Thursday, August 13, 2009

Home At Last: Deconstructing the Boston Debacle (Part One: My Escape)

If you're thinking travel by rail is the one part of the Great American Experience you're missing out on, allow me to disabuse you of that notion, quaint though it seems. It sounds romantic, I'll give you that, but the realities of train travel are as far from romantic as you can get.

Circumstances beyond my control have forced me to beat a hasty retreat from Boston. (By the way, if anyone asks, I was with you.) On Sunday evening, I call the Amtrak booking center, at 1-800-USA-RAIL (mention my name......I dare ya) and the guy tells me that no, he doesn't have a seat available on Monday's train to Chicago, but he can lock one in for Tuesday. Tuesday morning, when I arrive at South Station in Boston, I discover at the Amtrak ticket window that "locked in" means standby, in case they get a cancellation. So I wait for 15 minutes at the window while the ticket agent, a young, gorgeous woman whose parents apparently came here after escaping Viet Nam, continuously refreshes her computer screen, until she can get me a seat.

New ticket in hand, I walk back to my table in the lobby to discover two women sitting down to breakfast and two security guys standing by my duffles. They introduce themselves and explain that I can't leave my bags unattended, for Homeland Security reasons. Apparently they're very sensitive about this kind of thing in Post-9/11 Boston. This is something I know, but stupidly did not consider. (In my defense, there is no security other than personnel at Amtrak stations. None. Zero. Nada. Bupkus. I could have been wearing a Jockstrap Bomb, for all they knew, and as long as I didn't leave it unattended, I could have boarded the train. Talk about a Crotch Rocket.) Anyway, I expected them to take me to a small room and beat me profusely about the head and shoulders, but they just give me a stern talking to, like Dad used to (tell me again how being a white man in America doesn't have its advantages), then let me go on with my day. I resist the impulse to ask if I can borrow the car tonight, which probably would have landed me in the aforementioned small room.

Finally, I get to board the train which will take me home. My first indication that Things Are Not As They Seem comes when I notice the first line in the Safety Instructions pamphlet: "Never exit a moving train." Good advice, but it makes me think that perhaps I'm not dealing with The Best and The Brightest passenger-wise and perhaps crew-wise. My fears about the crew are to be assuaged later, when I note that our conductor is John Goodman and the guy in the galley is Vladimir Putin. I feel kind of sorry for Goodman, thinking times must have gotten rough since "O Brother, Where Art Thou". We need to start a writing campaign to get the Coen Brothers to do something new, at least to help poor John Goodman get out of working for Amtrak. (He does seem appreciative when I tell him I admired his work in "The Big Lebowski".) Hand to God, the cat looked like John Goodman. And the galley guy did look like Putin. I'm regretting not getting pictures.

I board the train early enough to gain a window seat, but as the train is very heavily booked, I get a neighbor, a young man on his way home to Cleveland (Avon Lake?) after leaving the Coast Guard Academy. He tells me later that he chose his seat because he knew he'd have to sit beside someone, so he looked for the most normal-looking person on the train. That should tell you about the other passengers: If I look normal in comparison, we're swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool.

Finally, we're on our way. The trip progresses in fits and starts, stopping at small stations to pick up/drop off various passengers. At one point in Western Massachusetts we slow down to a speed at which I could, in fact, exit a moving train, and get back on if I so wanted. As it turns out, the tracks are owned by a freight line, Amtrak just leasing the rights to use them, so freight trains have the right of way. When we get behind a freight train, we slow down to whatever ridiculous speed the train crew decides to travel. Apparently, they only speed up through cities, where the potential to add kills to their record is greater. The irony that freight freight takes precedence over human freight seems to be lost on these people.

Thus we slog onwards, slowing down for freight trains, speeding up when they aren't ahead of us. At times we stop until given a go-ahead from dispatch; more than once, we are traveling in reverse. All the while, we're sitting in seats that seem bought from the gulags of the old Soviet Union, maybe sold by Russia to help its economy. Maybe that's how they got Putin, too.

When we get to the station in Albany, NY, where we have a short layover so the train can pick up more cars and passengers, local police meet the train at the station. We must remain on the train until the police search the train in vain for a fugitive. At the next stop a middle-aged couple who are not passengers get on board the train to help elderly parents of one of them get situated. They don't get off the train fast enough, though, so they are stuck on the train until the next stop, Syracuse, easily an hour and a half away. These poor folks were screwed. If they bought a ticket for the next train back, they would have waited until well past noon Wednesday for the train from Chicago to Boston. Presumably, they were able to call friends, family, or neighbors back home to come get them, or find a bus or something, but then again, they were dumb enough to get on a train, so who knows?

The night passes uneventfully. I don't sleep, partly because of the comfort level of the seating, mostly because of the ADD medication that the doctor gave me last week, one day's dose of which usually keeps me zinging for days. I decide to make the best of this situation with an experiment on the effect sleep deprivation has on my creativity. I find that at about 20 hours in, I'm fairly coherent, and my writing is colorful and mellifluous, but by hour 35, I'm just screaming fucking mad, coming up with phrases like "Jockstrap Bomb". At any rate, I can't write anything down, because the train is now moving swiftly and my hand is shaking like James Bond's bartender. The train is irretrievably behind schedule: at 6 AM Wednesday, a half hour before we should be in Elkhart, Indiana, we pull into Cleveland. It is a full 4 hours plus before I can disembark at home and say good-bye to Mr. Goodman.

I chose Amtrak because I thought it would be an interesting way to travel, to see the country in a way you can't driving or flying. I neglected to consider that in most places, the train tracks run through the shit-hole part of town, so what I saw was an endless, seamless, look at poverty in America. I could have stayed home. I don't regret the choice: I did find much of interest, and the entire episode has given me material which should last for at least two weeks. However, the trip out to Boston, which was only slightly better than the trip back, set the mood for my entire visit. I never recovered from the mind-numbing shock of rail travel, and that, coupled with my inherent eccentricities, was so off-putting to my friends in Boston that I left them with the conviction that I had finally, after all these years, succumbed to the drugs and gone certifiably bat-shit crazy. I wish to extend my apologies to everyone who came in contact with me in the greater Boston area. The next time I visit, in 25 more years, I'll behave.

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