Hartford: Land of the Dead


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"I can handle this," I thought, as I reached street level. So I left my cane folded up in the bag. The thing I didn't account for was the fact that, while there was still light in the distant sky, none of it was reaching down to the sidewalk.


"Yeah, I can make this," I assured myself, as I started shuffling down the street toward home.


Halfway down that first block, I heard a couple voices approaching. I couldn't see them, so I stepped to the right and stood still, to let them pass. As always happens, though, one of them ran into me. As I was starting to say, "Excuse me," the man who'd run into me planted his hands on my shoulders and gave me a firm shove backwards.


"What's your problem, friend?" he growled.


I informed him that he was not, in fact, my friend, but decided against telling him what my problems were, figuring neither one of us had the time for that right then. Instead, I pulled out the cane, finally, chastised, and continued on my way.


A few yards later, I heard an older man's voice next to me.


"Yeah, you gotta use the cane, son," he said. "Even the sighted should use them, it seems."


"Yeah, uh-huh," I replied.


It was long past due to take a step out of the city. Just a little one. I'm not much for traveling in general. I used to travel quite a bit when I was younger?pick up and go on the slightest whim?but nowadays I mostly find it a frustrating and exhausting ordeal. But New York had been frustrating and exhausting me lately all by itself?I was getting knocked around too much. It was time to see if the world outside?that other dimension that appeared on the television so often?would behave with any more civility.


I know full well that shovings and lectures and being knocked about are to be expected in New York, they're all part of the contract, but every few years, I just get a bit tired of it..


Besides, we?Morgan and I?had a good excuse to get out of town. Our friend Joe had a big exhibit at a museum in Hartford. Neither one of us had ever been to Hartford before, so Sunday morning we went to Penn Station and bought our tickets.


The train was reasonably empty that morning, which was good. We settled in, and relaxed. It was going to be a three-hour trip.


As we approached the first stop, New Rochelle, a voice buzzed over the intercom. "Check around you to make sure you have all your belongings," it suggested, "then move towards the exits in the rear and get the fuck off the train."


I figured I'd just misheard. I mishear a lot of things. But then Morgan turned to me and asked, "Did she just say, 'Get the fuck off the train'?"


"Yeah, that's what I heard."


Funny thing is, our conductor, or whoever the hell it was, said exactly the same thing at every stop. Nobody else seemed to notice. Or maybe they just took it for granted.


When we finally reached the tiny train station in Hartford?it looked like a quaint enough, lively enough town as we rolled in?we realized that neither one of us really had much of an idea where we were going. We walked out the front doors, and were confronted by a maze of freeways. There were no cabs around. We went back inside. Hell, we had an address. The museum was on Main St., for chrissakes?how hard could it be to find?


We looked around for a bit, trying to pick out someone who might know directions. Stood in line at the gift shop for awhile, but the line never budged. So we moved to the security station.


The napping, uniformed guard in the closed glass booth slowly looked up from his immense belly, looked through the glass and through us for a moment, then looked down at his belly again and closed his eyes.


Fortunately, just inside the back door of the station, we found what appeared to be a bike cop getting the what-for from what appeared to be his girlfriend. Maybe that's why he was so helpful when we asked for directions?and why he doled them out in such slow, painstaking detail, and for such a long time. When he was finished, we thanked him, and stepped outside, letting him get back to his personal business.


It was a lovely day. Warm and sunny. Still, though, something seemed a bit strange. It was almost 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, but downtown Hartford was...silent. Stone-dead silent. The streets were empty. Morgan and
I looked at each other, shrugged,
and started following the policeman's
directions.

We figured we'd stop and get a bite and a couple beers before we hit the museum. It'd been a long trip, and we were hungry. Sunday afternoon, quiet town, should be simple.


But every restaurant, every bar we passed was closed.


More than that, though?every single shop was closed. Quite a few of them had "for rent" signs in their windows.


"I hope they don't have those damn blue laws up here," Morgan said. It was something we hadn't even considered, because it was too horrible a notion to consider.


We kept walking, and finally passed a bum?our first human contact outside the train station.


"I like your hat," he said, as he passed.


"Thanks," I said.


"I bet that hat is seven years old," he smiled. "How old is that hat?"


"Seven years," I lied. He laughed, and kept walking.


Several blocks later, we passed another bum with a soda, who asked us for change. Shit, we didn't even have a soda.


