The train itself was not moving at the time. It stood outside the station a few miles outside of Venice and the man was lost in a sort of fugue. He stared at the tunnel wall, a spray-paint explosion of color and form. He was tired, and Rome was already a dream.
The sun was warm on the window and the window was warm against his face. He had been dozing throughout the long ride. The golden rolling countryside was just like California. The urban centers, the cities, were just like old New York. He found Italy to be a land of extremes.
He looked at buildings. It wasn’t just professional curiosity. He had always looked at buildings. People lived inside them, worked inside them, so they were like treasure chests that held secrets. Some were new and modern and others were marvelous antiques – the people, not the buildings. He didn’t become an architect to make inanimate monuments that would bear his name. He just liked the idea of containing people in something that came from himself.
The train inched forward at a crawl. People were talking all around him in languages he didn’t understand. He let his eyes close. Sunlight danced beyond thin membranes. He had always enjoyed the kaleidoscope of sun and blood, ever since he was a boy. He pressed his fingers up at the corners and saw the rising of the iridescent eyes.
A voice came over the intercom that was too low for him to hear clearly. A man spoke to the passengers in faint Italian. He was talking about the delay. The voice was something out of an old black and white movie. He imagined subtitles, a grainy image of the windows on a train. Frames within a frame.
He liked voices on public address systems, police radios, ball games in the summertime on the shortwave. Tinny voices, garbled, disembodied echoes in the ether. He liked the effect of static, frequency vibrations, squawk. There was an urgency about these voices, a seriousness. Winston Churchill, Edward Murrow, Orson Welles. Men on the radio who held the weight of the world in their mouths.
The train stopped with a loud metallic clack and his head jerked forward, then back. He opened his eyes. They stood outside the station where the tagging was at its extreme. Brilliant paintings covered every surface and wall. Great, looping letters composed of graceful, rhythmic arcs. Some words were in Italian but others were English and the overall effect was surreal. He had not imagined the extent of the graffiti. But it made sense. The youth of Italy are unemployed, restless and theirs is a culture built on explosive creativity and violence.
He thought about the young men of the night, the painters, and their passion. The effort they expend, the risks. Just to be seen and heard. Who are we without this recognition? What is the meaning of name? If we are invisible, do we exist? The problem was that nobody felt they belonged. He thought about this. It was true everywhere. There is no place for us anymore. He supposed he always knew this, always felt it, which is why he became a builder of places. He gave people homes. He was only here, in Italy, because he was lucky. His identity was validated, his talent recognized. Somebody put a value on his name.
He stared at the artwork. This was not vandalism. There was a word on the opposite side of the tracks that had clearly taken many passes to create. It was painted in letters ten feet high in a practiced and distinct style. He knew that all the great taggers use notebooks to work out their designs. The most famous painted in cities all over the world. These were not children. The good ones were in their thirties. Locations were scouted and designs are applied in layers over three or four nights.
The train bucked and moved backward. He watched the word recede at the pace of a brisk walk. A painter was known by his signature word. The word was his identity, his name. His was a faceless existence. He worked in the dark. He was a ghost. He was unknown. The word was his doppelganger, it stood in for a body in places where the known cannot help but look. There was power in this. He understood that power. It was the power of semi-permanence in physical space. It was the power of the visual, the image charged with meaning, even if that meaning was hidden, like the people in houses. The word on the wall was visto. He knew that in Italian it meant seen.
Now the train was stopped again and another, this one leaving Venice, was moving by slow enough to read the faces in the windows, people leaving one place on their way to another. He liked looking at faces in windows – driving in cars, on airport tarmacs, in trains. Strangers made him happy. There was something about windows. They let the light in. They allow us to look out at the world.
The departing train stopped beside him and he saw in the window opposite a young boy. The boy was alone, or so it seemed, and he had the sad face he recognized in himself in photographs when he was about his age, which was maybe nine or ten years old. The boy looked at him. He did not turn away. Somebody had combed his hair, somebody who cared for him. He was dressed for travelling in a jacket and tie. He looked tired and forlorn.
On impulse he waved at the boy. He could see the momentary deliberation in the boy’s eyes but the boy waved back. Such a simple gesture. The subtle movement of a splayed hand. There was no fear in it, no shame, and his wave lingered beyond a salute, beyond mere courtesy. Then his train moved on, and the boy’s neck craned to look at him and for a moment he saw his eyes and then he was a blur and then he was gone.
His train moved too. It made its approach into Venice, which is a sinking city built upon thousands of wooden posts hammered deep into the mud. He thought about the wood pilings of Venice and he thought about the boy on the train. He knew the names of many great men, some were builders and some creators of other wonders that would live on beyond the life of the boy.
The sea on either side of the train sparkled and he knew that each glittering flash of light was a momentary reflection of the sun on the lips of the moving water; which was jade green and was called The Adriatic. The city before him would vanish beneath the water. His houses would someday be gone. The boy would remain, a face in a window on a train.
Photo by James Whitlow Delano