daniels
I am Seven on the Train from One World to Another
                                                                                          — 1961
by Gabrielle Daniels

I could not sit still long in coach
—the cheapest seats—after I had
read and reread the few books brought
for a moment’s preoccupation
I wanted to go up and down the aisle
on any pretext,
searching for any other kids
searching for where the brakemen went
finding the cafe or even the bar
close enough to just look
Only to the bathroom where
I could not really rest. Or play,
because Mamma always
brought me fro and to our seats
under the eyes of the conductor
if I strayed too long and too far
even the picture windows
with clacking scenes
of Texas and Arizona
could not restrain me
no matter how many rows of cropland sped by
no matter how slowly we crept by
the occasional train that had jumped its track
spilling its guts from every wrecked freight car
eliciting oohs and ahhs
even from the grownups

It seemed other travelers boarded and disembarked
except for us, but we were not alone
Like them, we were on a longer journey,
from what had been home
and it could have been to the moon
I cannot recall the stops where
Mr. Robinson helped me down,
not the conductor,
with his strong, older arms
and his gray-flecked mustache
his kind teeth edged with gold
like an invitation
from the high steps of the carriage
and we stretched our legs, drank hot sodas,
ignored the drinking fountain,
ate chocolate bars, and waited
for what? Another set of passenger cars,
or another locomotive running in daylight
or with a bloody nose, I didn’t know
I was too young to know
these things yet, except that
we were on our way
even standing still.

Behind us,
swallowed up by hours and miles,
there was always color
Color in the divided want ads
and in the neighborhoods.
Color on the placard in the shop windows.
Until I dreamed in color:
I lathered my face in white suds
and paid the cashier
so that I could see The Three Stooges
with Snow White
the sound of the projector clack drowned
by the overture
and as the white foam melted
revealing my brown face
by the light of the screen
someone towered over me
asking for my ticket, and I awoke
No matter that
my mother’s silver did not bend
and red faces on Canal Street
yelling over Ruby were reduced to black
and white footage on Huntley and Brinkley.

For days, my grandfather kept the watch,
waiting for us to come home, no matter
how many times my grandmother reminded him
that we had gone. For him, his ribs—his daughter
and granddaughter—had gone missing.
Between three and five, he knew,
Mr. Tejeau ferried me and Meemsy and
and Kitty Kat from upstairs
home from Catholic school, and then Mamma
from the Freret Street bus, reception for a Jewish doctor,
learning to type faster and faster—clack, clack.
It was too much for him
to go to the station,
only my grandmother was there to send us off,
perhaps this is why he could not believe it,
could not trust her word.
I see her full figure under her hat not looking
in the window to see me wave
for the last time, pigtailed and barretted,
four-eyed with the new glasses my stepfather said
I needed to see clearly at a distance,
not pretty any more.
I see her not looking,
but going straight ahead
like the rails but behind
through the waiting room and
into the street where
I could not see

And I became like prattle,
daring a whipping under
my mother’s narrowed eyes
her good dress wrinkling by the second
when nothing else filled the hours
not even coloring books or napping
I was singing my song with no melody
to the clack; it did not relieve the heat
but added to the boredom
and the sleepiness and the stiffness
We had air conditioning
that came and went like the sandwich vendors
and the news “boys” that sold comic books
like Peanuts and Dennis the Menace
and ham and cheese and potato chips
but they could not silence me for long

I was going to California
where Disneyland was only a block away
from San Francisco
where everything, everywhere was new
And I wanted bacon and eggs and toast
in the dining car
like Mamma and Mr. Robinson
because corn flakes and Tang were the food
of another time, sitting on a drawer
with a torn phonebook on top
to come up to the kitchen table
In the dining car, the vinyl cushions
made me grown on this journey
I could reach for the salt and pepper
I could touch the napkins
I could eat with more than a spoon

