It isn’t just a depot—It’s a communal centre where the joy of meeting and the sorrow of parting make living drama
It isn’t just a depot—It’s a communal centre where the joy of meeting and the sorrow of parting make living drama
IN A small town many an old man and many a little boy counts himself lucky if he lives near the station; the lonely cry of a train approaching the town limits always stirs them a little and they shuffle over to the station to see who has come in from the outside world. The little kid peers eagerly at the windows of the coaches. When the conductor shouts “board” and the train moves off, the little kid watches it disappear and dreams of faraway places and feels that for a minute he had his finger on the pulse of the world. But that feeling goes out of old men and kids when they live for a time in a big city. They forget what a great station means to a city. Thousands of people pass Toronto’s Union Station on Front Street with never a thought that they could enter the great Doric temple of traffic and there, more quickly than any other place, feel the pulse of a nation in wartime.
The Union Station was built on the grand scale and at the time it was built it was too big for the city, but the men who planned it imagined that the city would grow and the station would be operating at capacity in 1933. Station superintendent Ambrose explains that only now and for the first time is the full capacity of the station being used. But in this year of war things are different there in a hundred little ways. Even a man who has been accustomed to coming and going a lot from the station has a strange feeling when he comes down the runway from the tracks and walks between the lines of waiting people. A few months ago I came in one night from Montreal. I looked into the faces of all the waiting people and wondered vaguely why they were all there. A month later, coming in from Ottawa, I looked again at those eager faces and had a childish hope that I might see someone waiting there for me. So I said to the gateman, “Are you expecting a lot of soldiers tonight?” “Not that I know of,” he said.
“Who are all these people waiting for?”
“Just friends. Maybe relatives.”
“It didn’t use to be like this. Didn’t people use to have friends and relatives?”
“I’ve thought about it,” he said, “and I figure that a lot of people are getting around on war
work who didn’t travel before, and so they all get a kick out of it.”
During the month of February there were restrictions on travel but even then the eager people still waited, and they made me feel a little lonely. Several times after that I asked station officials for another explanation of the eager faces. Finally I found one wise old cynic who offered a comforting thought to the lonely wayfarer with no one to greet him. “Look, there’s a lot of money floating around right now, more than there’s been in a long time, isn’t that right?” he asked. “Well, when someone comes to town on a war job, or has
gone out of town and is returning, the chances are that he’s got a little more money than he used to have and so people are glad to see him. People are glad to see their own relatives because they wouldn’t be travelling if they didn’t have the money. It means a better time all the way round for everybody. See what I mean?”
Soldiers on Leave
HUT ALL this is talk about the faces of civilians and the friends of civilians. It has nothing to do with the wild eagerness of the middle-aged woman who rushed at the big clumsy private, with his gear under his arm, who was probably home on his first leave. Maybe he had never been away from home before. There are thousands of boys in from the Army camps on a first leave who have never been separated from their families and the joy and high spirits that flowed around the little group that circled the big buck private and his mother was quite moving. She was a stout woman with a red face and she kept pushing the lad away from her and gazing at him as if she were quickly checking him over to see that camp life hadn’t spoiled him. Then she began to cry a little and felt very silly, and he felt very silly too, and looked all around with a big awkward grin and tried to lead her away quickly. There wasn’t much of that in February, for the soldiers had their leaves cancelled, but wait till March when it opens up again and the soldiers pour in from Petawawa and Camp Borden. You don’t have to explain what the Union Station will mean to them: it’s the jumping-off place for the old free world. It’s the city and easy life for a few days and it’s girls waiting and warm embraces and easy companionship and old familiar faces and the blessed warmth of home; it’s all there in the soldier’s heart, stirring him a little if he’s come from Petawawa, stirring him when the train passes through Oshawa and the clusters of lights begin to grow thicker, then come the lights along the waterfront, and the east end and the trainman swinging slowly through the cars chanting with a kind of flat finality, “Next stop Union Station.”
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If someone important is waiting, not there in the station but up in the city, and the date is a few hours off, the soldier can wait there in the station and enjoy all the comforts of a hotel. He can go in to the drugstore and buy himself a bottle of eau de cologne, if he wants to smell like a rose, and then go downstairs and take a bath. Then he can come up to the barber shop and be freshly shaved. If he is hungry he can go to the main dining room, if he has the money, or he can go to the coffee shop or the soda fountain. He’s not just in a depot, he’s in a communal centre.
