This is being written on an AMTRAK train at the Toledo, Ohio station. I boarded the Pennsylvanian at the Liberty Avenue station in Pittsburgh between 11:30 PM yesterday, which was Saturday, bound for Chicago and a four-day training gig. I didn't want to go, but I had a shirt pocket sized radio that was piping the latest A Prairie Home Companion show from Eugene, Oregon, and the blue grass music put me in a good mood for quite awhile. I got to the station early, just in case security was tougher than I thought it would be, so the music and the funny sketches and interviews on the show were able to buoy my outlook into the whole thing. I wasn't disappointed with the security. There was security, but it was reasonable and not an exercise of proving you are not a criminal or a terrorist. Actually, no one can prove a negative by the rules of logic, which means no one can ever prove they are not anything. The one claiming the other person is some thing has the burden of proof.
Training sessions have taken me to just about every corner of the country. Some of them turned into actual adventures, like the trip to San Francisco I wrote about in 2005 on the "other side" of the site. I had to plan in advance for Easter Sunday services, pick an interim hotel for Saturday night, and plan weekend sight seeing excursions. That trip wasn't so bad, but I didn't travel by train. I flew all the time back when things were a bit more sane about flying. The way things are being handled at airports today, I didn't want any part of it, so I signed up for the train. Another passenger asked me if I had ever traveled by train before, probably because my white and silver hair makes me look like maybe I got to vote for Lincoln or something. Yes, I did ride the train long distance, from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh. The trip back almost killed me it took so long. The problem was, now I remembered why I never hesitated to fly in the past--traveling by train can really suck. This hit me again while waiting for the incoming passengers to disembark for Pittsburgh.
"These are the people I most envy," I told one of the big party of Boy Scouts waiting to board the train.
"Why?" the kid asked.
"They are now home, which is what I would be if I was with them. My trip would be over, but my suffering has only begun."
My employer would never spring for a sleeper car, and they were sold out anyway when I made the reservation months ago. I was assigned to coach at the back of the train. On the trek to the rearmost cars, an African-American gentleman commented, "This is so far back, we should have taken a cab." And so it began.
Working my way up into the coach car, it was pitch dark inside. The door started to close, so I thought I was supposed to go up some stairs to the next level, but the conductor stopped me. He opened the door to the lower level of the coach car and found the last seat in the car which he informed me was mine. It was an aisle seat. I had two laptops with me, my employer's and my own. I foolishly checked my main bag in Pittsburgh, so I don't know where it is as I write this. For all I know, my belongings are now being peddled in an open air market in Beirut. I put the laptops in the overhead and took my seat.
I can usually sleep anywhere, and when sufficiently tired not much can wake me up, but the passenger next to me changed all of that. I found myself occupying an ever shrinking envelope of space as the gentleman next to me struggled to get comfortable, which is an oxymoron in Amtrak coach. The things Amtrak refers to as pillows are smaller than a stripper's G-string. I wound up rolling mine up and using it to support my neck hoping it would also help me get used to wearing the cervical collar I might be needing when the trip was over.
Then we stopped---somewhere. I think we were in Ohio, but I don't know for sure. We just parked there for about two hours amidst these one-story ranch style homes that looked like they dated back to the early 1960s. I started to wonder about whoever was living in the house just to my right. Did they mind a big train parked outside their house? If we were stuck here much longer would they take me in for the night? Do they drink coffee? Would they give me some? We were there from about 1:30 AM until about 3:30 AM.
Sleep came in fits. At one point I could hear what sounded like a starving vampire feeding on one of the passengers. I decided it would be all right if the vampire looked like Kate Beckinsale and tried to ignore the slurping and scraping sounds and sleep a bit once we got moving again. Our next stop was Cleveland as I was informed by a black gentleman who had exited the train to catch a quick smoke.
"We are still in Ohio?" I couldn't believe it. It was about 5:00 AM. That long period we were stopped had really thrown us off schedule. I began thinking about that old Twilight Zone in which this plane just keeps flying around, never landing, wondering what it would be like to be on a train that just can't seem get out of Ohio. For some reason the train perpetually wanders the rails from Zanesville to Cleveland to Toledo and back again. Passengers can get off at stops to grab a cigarette or something, but must get back on the train to go to the next stop in Ohio, never to be seen or heard from again.