And when we finally reached gold,
the houses tilted close together
on what I learned were forty-four hills
I thought they would smash into each other
like dominoes when the Big One finally hit
but they held on like my mother’s tightening hand
in mine, surrounded by all those Robinsons
my stepfather’s uncles and aunts and cousins
who had come and stayed because of the War
and had made something of themselves
in The Fillmore
and had fetched us up
with their smiles and in their good clothes
and the occasional Cadillac

Then I was shy, all words
full inside me, like Stephen
small and fluttery in Mamma’s womb,
because there were so many smiles
to meet and so many wet kisses to get
from people I didn’t know yet
and when we drove through Yerba Buena
there was sky at the end of the tunnel,
and The City spread before us, glorious at first sight
shimmering in late summer afternoon
brighter than the blue bay water kissed
by suicides, but when I turned
on my knees to see
where Treasure Island might be,
there were no pirates or evidence
of three-masted galleys but lanes
of cars behind us, people
riding in the same direction

I was introduced to Aunt Eva’s clawfoot tub
that night in the house on Broderick Street
and given a towel and a washcloth
and lots of time to explore what was new,
while all the grownups in the living room
smoked and talked and called out for more ice
clicking in their drinks before dinner and
I closed the door;
the mysteries of her medicine cabinet
and pink vanity chair with thin, gold metal scrolls
could wait one more day
Instead, there was Mr. Robinson’s manly treasures
in his crocodile travel case sitting on top of the toilet
–Old Spice, a can of Duke, and some
Colgate tooth powder, and brushes
and his watch and his safety razor by Gillette
that had currency everywhere

However, I couldn’t stop moving
still acclimated to the train’s rocking and
dips and jerks and starts, I could break
something in my admiration, and I wanted
no evidence of wrongdoing
so early with Aunt Eva
I couldn’t walk straight
for a day or so without
holding onto a wall,
I was clumsy in a house
that would not fall over,
roaming in one place
When my new Daddy arrived
and I was banished to the guest bedroom
that night, the world heaved and shuddered
laboring all night in the rain to crack open the earth,
and I dreamed of telephone receivers
that smoked blue mist when they rang
and no one was there for me to answer

Between dreaming and shaking
I would wake over and over
up and down the hall I would go to one door
and then another, from bedroom to
bedroom, but no one would wake
from my soft rapping
to comfort me amid the trembling,
and when I gave up
and crept back to that big empty bed
the blankets and sheets rippling like
troubled waves
the house still rolled like a passenger coach
but I was on my own with my own baggage
and nothing settled down until light,
a mournful, foggy day with no sun
and Mamma didn’t believe my story
until the evening news

That journey was ahead of me,
but all Mamma talked of the trip
it seemed, after taking off her high heels
was how I crushed her sunglasses
that slid over after much shifting
and dropped into my seat. Years later,
I think it wasn’t about being
pretty, but scared
that she wasn’t ready to face
that bright Sunday afternoon
and the glasses would have allowed her
to hide in the way that I could not with mine
because the moment had finally come
and she was compelled to see
everything that we came and hoped for
and everything we would miss

                              — March 11, 2015

© Gabrielle Daniels

PHOTOGRAPH: The author with her friends in the fall of 1959, New Orleans, Louisiana.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem is only the second I’ve written in several decades, and about the singular event of my childhood. One could call it an escape: a seven-year-old African American girl and her mother, lately remarried, traveling for three days and two nights on a train, the Sunset Limited, which had already brought thousands of Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi blacks to California since the early 1940s. For me, the relocation was about embracing the new, the different (like comic books), and saying goodbye to the old life.

gabrielle_daniels1

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gabrielle Daniels was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gabrielle began as a poet before switching to fiction writing. Her poetry was featured in This Bridge Called My Back, a classic anthology by feminists of color, which is now in its fourth edition. Gabrielle is a 1999 graduate of the University of California, Irvine’s Creative Writing Workshop. She has been a resident at Yaddo, and her work has appeared in magazines like Sable and The Kenyon Review. Gabrielle was a recipient of a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant in 2004. She was the 2005-2006 Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, University of Wisconsin. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin, but wants to go home to the Bay Area.