We grew more hungry and more desperate as we combed the vacant streets of Hartford. Everything was closed. It was a fucking ghost town.


The streets were clean. The buildings were nice in a poured-concrete/glass-and-steel kind of way. A few looked like trucks had slammed into them. Some of the store fronts looked as if they'd been deliberately trashed?with light fixtures dangling from the ceiling, garbage strewn about inside.


I'm wrong to call it a ghost town, really?there were cars moving in the streets?but they were apparently remote-controlled cars. Robot cars. Because there were no people.


Those robot cars, actually, were a bit of a problem?because the "Don't Walk" signs never became "Walk" signs?they just stayed "Don't Walk" signs. There were those "Push for Walk" buttons on every corner, but, well, we all know better than that. Morgan and I ended up dashing through a lot of intersections, never knowing which direction the cars would be coming from.


We eventually found the museum?the Wadsworth Atheneum, which was open, thank God?and checked for a cafeteria of some kind. Nothing. So we decided to keep looking, then circle back and check out the show later. We were getting woozy, and still had a few hours before the museum closed.


We were on Main St. Main St. in Hartford fucking Connecticut and there was nobody around, and nothing but the museum was open. We kept walking, our feet sliding along the pavement, the once warm and comfortable sun now blistering our backs.


Jesus Christ, but this is a weird place.


Finally, in the distance, Morgan spotted a sign. "Beer," it said. It may have said something else, too, but as far as we were concerned, all it had to say was "Beer." Still, we didn't dare get our hopes up. We kept moving toward it, though. Just in case. We were at the neat edges of town?there wasn't much beyond that beer sign. If this place wasn't open, we didn't know what the hell we were going to do.


We passed a storefront filled with a sloppy collection of Mark Twain memorabilia. The place looked like it had been hit by a truck, too.


"Mark Twain would be spinning in his grave if he saw this place today," Morgan noted.


Then she saw that the windows of the beer place were alive and bright with neon. We smiled. Yes we smiled, despite the "Families Welcome" sign next to the "Beer" sign.


Inside, the place was beautiful, and nearly empty. A modern version of a German beer hall. There were pool tables in the back. And we could get a meal here, too, along with the beer. I got the "Oktoberfest Lunch." Three kinds of sausage, applesauce, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, more beer and Apfelküchen.


I tried to pass on the Apfelküchen?those sausages had pretty much done me in, but soon a small, unsmiling, bird-faced woman we'd never seen before appeared next to me, holding a small plate, upon which rode a brick of Apfelküchen.


"No, thank you," I said. "I'm sure it's quite wonderful, but I'm very full." I patted my belly for emphasis.


"It comes with the lunch," she said, matter-of-factly, as if there was no getting out of it.


"It's okay, really?I mean, we'll pay for it?I just don't want it?"


"Want me to wrap it up for you?"


"No, thanks anyway?we have a lot of walking and traveling to do today."


This went on for a very long time, until she finally relented, snapping around in disgust and stomping back
to the kitchen. A few moments later,
our regular waitress returned and
apologized.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I told her you didn't want it, but she insisted. She said, 'I bet I can make them eat it.'"


We paid the bill and headed back to the museum, a few pints lighter, through the empty streets of Hartford.


The Wadsworth Atheneum is quite a nice place itself. And Joe's exhibit was as it should be. A pitch-black room, with each of the 12 paintings on the walls lit up like a stained glass window with an intense spotlight. A few of the paintings I hadn't even seen before, and they were really something. Off to one side was a small collection of objects from Joe's "Odditorium." It was all well worth the trip.


After an hour or so in the room, we stepped back out into the light, a bit numb, and took a seat on a bench by a fountain, where we found ourselves staring up at the three smooth, white, alabaster asses of the Greek sculpture in the middle of a shallow pond. From where we sat, it sounded like one of the three was pissing something furious.


We had a couple hours before the last train of the night left town. So we headed back to the tavern. This time we sat at the bar with a few locals who were joking around with the barmaid. Everyone was very pleasant, and seemed to be having a good time. Of course, what choice did they have? They were the only people left in town, and there was no other place to go.


Every once in a while, a fellow off to the side of the bar would let loose with a long toot from a steam whistle. It was very unnerving.


I found it even more unnerving that the last train out of town that night was leaving before the sun went down.


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