Never a Goodbye
I can write about Al now that there’s enough distance. We met when we were two outsider kids just entering seventh grade at a public junior high school in the Bronx, two hopelessly non-athletic boys with black-rimmed eyeglasses who got good grades and had few friends. “I remember how we walked into JHS 127 on the first day in 1966 with identical brief cases,” Al emailed me decades later, casually displaying his archival memory for detail.
Our world was a small place, just big enough for small boys. Within our borders were playgrounds and school bells and neighborhood streets. At home there were cookies and model trains and Sunday nights watching “Bonanza.” Outside, there was the hint of danger lurking in the gritty urban streets — bigger kids, scary men, angry stray dogs — but you learned early to spot trouble and still, you had to explore. We saw each day as an adventure.
We lived about 20 walking minutes apart, me in a two-bedroom ground floor apartment in a quiet neighborhood of tall buildings and Al in the second-floor apartment of a two-family red brick house on a tree-lined street of same-looking homes. His father worked on Wall Street, back in the day when it was just another middle-class, white-collar job.
Al rode the number 13 city bus to get to school. Buses and subways were part of our landscape, places we learned to navigate, background features we recognized and ignored, surroundings that sent signals if you knew how to read them. If I heard the clank of tire chains on a passing bus as I woke up on a winter morning, I knew the snow was deep enough that school would be closed that day.
Most fathers teach their kids how to ride a bicycle; mine taught me how to ride the subway. Al’s bedroom was on eye-level with the elevated Dyre Avenue line, the dazzling headlights of the downtown 5 train sweeping across his bedroom all night, every 15 minutes, accompanied by the high-decibel roar of steel wheels on clickety-clack rails. He somehow slept soundly, but as morning approached the trains came more often, the rapid beat of the metaled music ringing like a reliable alarm clock.
The subway burrowed into both our brains, sparking an early fascination with trains. “When we lived in North Babylon,” Al once told me, “I used to get excited when my dad would take me into the city on the Long Island Rail Road.”
The New Haven Railroad line from Penn Station ascended a grade just across the street from where I lived, carrying streamliners dashing between New York and Boston and long freight trains dragging boxcars bearing the far-off names of the Santa Fe and Canadian National and Rock Island railroads, each a geography lesson that intensified my interest in trains, travel and adventure. At night I would listen for the blast of an air horn and dream of the distant destination that train could take me to.
After school, Al and I often walked along that street, hoping or waiting for a train to speed by. We’d spend the afternoon talking about and taking pictures of trains. Al was my new-found brother, filling the sibling gap of an only child. We matched each other in height, though I was always the skinny kid and Al was more round, of face and body, and that never changed. He’d rock back and forth on his heels as he talked and was prone to recurrent nosebleeds, but his mother made sure that he always had a clean shirt and pressed pants. We never fought or argued or even got cross with one another; our soft thoughts and deep friendship kept us in sync.
So did the world of two pre-teen boys cross, interlaced by tracks and yearning to follow the endless shiny rails. Someday. Somewhere. Anywhere. We knew there were places beyond our small world, and we wanted to go there.
We began to plan outings to train-watching spots around the Bronx, widening our territory. Al’s mom, Candida, had a black 1961 Plymouth Valiant and would happily drive us wherever we wanted to go: to the Riverdale station along the Hudson Line, the Williamsbridge and Woodlawn stations of the Harlem Line, our secret spot along the Hell Gate Line in Pelham Bay Park. On school holidays or summer days, she’d drop us off in the morning with a bag lunch and come by later at the appointed time. Even in the last years of her life, she teasingly signed her Christmas cards to me, “Your Bronx taxi driver.”
But we wanted to do more than watch those trains. We wanted to ride them.
July 2, 1969 — We were 14. In the same month that two American astronauts landed on the moon, we bought two tickets for a 24-mile ride on a commuter train from Grand Central Terminal to Hartsdale, a suburb north of the Bronx. That short, tentative adventure began a series of train trips throughout the Northeast that would continue all through our high school and college days, even as we went to separate schools. We kept meticulous records – two wire-bound logbooks; I still have them – documenting and numbering each of our journeys.
During a nine-year period from 1969 to 1978, we made 23 train trips and covered 4,126 miles. Through those years, a president resigned, a war ended, and our home borough famously burned on live television during the 1977 World Series broadcast from Yankee Stadium. We spent those years learning travel skills and feeding the fever of adventure. In time, separate careers, separate cities and the drifting apart that often happens to childhood friends would end our travels together, but we would separately see places as adults that were beyond our imagination as small boys. Al’s career would take him to Moscow and Mexico City, Grand Rapids and Bentonville, Rio de Janeiro and Amsterdam. My future would include Nunavut and Tokyo, Paris and Berlin, the Great Bear Rainforest and the Grand Canyon.