But sometimes someone ought to he waiting, someone who isn’t there when the train comes in. I saw a sailor, a fellow with blue eyes and a cocky tilt to his head come striding down the runway between the rails, his bell-bottomed pants swinging from his ankles as he looked around arrogantly at the little crowd. Maybe he felt pretty sure of himself when he stepped off the train, maybe he felt that a certain pair of eyes would be watching him, but after he had circled the rim of the waiting crowd a change came over him. His eyes were anxious and then frightened and all the confidence went out of him. For
two minutes he walked up and down frowning and muttering to himself. Twice he turned as if to go, but you could see that he couldn’t hear to leave the station. Pie still clung to some wild hope. At last he made his way slowly to thewaiting room. There weren’t many people there. Slinging his duffle bag on the bench he slumped down beside it and his face was white and worried. Ten minutes later I went back there, and he still sat in the same place. There was a strangely hurt and unbelieving look in his eyes. Yet he still couldn’t bear to leave the station. About fifteen minutes later he suddenly stood up stiffly. A young and rather poorly dressed girl was standing at the door looking over at him. She did not smile, she hesitated as if trying to hold herself back, then she took a step toward him. Her face was suddenly hurt and wondering as he hurried toward her.
“I kept telling myself you had to be here,” he said.
“I told myself not to come. I told myself I was crazy to come,” she said. Then they were looking at each other, both bewildered and hurt. Linking his arm under hers he led her toward the door, his duffle bag slung over his shoulder. What had gone on
between them I do not know but that meeting there in the station in that waiting room where thousands of people have waited with high hopes or an ache in the heart meant a good deal in the lives of both of them.
ONE WOULD think that there would be more joy and gaiety in a crowd waiting to welcome the soldier or the civilian traveller returning to his city than in the crowd gathered to say farewell, but it doesn’t work out that way. Sunday night is the big night for those who say good-by and those who offer a welcome home. But upstairs where the voice is droning, “Montreal train, Oshawa, Kingston, Brock ville. " the crowd seems to he in almost a festive mood. There are lots of young girls, and until the leaves were restricted in February, there were little groups of soldiers and sailors and there was lots of laughing and kidding and even a few songs. Maybe a sailor is playing the mouth organ, and a couple of soldiers are dancing a little, and everybody seems very happy. Of course there are no troop movements from the UnonStation now. Those secret movie
ments that are the beginning of the journey that ends with the climb aboard a troopship in an eastern Canadian port are all made from the training camps. But maybe some of those happy lads were on their last leave and did not know it. Or if they did surmise it then, right until the end they were draining the last drop from the bowl.
If you are moving in and out of that crowd that gathers before the Ottawa and Montreal trains leave you find yourself saying, “Hello, what are you doing here?” to a surprising number of your acquaintances. They are all going to Ottawa. They all have a brisk air, they all carry brief cases and they may be lawyers, advertising men or contractors who no longer look as if they may be described as “just a guy called Joe.” About a year ago I used to make a bet with myself that I would never be able to sit in a club car bound for Ottawa without having at least two people I had known for years in the same car with me, and the two friends were always there. The contractors, of course, have been thinned out, but it used to be very amusing listening to them talk of their high hopes for a few crumbs from the production table. But Ottawa is still the nerve centre and anyone standing idly in the crowd around midnight will see how the Ottawa train sounds its whistle for a hundred grim and tired-looking citizens whose only desire now is to get undressed and get right into a lower berth.
There is one other hour when the crowds line up at the gates leading to the tracks, the hour between five and six. The war and the restrictions on gas and tires have created a new class of commuters. Until the gas was rationed they used to motor into their offices from Long Branch, Port Credit, Oakville, and points west. Some of them now for the first time in their lives are taking the trains and getting to like it. They find themselves getting neighborly and talking to each other. They play bridge. Trainmen are hopeful that the bridge games and the neighborly conversations will get into the blood of the commuters and by the time the war is over and the gas flows freely again they will shudder at the thought of a lonely drive in an automobile some thirty or forty miles to work.
Only one bit of color is missing now at the station, the passengers coming from the American cities and the big excursion trains from here to points across the line. The trains to New York, for example, seem a bit sedate. The women who saved up all year in anticipation of the joy of strolling down Fifth Avenue and looking at the styles have to sit at home and bite their nails or hope some American friends will offer to pay the expenses of such a trip. But if you have a nostalgic ache in your heart for the old days there is nothing to prevent you standing outside the gate leading to the New York train and listening to the gatekeeper bellow, “Hamiltion, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, New York,” just as if nothing had happened to the world.
If one has any doubt about the station being a vital nerve centre of
the nation in wartime the proper time for a visit is during a blackout. Cross the road from the hotel when the city is in darkness. The great stone pile looms up in the darkness like an abandoned temple. But when you push the door open everything is going on as usual except that for some reason a hush has come over the crowd.
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