When we're children, Christmas perhaps starts out as bright, busy, but confusing. Later it becomes about presents, excitement, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus . . . bringing presents.
But just as what we want for Christmas changes as we grow, so does the Season itself and its meaning. Stuff tends to become less important as we gather more of that each Christmas — while feelings, experiences, and perhaps an indefinable sense of togetherness and even love, seem to take on more importance, even urgency if we feel we don't have them.
For some of us, Christmastime sometimes only reminds us of what we don't have, but want deep within ourselves. We then at times hope, even unconsciously, for someone or something to either bring to us, or take us to, what we truly want. Fortunately, author Chris Van Allsburg and Warner Brothers Entertainment, who own the 'Polar Express' and its characters from the book and film respectively, have created a marvelous vehicle and means to do just that at Christmas.
So I invite you to join a boy, who has now become a man, as he takes an unexpected second trip from an increasingly hard everyday world on a train that will not only bring him to someplace, but to someone, he didn't even know he wanted for Christmas.
I was running for my train.
I had just made it to the snowy platform of Van Buren Street Station where I normally boarded the 5:35 evening South Shore train out of Chicago. The sheltered platforms were offering little protection tonight though from the winds and snow blowing off of nearby Lake Michigan. Almost within reach of warmth and shelter on the train, I slipped and fell as its doors were starting to close. My head hit hard against the frozen platform, and things went dark for a minute.
When I came to, my train was gone, and I was alone. The winds and snow were strangely diminished, and now blowing gently. Everything was now quiet, but at least I wasn't aching from my fall on the platform like I thought I would be.
Just my luck, I thought. I had been laid off from my job at a Chicago commodities trading firm the previous week. It wasn't a perfect job, and I wasn't sure after this second job loss in several years if I had all that much of a knack for commodities and options trading. But the loss of it, especially around Christmas, was hard . . . and it hurt. I kept commuting to Chicago from my home in Beverly Shores, Indiana though on my monthly South Shore pass, seeking job leads and interviews anyway. Nothing had panned out however. I had just completed another interview today, on Christmas Eve no less, where I was told guys with MBA degrees in Finance were a dime a dozen now.
I hadn't told my sister, Sarah, or my parents about my situation yet. I had only told them that I was busy and wouldn't be able to come home for Christmas this year. Fact was though that I'd spent about the last of my ready cash on my monthly home mortgage payment. I liked my house, because it was both attractive, and it was near the tracks. Ever since my ride on the Polar Express years ago now, I had wanted to live near trains — in a nice neighborhood, but near trains. Now at last, after saving for years as a junior trader and accounts manager, I had such a home . . . and I didn't want to give it up.
The Polar Express. My ride on that train seemed so long ago now. But I still had the sleigh bell I had both found and had been given during that ride — and I could still hear it. But now, I was the only one I knew of who could. While the rest of Christmas this year was seeming to collapse in disappointment, for some reason that bell still rang for me.
I sat up on the now lonely, dark, and snowy platform, and re-slung my laptop bag over my shoulder, just hoping the computer inside wasn't damaged by my fall. However, I couldn't hear the normal sounds of the city around me. Just the gently blowing wind off Lake Michigan. I looked at a clock on the platform that seemed to be frozen at the wrong time — ten minutes before midnight. That clock was clearly broken, I thought, as I'd only just missed my 5:35 PM South Shore train . . . right?
Then I began to hear something.
Another train was approaching. It seemed a bit soon to be the next South Shore train, however. Likely it was a Metra Electric headed only as far as South Chicago. But it didn't hum quietly like the electric commuter trains that ran on this line. This approaching train chuffed.
Then suddenly, a whistle blew loudly, practically right next to me — scaring me out of my skin as it announced the train's arrival. Suddenly, I was enveloped on the platform for a moment by clouds of warm steam. When the white clouds of vapor began clearing, I was next to what seemed like a black wall. It was made of riveted metal, and had white letters on it . . . P . . . O . . . L . . . A . . . R . . .
Wait a minute . . . that wasn't possible. I was about to continue reading the rest of the letters obscured by steam towards what clearly sounded like a steam locomotive, when a nearby voice caused me to look the other way, towards the rear of the train.
"All aboaaaaard!" the voice said.
"No," I now said out loud, shaking my head. I must have hit my head really hard on the platform.
"All aboaaaaard!" the voice repeated.