But in 1969, fast trains held our attention. A brand-new train from New York to Washington, with an advertised speed of 160 miles per hour, was then the fastest in America, so, naturally, we went for a ride.
Aug. 15, 1969 — As we walked down the long concrete stairway to the Penn Station platform, the rounded stainless steel Metroliner seemed to represent the silver-bright future of train travel. We took our seats in the front coach of the six-car train. Soon, number 103 eased into motion and descended into the tunnel under the Hudson River. We’d purchased tickets only as far as Trenton, New Jersey, just beyond the test track where the train would hit its highest speed. And to make sure we got the best view, we spent the entire return trip in the front compartment looking over the engineer’s shoulder.
The engineer, master of this marvel, had plenty of dials, lights, gauges and switches that we wished we could play with. The central feature of his little closet, for us, was the digital speedometer, a futuristic attention-grabber in an era that predated the first consumer electronic calculators. We watched the bright red numbers increase steadily to 130 as we accelerated along the test track. I don’t know if the speedometer was accurate, but that’s what it said. We took turns peering out the middle front window from the vestibule, which at three-digit speeds fed our adolescent thirst for thrills.
I spent part of the summer of 1970 in Europe, separated from my parents and from Al, living with a family in Germany and touring with my school group. Al wrote weekly letters to me, the aging, crinkly blue airmail paper as quaint today as letter writing itself. He timed one letter to arrive for my 16th birthday, which I celebrated in Munich. He signed it, “Your sad friend Al, sad because I have not seen you for 35 days.”
Aug. 19, 1970 — As I cleared U.S. Customs at JFK airport, I caught sight of my mom and dad, an aunt and uncle, and Al. Exactly 40 years later, he told me, “I remember your mom calling me the day before and asking me if I wanted to ride to the airport.”
Al had been planning a train ride as a birthday present for me, asking where I wanted to go in one airmail letter, “I can afford either New London or Providence … It is up to you to pick between the 2 cities. I can’t wait.” We chose New London, and we wanted to ride the fancy parlor car, which didn’t cost that much more and was within Al’s budget. We were going to ride in style, and we dressed the part, putting on our white shirts and school ties. Our logbook says that on August 18 we called for reservations on trains 170 and 175. Computer reservation systems were still in the future, so we had to wait for a call back as the New York agent contacted New London for space on the westbound train.
Aug. 21, 1970 — We each had our own window seat in cushiony swivel chairs for the 123.5-mile ride to New London on a sunny, 80-degree day. We arrived at a well-weathered New England depot alongside the Thames River, a station that probably hadn’t changed much since prewar steam-belching locomotives pulled up to the platform. Al later told me, “I wrote a letter about the club car attendant we had. He was such a nice guy. I actually got a letter back from Penn Central.”
We continued our journeys with train rides to Washington, Albany and Boston. In the summer of 1975, I was devastated by the death of my mother after a two-year battle with colon cancer. Unaware she was close to death, my father was at work when mom died alone in the hospital. I took the shocking early-morning call from the doctor and told my dad when he came home. Al had a plan to help heal my grief: he decided we needed some Maine lobster. By then, we had our driver’s licenses, so that fall we drove north, stopped in Boston, continued up the coast of Maine, got our lobster rolls and detoured through the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the way home.
After 1978, there would be a long intermission before our next trip, and there would be just two more train rides together. We’d graduated college, and Al began working for IBM while I made a few false starts to my upcoming career. We got together for concerts in Manhattan, Sunday barbecues and occasional day trips, but our yesteryear world of ice cream parlor days had ended as our adult days began to unfold.
By 1980, in those pre-email, pre-cellphone, pre-Facebook days, we simply lost each other as our lives slowly slipped apart. There was never a goodbye.
May 28, 2005 — Yet another ding signals the arrival of a new message in my inbox. I glance at it. The subject line reads, “Do you remember me?” The from line is an IBM address, and the sender is Al. I stop immediately to read the time-traveled message.
We reconnect as if 25 years had just been a long weekend. We resume regular, lengthy phone calls and near-daily emails, sharing our life stories, catching up on both past and present. I learn about Al’s life: living in a quiet Dallas suburb, married with two adopted children. His mother lives nearby and is still driving. His father, an excellent cook who was always kind to me, died in 1983, at the age of 54, struck by a train after collapsing in a diabetic coma at his commuter station.
