The train station interviews8/20/2014
Maybe buildings aren’t just brick and mortar and wood and stone and paint and tile. Perhaps they absorb all the life that scuffs their floors, and gives voice off their walls, and pushes at their revolving doors. Sort of like that crumpled shirt on the bedroom floor that smells of the food and wine and laughter from the night before. Is it possible that other people’s hopes and dreams and sadness are left like baggage in the front foyer — waiting for your entrance? Maybe a building is more than just a building.
The Germans bombed the town into dust in 1940. That had to be a nightmare. The city heart was flattened. And the old train station was no exception. Rubble is what remained. But out of those ashes grew an amazingly modern structure, a bare-chested Abercrombie & Fitch model, ready to prance — Rotterdam Centraal Train Station.
The young building is happy to brag. Why shouldn’t it? The vibrating interior feels more like you are going to a club rather than going on a trip. The station boasts of connections to all of Europe, a high-speed rail that gets you to Paris in two and half hours, and even the omnipresent Starbucks (two of them). It’s all here. But this place is about the party. When you look up, the building flexes its shiny muscles, and grins its rakish smile, and shows just enough flesh to entice when you walk through the concourse. The chrome, the lights, the action — it beckons with youth.
Meanwhile, the trains silently roll in and out. Every couple of minutes the whistle of the conductor sounds, you hear a swoosh, and another train pulls quickly but quietly out of the station. And the revelers with the hats and horns move on only to be replaced by the next group arriving in streamers and balloons — an ebb and a flow choreographed by conductors’ whistles. This is the Rotterdam Centraal party dance.
This old station was certainly not trendy Rotterdam. Not by a long shot. My wife and I first discovered her when we hopped off for a short layover on our way to another adventure. Heads down, backpacks tight, checking the departure board a little hurriedly for our next connection, we happened to look up. That’s when the old gal smiled down upon us. We paused. She smiled again. My goodness. Was that a raised eyebrow she gave us or a wink? And so went our formal introduction to the grande dame of Belgium — the Antwerp Train Station.
Dropping our packs, heads swiveling upwards, we tried to take her in. The stateliness of her posture, the intricate lace filigree around her neck, the muted colors of the brick and stone that draped her frame, froze us. She was an aged beauty that was dressed and perfumed and bejeweled with time pieces — ready to go to the theater, or the opening, or the gala. And we were allowed to be the escort. Why would you ever leave her to get on a train? Grab your hat and topcoat. Long flowing dresses and slightly askew black bowties await. Step onto the red carpet.
No tram or subway travels to this lonely station. The small Iowa town surrounding this Amtrak stop clings precariously to the edge of I-35, as cars and semis and busses roar up and down between Minneapolis, Des Moines and Kansas City. This interstate world has no time for romance. But no matter. Romance still sits with the low-slung brick building just off main street. Prairie style. Freewheeling scrappiness in the middle of America. A survivor of hard times.
Not too long ago, the town of Osceola purchased the building and rehabbed the outside. The old fighter now shines with a new roof and repaired windows, rebuilt chimney and fresh mortar. But like all good gunslingers, the station still only gives you two choices. You can go east or you can go west. Good or evil. And, of course, all points in between.
Ah, but it is the inside that changes your heart. Warm wooden benches, the old barred windows, the checkered floor. Your crazy life is not allowed inside the station doors. Bring a book. Time will stop. The train will be late. Your other world will vanish. Perhaps you should tip your gunslinger cap up, sit back and learn to whittle. Or maybe just curl into the wood and feel what it feels to wait, like thousands before you on that very bench, with no control whatsoever. Doing the opposite of killing time.
And as you’re sitting there, consider this, maybe a building is more than just a building. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines. He just returned from spending the last several months in the Netherlands, where his wife was assisting in the prosecution of war criminals. While there he wrote about being an Iowan in Europe. Joe can be reached by email at email@example.com.