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The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron

The Countdown: Two Days Prior to Departure

NOTE: All persons in this chronicle are mentioned under pseudonyms, except public figures.  

Water washed away the blood in the little basin. “It’s not that bad for four years without seeing a dentist,” Dr. Ara said. As he spoke, my eyes were fixed on the brown bricks, darkened over decades, of the building across the street. It took me a while to realize it was the building of Harvard Club, where I would stay the following night, August 16, 2016, my last in New York. In the morning of August 18, I would travel by railroad to Los Angeles, changing trains in Chicago the following the day.

I had seen it on every visit since 2006, when I had moved into the city from Atlanta, yet I had never realized it was the club’s headquarters. I had imagined it was an office building, full of matchbox sized rooms, where people starved of sun spent most of their useful life under the lifeless white light of fluorescent tubes and in front of computer screens, typing away things that would become completely meaningless after their lives expired, or much longer before that, perhaps minutes later. But I had been so wrong.

The club’s interior was an eloquent exercise in charm, with crimson and wood panels, bathed in golden lighting. A gigantic African elephant head, a hunting trophy bequeathed by Teddy Roosevelt I believe, had long presided over the main dining hall, which the library balcony overlooked. I loved those secular cathedrals of New York, with their tall ceilings and all their symbols of earthly power, even if I had moved away from all that in my life and conscience. Yet the elephant head was now gone. It did not belong in with the new times, and the dining hall had been emasculated. It just preserved a few buck heads very high up, near the ceiling. Near the lifts, I think I saw a hippopotamus head, or maybe a tapir’s. They would probably be gone at some point, too, as we collectively become clear eyed about safaris and see them for the butchery they are.

At Dr. Ara’s, blood came out with every gargle, but water washed it away. Back in his home country, Turkey, Dr. Ara had worked as a dentist during military service in Izmit, not far from Istanbul: “I would extract fifteen teeth per day.” He did not have time for root canals. Most servicemen were from Eastern Anatolia who had never been to a dentist’s before, most of them Kurds. His boss, from the province of Yozgat in central Turkey, idled away his boredom sleeping with Gypsy girls and prostitutes in town. He contracted gonorrhea. Dr. Ara suspected he was a descendant of converted Armenians, those who had been forcibly islamicized after the Genocide of 1915. The colonel’s wife was Armenian and his best friends were Armenian, too. One day he had told Dr. Ara that he could not make a career in the army. “You know why could never become a colonel? Because if you became a colonel, you could become a general, and an Armenian can never be a general in Turkey.”

Talk of the colonel reminded me of a man we dubbed ‘The Colonel’ behind his back at an old job in Atlanta, with a network that purported to be the most trusted name in news or something of the sort, which always reminded me of a saying of a cousin’s daughter in Toronto: “If you say you are a lady then you aren’t.” The Colonel had earned the moniker for his uptight demeanor and his martial voice, which he put to good use in the choir of his church, delighting parishioners and old ladies. But at work he made up with his volume for the authority he lacked.

One day, The Colonel had congratulated a colleague for a beautifully written farewell note for an editor, who was packing up to leave for a job at a sports channel in Connecticut. “I didn’t know you spoke Italian,” The Colonel told the author of the note, a journalist from Argentina. He didn’t understand what The Colonel meant by “Italian,” for there was none of it in the message, written in Spanish. But then he remembered he had quoted Julius Caesar, “Vini, vidi, vici,” (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”) “Oh no, that’s Latin,” had muttered my friend, embarrassed to embarrass his boss. The Colonel, fresh faced and smiling, insisted. “Isn’t it Italian,” he asked another colleague, a sharp yet shy writer from Chile. The Chilean woman, blushing, countered that no, that it was Latin. The Colonel had probably been misled into believing it was Italian because there was well-known Italian restaurant in Atlanta called “Vini, Vidi, Vinci,” (with the past tense of “to conquer” in Latin written with a common misspelling). He was a ranking executive in this network that beamed the most reliable news out there –known for occasionally mislabeling countries on the map (once the name of Austria had been slapped on the Czech Republic, but to believe that it was a malicious and deliberate irony on history would be to overrate the wrong map’s author). Still, I thought, The Colonel, could be forgiven for his merry-faced ignorance. As it happened, he shared Columbus’ first name. His more famous namesake’s error was even crasser: he believed he had arrived in India in 1492 after thirty-three days across the Atlantic. If he only knew what he discovered.

A former classmate of Dr. Ara’s in Istanbul, at Getronagan – one of the most prestigious Armenian schools in the world – had told me that they had a beloved history teacher who may have influenced Dr. Ara’s career choice. “This teacher was a Turk, but he was a good man,” this former student had told me one day after a conference at Columbia University, four or five years ago. “One day shortly before our graduation he asked us what we wanted to do, and I think Ara said he wanted to become an ophthalmologist, but the teacher recommended odontology: ‘We just have two eyes, but thirty-two teeth.”

Twenty years ago a neighbor at college in Cambridge, England, was a German paleontologist who was doing research on dinosaur teeth. One night during dinner we had discussed the importance of Jurassic odontology. It was a case of, “Show me your teeth, and I’ll tell you who you are,” or that is what I remembered from the conversation. Years later I had read the transcription of a forum with anthropologist Iain Tattersall, of the Natural History Museum of New York and also a Cambridge graduate, in which he responded to a question by someone from the public on our teeth. They were ill suited to eat raw meat, with evolutionary implications that had been left without further elaboration. In any case, puny as they were compared to a Tyrannosaur’s or even a dog’s, our teeth were meant to pierce other life, for that’s what our food is.

Dr. Ara had gone on a road trip across America with a cousin, shortly after they had both arrived in the 1970s from Istanbul. They had driven in Dr. Ara’s first car in the States, an Oldsmobile 98, an oversized machine from the glory days of Detroit. They had driven up all the way up to Omaha, Nebraska. At midnight they stopped at a motel. But his cousin was unable to sleep, so they checked out and continued driving. The road was completely empty. Rain broke out, so furiously that it was impossible to see past the curtain of water that fell on the windshield. “We drove on, looking for motels, but they were all booked up.” Bleary-eyed front desk employees would turn them away, and go back to sleep, leaving them to drive blindly under the torrential storm.

Dr. Ara did not like travelling. Since he had left Istanbul he had never been back. “Forty five years later there is nothing left for me there: neither the city is the same nor are my friends.”  But he had a sense that America had peaked by the time he had arrived. The country’s golden era were the nineteen fifties: “Those were the glory days. But we are not people meant for the glory days. You have to want it for it to happen. We are not people meant for glory.”

Avo