We were still in Ohio when the dining car opened. I slipped up that way hoping I might get a cup of coffee, and found the man who was my coach car neighbor already sitting in a booth with some coffee. He told me that he had some breakfast coming and invited me to sit with him. In came two other people from coach, a younger man and his mother-in-law, and they joined us. The husband thought his wife was sleeping too soundly to disturb, so he and his mother-in-law went to breakfast without her. I ordered eggs, grits, and a buttermilk biscuit with sausage gravy. The mother-in-law and son-in-law ordered French toast, which is an Amtrak specialty. Having breakfast and some fresh coffee brightened my mood considerably. I excused myself shortly after the man's wife arrived, visibly miffed at her mother and husband for not inviting her to breakfast. He took some breakfast and coffee back to their seat, and as I passed through their car I saw them eating together in their seats.
Later, my seat neighbor showed up to inform me that the mother-in-law told him what happened that stopped the train for so long that night. The mother-in-law told him that the train had "hit someone." Naturally, I asked for more details as it is dangerous for a big passenger train to "hit someone." I didn't think anyone could just get an "ouchie" or a "boo-boo" by getting hit by a train. He didn't know any details except that the person who got hit had a bump on the head and that was all. There was nothing said about whether the person was in their car, jaywalking the tracks, racing alongside the train, or anything else. I never found out if Snidely Whiplash had tied Little Nell to the tracks, or if someone tried suicide by train. We "hit someone" who got a "bump on the head." If there is a story there I'll never know what it was.
Shortly after this conversation, I took to the observation car for awhile as we were rolling along with some views of Lake Erie. After about an hour of sightseeing, I decided to catch what sleep I could before we rolled into Chicago. I walked through the upper level of every car until the last one and went downstairs. Instead of my assigned car, there was a car with some baggage stored inside. I must have gone back too many cars, so the solution was to go back upstairs, move another car up, and do back downstairs, but I hesitated. Maybe my checked bag was in that car. A debate started in my brain--Go inside and get my bag versus following the rules and waiting at baggage retrieval at Chicago's Union Station. I was still at it when a kid's voice came from behind me, demanding to know: "What are you doing here?"
The voice sounded like a girl's voice, but her very short haircut made me hesitate to go with that initial impression. Taking a more detailed flash check of the kid showed that she was wearing a skirt, so the kid was either a girl or a gender-conflicted boy whose parents were cool about their son wearing a skirt. Weary from lack of sleep, I decided to just go with it. "I think I'm lost," I replied. "I thought this was my coach car, but I must have come down too many cars from upstairs."
"Well, if you are in Coach, you can't go too far back that way or you will be in a Sleeper Car. You are in Coach, so you aren't allowed in a Sleeper Car." Keep in mind, this kid is only about eight or nine years old.
I nodded and started up the stairs with the girl's lecturing voice following me the whole way up explaining how I could get back to my car. "Thank you!" I called back, wondering if I was dealing with an undercover operator from the Transportation Security Administration.
We did finally make it into Chicago after passing through Waterloo, Elkhart, and South Bend, all towns in Indiana. I liked the looks of Elkhart and would like to go out that way sometime and check out the town. I've been to South Bend before. I was reunited with my wheeled suitcase in Baggage Claim, and grabbed some late lunch in the station's food court. On my way out of the station and toward the cab stand, a man asked if I needed a cab. I replied in the affirmative and he told me to come with him. Thinking he was a cabbie, I followed him. He helped me load the bags into the trunk, but as I walked around to get in the backseat, there was a driver already behind the wheel. "Hey, what's going on?" I asked the man who escorted me to the cab.
"Can I have a tip for helping you to the cab and with your luggage? I can go get a Father's Day dinner," the 'cabbie' answered.
I had been "squeegied." The guy never told me he was a cabbie. He just let me think that he was. His hustle worked, but would not work again with me, so I paid him a few bucks for his "Father's Day Dinner." The guy just might be a father and might just know who all of his kids are and where they live. He got me fair and square, and was the perfect way to punctuate one of the most bizarre trips I had ever taken. And it was just starting.