"Wait, you mean me?" I now asked, walking towards what seemed like the train's conductor.
"Well . . . 'ya comin'?" he asked.
"You're really here . . . to pick me up? Aren't I a little old for this now?" I asked in return. I no longer needed to ask where the train was going.
"Hold this please," he said, passing me his lantern, as he reached inside the train car's door for his clipboard.
"You're right. We normally don't pick your sort up," he said, looking at his clipboard. "Exceptions are sometimes allowed however, for unfulfilled wishes made at Christmas — but only for those who still believe in what we do around here. Looks like you made the list though, according to what I'm reading. And we are making an extra run here, just for those with such wishes."
"I am out of a job, and I have been wishing for another one, and I need cash from somewhere if I'm gonna even buy groceries next week . . ." I started to note out loud.
"Oh, but you didn't wish that to Mr. C, Santa," the Conductor crisply noted. "Besides, we're not here to pick you up because of a wish you made anyway . . . but for a wish someone else made."
That made me do a double-take.
"But if I were you," he said just inches from my face now, "I would think about getting onboard."
This was just too much for me to handle. Here I was, about to get on a train that I had remembered was meant for children, to see the North Pole and Santa. A train that my now grown-up and rational mind had trouble accepting as real . . . and a train that was apparently here to pick me up, not even because I wished it, but because someone else had.
"Sorry," I found myself saying as I shook my head and began backing away on the platform.
"Suit yourself," the conductor sighed. "But you won't be the one you disappoint . . . and not for the first time either."
He stepped into the train car's doorway and waved his lantern up and down to the engineer, and then moved back into the car.
"What'cha have to lose?" a voice seemingly asked all around me, before the soft, wind-driven snow swirled and formed into the train's hobo that I remembered from all those years ago. He was suddenly standing next to me now. "If you don't get on . . . your next stop could be lookin', and livin', like me."
For some reason, the suddenly all-too-real prospect of living like a homeless hobo compelled my feet to move. My hand grabbed the rail beside the train car's door, and I practically swung myself into the car as the train began to leave the station. I now looked from the vestibule where I was into the train car's interior. Unlike the last time I had ridden the Polar Express however, this time there was no one else in the warmly-lit coach, except the conductor now looking back at me through a glass porthole in the door.
He now slid open the door that separated us.
"Mind if I sit in the Observation Parlor Car this time?" I asked. "We don't get those on the normal commuter trains I ride these days."
"Suit yourself," he said once again. "But your ticket, please."
I remembered this part. I checked first my right overcoat pocket. No ticket. Then I checked the left pocket in my overcoat. No ticket either.
"Keep checking," the conductor curtly noted with a little exasperation.
I checked the pockets in my suit jacket under the overcoat. No ticket.
"Try the one closest to you," he suggested, looking away, " . . . to your heart."
Betraying a very puzzled look on my face, my right hand reached past my overcoat and jacket for the pocket in my shirt. There it detected something that felt like foil. I produced it . . . a ticket, embossed on red foil this time.
The Polar Express — Extra Section
. . . it read.
"Thank you," the conductor said as he took and began punching my newly found ticket.
After his punching a blizzard of chads, just like I remembered, he handed my ticket back to me.
"AC" he had punched out.
"You wouldn't tell me what this means now, would you?" I asked.
"No, I would not," he replied.
"Are we picking up anyone else?" I then asked.
"I am not sure," he mysteriously but deliberately answered.
"And we're going to the North Pole," I now queried.
"Not necessarily the same one you remember," he replied.
"Wait a minute," I objected. "There's gotta be only one North Pole . . . isn't there?"
"You are free to think that, sir," he replied, now turning away and walking to the next car. "But that is not necessarily where this train is going."
Almost before I had seated myself in the plush, green Parlor Car, I felt the train slow to a stop again. Even though the train had picked me up facing south, I recognized we had come to a neighborhood of nice lakeside apartment towers and classic brownstone townhomes in what was north Chicago. I also noticed that Lake Michigan was now on the train's right, not on the left as it normally would be if I were really bound for Indiana, and home. I was indeed headed north now.
"All aboaaaaard!" the Conductor called, standing beside an open door of the train in the quiet, snowy neighborhood street.