Sept. 30, 2005 — I arrive in Dallas on a sun-blazed afternoon after a two-day drive from my home in Southern California, pulling into Al’s driveway as he stands there waiting for me with the same open smile I’d last seen more than two decades ago. He introduces me to his wife and children, and to his 1975 Chevrolet Caprice convertible, a bronze-painted beauty that is his hobby, his joy and his respite. That weekend, we take it to a local car show that he’s entered, joining a panoply of vehicles that baby boomers wore or wish they had worn when they were young. Al, ever the good friend, lets me drive it, too.
Like his father, Al is diabetic, on oral medication. I’m surprised by a face that is deeply furrowed and a forehead missing a noticeable amount of hair. Perhaps it is just the jump in time, but 20 years earlier, Al had fought a battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma that still requires annual visits to an oncologist. I regret I hadn’t been there for him, but we are back together now and will be for the rest of our lives; I feel sure of that. Even across a quarter-century absence, Al and I remain steady friends; standing with him at this moment, his high-pitched “hee-hee-hee” laugh brings me back to our shared space, shared love, shared brotherhood.
Feb. 17, 2006 — Al is visiting me in California, and we are, once again, riding a train. We once rode trains along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound; today we ride along the Pacific Ocean. Arriving in San Diego from Los Angeles, he takes pictures of us outside the historic Mission-style depot, Al in his Chevrolet logo jacket and me in my black bomber jacket. We walk along the marina, stop for an outdoor lunch and tour the USS Midway. During the week I take Al to a railroad museum, to Cajon Pass to watch long freights pass by, to Newport Beach for more ocean views and for an easy hike in the nearby coastal marshlands.
April 3, 2006 — We meet in Salinas, California, at the National Steinbeck Center. Al is a devotee of John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.” He wants to see Rocinante, the GMC camper truck that the author drove across America in 1960 with his poodle. I’m a fan as well; the book sits on my shelf alongside Kerouac, Paul Theroux and Peter S. Beagle. In October, I visit him again in Texas while on a business trip. We both dream about driving a camper across the U.S. someday.
March 19, 2007 — Al, wearing his Chevrolet jacket, brings his son, Harrison, to California. I take them for a drive along Pacific Coast Highway, to Seal Beach where the boy can dip his toes into the cool ocean waters, to Balboa Island to ride the Ferris wheel and to Knott’s Berry Farm where we mostly sit and watch the 9-year-old enjoy the amusement park rides. We mix in some trains and revisit the railroad museum, where Harrison is invited up to the fire-warmed cab of an operating steam locomotive. The three of us ride a commuter train to downtown Los Angeles, where I will be moving in just a few weeks.
June 13, 2008 — Al emails me. “I go to the doctor Monday morning — it looks like I am going to be using an insulin pen, probably two times a day. I am not looking forward to giving myself shots with it but my A1C is getting worse and it looks like I am not producing insulin anymore. Just a fun thing I inherited from my dad !! Since I want to live for a number of years I have to learn to deal with this.”
Work keeps us busy; we’re often apologizing to each other for missed phone calls. I’m flying at a 100,000 mile-a-year pace, and Al is traveling to customers in Michigan, Arkansas, Chicago, Mississippi, San Jose. In September, he is rewarded with a promotion. Al seems made for IBM, the IBM of tradition, the IBM of white shirts and dark suits, the IBM of lifetime jobs, pensions and a comfortable retirement, the IBM that is steadily slipping away. Al often talks about the day when he can retire. Married and adopting children later in life means he will have financial responsibilities well into his 60s. “Back in 1977 I thought, well, I will put in my 30 years and retire but that is not the case!”
Our conversations often turn to reminiscence, to replays of our early years, to our families and our time-stamped memories together. I count on Al for his detailed recall of days past and places visited. In some unspoken way, we both understand that life is a one-way journey, time the most valuable commodity we have, each day its own pleasure, each new tomorrow another adventure.
July 10, 2010 — Al rents a minivan and brings his wife and children on a two-week trip to see in-laws in Phoenix and me in California, with stops for the kids at theme parks and beaches. The family leaves Al with me for the day. He brings his camera, but it’s too warm for the Chevy jacket.
Al tells me he wants to go to Detroit next year, in August, to attend the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, a classic car festival that draws auto enthusiasts from all over the world. I think that’s a fine idea and that I could meet him there. The following winter, we start to plan.
March 24, 2011 — Text from Al: “Hey Dan! Sorry to bother you but I need to talk to you soon … there is something I need to tell you.”
