards with piles of tyres. Shop Rite carpark filled and bustling. Charter High School quiet on this Sunday afternoon. Lew Baum towing. Guard houses, razor wire ringed basketball court and lack of windows denote a prison or remand centre at the least.
5pm New York City
We venture out and trek a few blocks to the local Whole Foods. I follow her lead and cut through laneways.
‘So there’s a guy up here called Gregory. I’ve been feeding him. He’s homeless.’ I nod, not surprised. My sister has a heart of gold, as they say. Her love and concern doesn’t end with only people she knows. For years, she’s also been volunteering with a group called Achilles and runs with sight-impaired people a few times a week. Back to Gregory. Gregory is a tall, slight man who lives on a bench behind some trees on a corner nearby. There are two other men around the same age on benches along from him. Gregory could be anything from 40 years upwards. His dark skin is dry and leathery from a life lived outside in the elements. His hair is short with only touches of grey. He wears a grey long-sleeve top, sleeves rolled up in the late afternoon heat. His jeans are also rolled up revealing ribbed socks pulled up. I’m hot in my light t-shirt and cropped pants.
‘Hi Gregory,’ my sister announces as she approaches him. She crouches slightly to get to his eye-line. ‘How are you doing today? This is my sister, Mandy.’
Gregory now makes eye-contact and reaches out his hand. I come closer and shake it.
‘Hi Gregory,’ I say.
Plastic bags sit on the bench beside him. A small, black roller suitcase is tucked in nearby. Bottles of water, some empty and a half-finished juice lay about.
‘How did you go with the eggs?’
‘I got some left still.’
‘If you finish them, I could take the container and re-fill it for you.’
‘I’m full from all the water,’ he explains.
I glance over to the other men on their benches, careful not to stare as this is their space, where they live. I’m just visiting.
‘Did you want to change into your t-shirt? It’s hot today. If you do, I could take that top and wash it for you.’
Gregory mostly looks down when he talks so Simone squats so that they can more easily talk.
He nods and says, ‘maybe.’
‘We are going to do some shopping but I’ll come back later with some food.’
He nods again.
‘Okay. Bye Gregory.’
‘Bye Gregory.’ I wave and add but I don’t know that he sees me.
We step back, turn and walk a couple of metres to the main cross street and its pedestrian traffic. I look up and see the Whole Foods supermarket across the street.