But no one came out of any of the townhomes or apartments. I noticed one light on though, in one third floor room, of one apartment tower. I could see a figure, a person, sitting near the window of that room in silhouette. It was tough to tell whether they were a he or a she, but they appeared to be grown up, like me. The person had their face in their hands though, and looked like they were crying. The scene reminded me of how I had felt at times in recent days — the fear, the uncertainty, the loneliness that had seemed to overwhelm me, amid what was supposed to be a joyous season.
"All aboaaaaard!" the Conductor called out a second time.
The figure in the window seemed to turn a little briefly towards the train, but kept their face buried in their hands. The person then turned facing back down, even perhaps away from the window. He or she could clearly see and hear the Polar Express. But they would not, or could not, come down to board it.
"All aboaaaaard!" the Conductor called a third and final time.
I went forward to the doorway of the next car where the Conductor was. When I got there, I saw him just looked at his watch, shrug and sigh a little, and waive his lantern up and down to the Engineer. The locomotive now whistled twice, and I felt the train jerk forward.
"They're not coming?" I said, noting the obvious.
"Well, you can watch, and pull the Emergency Brake — like you did the last time — if you do see them coming," the Conductor replied, almost seeming to hope that such a thing would happen as he began closing the stair trap and door. "But otherwise, no . . . they're not coming."
"Was that the someone who wished for me to be here . . . on this train?" I asked.
"I . . . I am not at liberty to say, sir," the Conductor replied with surprising hesitancy, almost seeming to conceal a sadness now. "But the last time we scheduled this run in answer to the wish, we picked up the someone else, but did not pick you up. So now, things are reversed. Still, it's not a way I like to run this railroad."
Now I was intrigued. "Could you tell me when that was? Could you tell me anything more? Anything at all?"
"No, I'm sorry sir, I could not," the Conductor replied flatly.
I was disappointed, yet curious — racking my brain to figure out when I might have possibly seen the Polar Express in recent years, but not boarded it.
"But," he said, now trying to change the subject, and even seemingly recover from his own disappointment, "are you in need of refreshment?"
"Well . . . I suppose so," I said, warming up to the idea of a hot chocolate, especially one I remembered tasting so good on this train all those years ago.
"Seat yourself in the Parlor Car then, sir," he replied as he now walked away, "and it will be brought right to you."
So I now turned myself back towards the Parlor Observation Car at the rear of the train, and seated myself near the big, curved windows at the far end, where I could watch the tracks recede into the distance amid the dark, bleak, snowy landscape. Any trace of Chicago and its environs had already disappeared. Some snow-covered trees and gently rolling hills of what appeared to be the Canadian Shield seemed like all there was outside now. Looking out the windows from my lounge chair, I then waited for the tap-dancing, hot chocolate-tossing chefs and waiters I remembered from my previous ride on the Polar Express.
"Nice digs you picked here," a voice suddenly said behind me. I whipped my head around to find the hobo now seated next to me. "Here, have an Irish Coffee this time," he offered as he passed a steaming mug to me. "I promise it's not my usual cup'a Joe, and it'll warm you up a whole lot more than hot chocolate will!"
"Where are the tap-dancing waiters?" I asked as I accepted the mug from him.
"You really need to see them?" he asked in reply.
"Well, I kinda expected it," I answered as I tentatively took my first sip.
"Just because something happens once," the hobo said, "you expect it to happen again?"
"No, not necessarily," I defended.
"Down on your luck?" he now said, changing the subject. "Or are you still chasing skirt, like you were the last time I saw 'ya?"
"Yes on the former . . . but no on the latter," I said looking down, now feeling stung by both questions. "But I really don't want to talk about either of those."
"Interesting," he observed.
"You have something to tell me? Some profound piece of insight?" I asked with a degree of irritation at being reminded of my current misfortunes in both my work and love lives.
"Me?" he answered. "I'm just your waiter . . . or your bartender. Take your pick."
"That's just my luck," I noted. "No straight answers once again. I've been getting that in my job interviews all week here."
"Always lookin' for the easy stuff, eh?" he replied. "Well, someone gave you practically the easiest, most obvious answer in the world once. But you didn't see it."
"Who? What?" I asked.
"It ain't up 'ta me 'ta tell 'ya," he replied as he now disappeared.
I was now left alone with even more questions than answers as the train continued rolling along. At least the Irish Coffee I had been given was indeed good and warming. It even had a kick to it — a somewhat alcoholic 'hot chocolate' for grown-ups, I mused.