I call that evening, thinking he wants to talk about the Dream Cruise. That isn’t it. A mole on his back is diagnosed as melanoma.
April 13, 2011 — “The doctor is talking about interferon treatments which would be daily for 6 hours a day for the first month.”
April 15, 2011 — “Hello my friend! I am home after all day at the hospital. The surgery lasted over 2 hours. The surgeon removed tissue and biopsied a lymph node. He said visually it did not look like the cancer spread to the lymph nodes but I have to wait for the pathology report due at the end of the week. Have a good weekend I am on painkillers! your pal Al”
May 19, 2011 ¬¬— “Hey Dan!!! I am tired and fatigued and [all] I want to do is sleep! I am having an electro cardiogram this afternoon to check my heart.”
June 12, 2011 — “I am feeling weak but I want to try getting back to a close to normal schedule.”
Al continues to work from home, unable to travel but committed to do his job even as the cancer treatment robs him of his strength. He’s been with IBM for 34 years now, still looking ahead to that faraway retirement.
June 19, 2011 — “If I cannot feel better in the next month I will cancel going to Detroit.”
July 25, 2011 — “By 2012 my treatment will hopefully be finished. I will think positive!”
Dec. 1, 2011 — “Well it is Dec. 5 months to go!! Have a good day!!”
Through November and December, Al needs numerous blood transfusions. “I do not wish this on anybody, interferon is very nasty stuff.” During his treatment, he gets at least 11 transfusions and is often so weak he needs help getting out of bed. We text and email more than talk; it’s easier for him.
Jan. 1, 2012 — “I could not imagine feeling worse. The oncology nurses have told me that 7 months (almost 8) into this treatment I am holding up well, better than many patients.”
Feb. 22, 2012 — “I need another blood transfusion.”
March 5, 2012 — “I go to the oncologist today. I am sick and tired of feeling sick and tired!!”
May 21, 2012 — “I start physical therapy this afternoon and we are buying a new vehicle this week. So far so good two weeks after the last interferon injection.”
Aug. 13, 2012 — “Hey Dan the melanoma is in remission! … no signs at all. I will be monitored for now every 3 months.”
Relieved, our phone conversations return, and our texts turn from health reports to the everyday: weather, travel, work, sports, trains, car shows. Although I am anxious to see him, Al seems reluctant to have me visit, preferring to wait until he gets his strength back.
Nov. 10, 2012 — “I am not having a good week I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. I want this year to end, it has been crappy.” I reply, “Here’s to a much better 2013 for you!” I would really like to see him soon, to be with him, so I add, “I was just thinking the other day about the NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway in April. Might be a good chance for a visit and I could take you to the race.”
Dec. 9, 2012 — “I still have the Bell’s palsy it is really annoying more than anything else.”
April 1, 2013 — “I have a favor to ask! can you send me a Dodgers shirt some time size large??” I soon send him a thick package of Dodgers souvenirs, including a shirt and cap. It’s clear he’s not yet ready for a visit, but I’m hoping that by November, when there is another race, he’ll be healthy.
April 12, 2013 — “It has been a hell of a week. I had to go to the hospital last night because of a dangerous low blood sugar level. And I am taking my first business trip in 2 1/2 years in a few weeks — to Brazil!! I am working on getting a visa.”
April 25, 2013 — “My mom had a heart attack and is severely dehydrated she is at Baylor Medical Center in the ICU. I do not know at this point what is going to happen.”
April 30, 2013 — “I have not had a nice vacation in 3 years now since we drove out to see you and I need to remedy that soon.”
May 18, 2013 — “I hope I make it another 10 years to retirement.”
May 24, 2013 — “Hey Dan!! it was a good week. … My mom is doing good she now uses a walker instead of a cane. I am on vacation the first 2 weeks of July but I [do] not know what we are doing.”
June 8, 2013 — An extremely careful driver, I’m surprised and worried when Al tells me he crashed their SUV. “I was in my first traffic accident in 40 years of driving.”
On the phone, he says, “Dan, something bad is happening.”
June 10, 2013 – His wife texts me, “Al is in the ICU. It looks like the melanoma has showed up in his brain.”
They find 25 cerebral lesions. On June 23, Al slips quietly away.
There is never another train ride, never a Dream Cruise, never the long looked-forward to retirement. Never a goodbye.
Dan Zukowski is a transportation and environmental journalist whose work appears in Bloomberg CityLab, Trains magazine, Sierra, Hakai, Mongabay and Pacific Standard. He loves travel, hiking, art museums and croissants.