CSX Transportation Center, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 9/21/2018

Her brain tics like Tourette’s. Something electric forks and re-routes its current, a lightning storm branches her synapses. The moment repeats. And re-routes. Forks and tics.

One strike from the sky touches 200 trains out across the Southeast and Midwest.

Callie wakes sweating in the sheets, her mind not right. Electrified. Her thoughts go round and collect randomly from across her memory of landscape. That feeling in crawling traffic down in the depths of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, like burrowing through the hardened old guts of the earth. That feeling when dropping back I-95 through South Georgia marshes, crossing the state line 29 miles from downtown Jax, that realization that life in this strange place is tall and dark green, an old pine, standing axis between equal expanses above and below: glorious cobalt stormcloud sky and its mirror of river / marsh / lake / swamp / ocean. Life in Northeast Florida is water infused with air infused with water all pinned by a bolt of lightning.

The bolt that hammers sky to Jacksonville ground zips through the signal circuits and halts trains on rails between Chicago and Philadelphia, in the dark hills of coal mining West Virginia and Kentucky and up into Michigan summer.

Callie lies in bed and lightnings. Her days are night; she works night shift. She’s time yet to sleep, but wakes up knowing, not knowing what. It’s only 5:30 in the afternoon. She’s time yet to sleep. Her skull buzzes, the lovely sculpture of her zygomatic arch. Something’s happened.

It’s the summer of 1999. The world’s supposed to end when the clock ticks to the next millennium, never mind that one calendar’s first thousand years is another’s 10th. Late-night A.M. radio hosts offer their guesses at interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar’s end-times juxtaposed with smatterings of the Book of Revelation and Nostradamus.

She knows. She lets their voices rage quietly in the background high in the CSX Transportation Building at two in the morning. There’s some computer glitch, supposed to shut down the workings of the world, the Y2K Bug. And there’s Prince, who was always gonna party like it’s 1999.

CSX operates, on the millennial eve, more than 22,000 miles of railroad, almost enough line to wrap the equator, through half the states of the U.S. and over Quebec and Ontario. The Jacksonville lightning strike breaks signal with passenger trains operated by Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express and MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter).

Each night, Callie drives Riverside Avenue toward the slightly open hinge of steel-framed windows, 17 stories tall. KBJ Architects designed the CSX Transportation Building in 1960. The windows shine a particular turquoise indigenous to the middle of the 20th century over the St. Johns River, and 277-foot-tall concrete sides hulk over Water Street east and west. KBJ had riffed the building off Brutalist architect Gordon Bunshaft’s 1956 Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, importing Ford’s suburban campus to Jacksonville’s riverfront urban core.

Bunshaft’s Ford Motor Company World Headquarters, 1956, courtesy Library of Contemporary Architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1970

These facts tic through the lightning storm that’s the energy circuit that’s a human brain, that is, specifically, Callie’s, that’s aware, night after night, high above the tracks, that though Florida calls itself the Sunshine State, it’s the fifth rainiest state—most recently behind only Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Everybody talks about the rain in Seattle, but Washington’s ranked only 29th rainiest. Southeastern rainfall’s a different beast. Perpetual and violent. Nitrogenized by lightning. Lightning strikes land, in Florida, on average, 3500 times a day. This land, with which she identifies, this land as much water and electrical charge as the Florida stormcloud sky, this Florida landscape sustains 1.3 million lightning strikes a year. Callie thinks she knows what it feels like.

circa 1968

It’s ironic her parents named her Callie. She’s heard two different stories. Her mother says she’s named for someone far back in the family, who-knows-whom, but her grandmother tells her she was conceived on the way from Florida to California where her parents sought to put down roots. She should. Perhaps. Have been. Instead. Named Flora.

from South Bank, circa early 1970s

Jacksonville ranks ninth amongst American cities for highest number of lightning strikes. Florida ranks 17 of the top 30 cities. Tampa’s first, Miami’s 18th.

Lever House, New York, 1951-2, courtesy Library of Contemporary Architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1970

So no. So no wonder. No wonder. Oh but the wonder. The wonder the wonder. No wonder she knows. No wonder wonder. She / no / wonder. This woman, no wonder, knows. Wonder Woman.

Seaboard Coast Line Building, early 1970s

She lies awake. In the intricate architectonics of her slender sculpted skull, her brain—behind bulletproof glass and highest-tech lightning detection—her brain—according to James Dewey Watson, one of the four scientists credited with discovering DNA, “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe”—her brain: shudders and shimmers an instant labyrinth of infinitely forking paths of power.

She knows. One strike in Northeast Florida. Could shut down half the power structure. She’s lived her whole life, tall and dark green, a tree of life charged with holding up the stormcloud glory of the glowing cobalt sky and mirroring the landscape expanses of marsh and river and lake and ocean and swamp.

 

All those nights, Callie stared out from the tall building, wider than it was tall, turquoise-windowed, and watched light fork and dance and branch and fracture, sky to river, blinding electric and bright and white, the night-behind-the-lightning purple and dark and deep, sometimes three strikes lined up in perfect bzzz’ng syzygy. How many nights has lightning struck her building, her home tower in the city center, her sky-womb-over-water? She’s often wondered.

Gordon Bunshaft’s 1963 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, courtesy Library of Contemporary Architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1970

Her personal space up here, tall and turquoise, in the womblike depths of two a.m. and four, burrows her home into the lightning on the river deep in the dark. She knows she holds a privileged position. No royalty in all the world’s history has held as comfortable and intimate a hq in the majesty of earth and sky. She never could love a man so much, nor God.