November 11, 2006
I hate flying. Hate it, hate it, (am afraid of it...)
So I took the train to Chicago to meet a group of online friends and celebrate my birthday. Nice, relaxing clickety-clackety, soothing rhythm of the rails, etc., etc... 18 hours worth-- from D.C. to Chicago. That's what I bargained for, anyway.
It's not what I got.
The last time I took a train trip of any length, I recall just climbing aboard and finding an empty seat. You could smoke in designated cars; you could smoke in the Club Car or the Bar Car.
That's changed. I asked the AMTRAK lady when I made the booking. She told me there's NO SMOKING anywhere on AMTRAK trains now! Hooray! One less worry. I got to Union Station in D.C. in plenty of time for my 4:00PM departure, and when they called us to board the train, they handed out numbered cards as we walked toward it. Assigned seating! HUH??
The train was absolutely packed. I was given a window (inside) seat, and my companion on the aisle was... well, let's just say she made 2 of me, easily. This lady had to weigh close to 400 pounds. The far side of 400. And it wasn't especially well-distributed. She resembled, both in size and vocal tone, Eddie Murphy's female characters in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.It was also her very first time on a train, it seemed. She was describing everything to someone on the other end of her cell phone.
"...oh, and the carpeting goes halfway up the walls! It's gray! And they have these little compartments built into the wall where you can put your trash, and you can get little cups of water! They're so lovely! There are little bathrooms, too! They even have Kleenex in there! Well, it's not real "KLEENEX", you know-- but it's some sort of tissues in a box. There are curtains on the windows. I suppose you can draw them to keep the sun out of your eyes. We have two seats on either side of the aisle-- and the seats go back! Yes, they do! They go back, I tell you!..."
And blah, blah, blah.... She made three or four calls, all with a slight variation of this same conversation and elaborate description of our surroundings. I didn't bring anything with headphones, more's the pity. I tried to close my eyes and shut her out. I might've succeeded, except for the presence of The World's Loudest Children, just in front of me.
There were 4 of them, ranging from...I'm no good with kids' ages; knee-high to waist high, let's say. Small. Highly mobile. Un-fucking-stoppable. A thundering, squealing little herd. And loud. Did I mention loud? They were overseen by The World's Angriest Mommy, who shrieked orders at them from her seat behind me. If I had a dollar for every time I heard: "AHMO BEECHO ASSIV YOODOAN SIDDOWN!", I could retire and write my goddamn memoirs. This hands-off, remote, high-volume approach is considered effective parenting on some planet, somewhere, I suppose. The mind just boggled, watching this.
I gritted my teeth, shut my eyes and tried to settle down and sleep. It was impossible to read the paperback I'd brought along for distraction. No chance to focus and concentrate when " YUALL LISSNEN TOOMEE? GETCHO ASSES INNA SEATS! AHM NOT FOOLIN WITCHOO NOMO!" was being bellowed over my head.
Eventually the kids got tired, or maybe they just gave in to the demands of Angry Mommy and settled down for a little while. The noise stopped. I dared not question my good fortune. I tried to snooze. This is when my seatmate demonstrated her two extraordinary talents, which were: Snoring, very, very loudly, and farting-- very, very quietly. How could I tell she was farting if it was so quiet, you wonder? Do you really have to ask? I had to get up and get away for a while, and this meant trying to get past her and into the aisle.
I didn't want to disturb her, for fear she'd awaken and make another interminable phone call. I very gingerly tried to step over her. I'm no ballet dancer, and I'm not a skinny fellow, myself, and this task was quite daunting.
Of course I jostled her a little bit, which caused her to shift her position, ever-so-slightly. The result of this shift was apparently responsible for the realignment of her ass cheeks. What had previously been escaping silently from her nether regions now made a noise which I can only describe as a fistful of sparrows being force-fed to an angry cat. A high-pitched, squeaking, growling, whining, stuttering kind of a... Oh, God; it's too terrible to go on describing. The mind shuts down, mercifully.
She awoke with a start, to find me straddling her...
"Oh, my! Oh, heavens! Whatever do you...? Oh, Lord have mercy...!" etc., etc...
I'm simultaneously trying to calm her, not appear threatening, and protect my scrotum. I apologized, quieted her down, managed to traverse her North face and finally gained access to the aisle.
I beat a retreat to the Lounge Car, and downed a couple of stiff drinks. I soon felt a little mellower and more tolerant of my fellow travelers. Until Mommy and The Thundering Herd came barrelling into the car, that is.
"YOU DAON SHUDDUP, YOU AIN GOAN GEDNO CANDY!" and so forth and so on, rang out over the shrieks and squeals and yelps of her progeny. I swear to God, you could cut glass with her voice. Everyone in the Lounge car grimaced and shrunk back from this spectacle. Little Amish children with their parents looked on, their eyes growing larger and larger.The Amish folk all scooted away, posthaste.
Soon, those of us who hadn't fled the car altogether we were all sort huddled at the far end of it.
A woman said to me "She's about to cram them full of chocolate and sugar! This can't be a good thing, by any stretch of the imagination..."
I bolted back toward my seat, and ran into a conductor.I asked him if it was permissible to move... anywhere away from where I was. He examined my ticket and rolled his eyes.
"Oh, man; you're near those kids...?"
"Uh-huh. And The Angriest Mommy in the world", I said.
"Aw, hell... I hear you. Here you go." He scribbled something on a card and gave it to me.
"Next car back. Front of the car. Put that over your seat, my man."
"God bless you, Mister!" I said, and scrambled off to claim my new safe haven.
I was, thank God, removed from them now by an entire train car. The new seat was a double! Right at the front of the car! I settled in and began to doze. I soon found out that anyone who wanted to go to the Dining car or the Lounge car or the bathroom or... anyplace, apparently, had to pass right by me and through the door. One opens the door by smacking a metal plate which serves as a sort of automatic handle. The door slides open, pneumatically, with a great deal of noise, and stays open for about 30 seconds or so, admitting track noise and outside air, before sliding shut again. Also with a GREAT DEAL OF NOISE.
So, approximately 17,000 some-odd times during the rest of the trip, I hear this: "CLACK! SCREEEEEEEEECH...! THUD! Clickety-clackety, CLICKETY, CLACKETY! (blast of cold air) CLICKETY-FUCKING- CLACKETY! SCREEEEEEECH....! THUD!"
Factor in approximately 30 seconds of a-l-m-o-s-t dropping off into a solid doze between each door opening (plus the comings and goings of Angry Mommy and The World's Loudest Kids what seemed like every 10 minutes), and I had virtually no rest at all the entire time I was aboard.
At some point I became aware that they were announcing that breakfast was being served, and I staggered forward a couple of cars to get some sustenance. I checked my watch. AHHH! Only 40 minutes until we were due into Chicago! As I ate, I realized the train had come to a halt. No big deal, as we made several stops. We sat there for quite a while. Then someone came on and made an announcement...
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we seem to have a freight train up ahead of us somewhere that's derailed. We're going to have to wait until they can send us a pilot out here who knows the area and can advise us how best to deal with this situation. We're going to have to be shunted onto another rail line, and pick up a few trains behind us. They'll couple onto us, and we'll be re-routed past the derailed freight and then proceed to a new debarkation point. That may take awhile. Once we reach the debarkation point, it may only take us 30 minutes to an hour to get into Chicago..."
Announcements on this theme punctuated.... the... next... eight.... hours!
Everyone aboard the train was pissed off, but what could you do? It's not like any AMTRAK employee on our train caused the delay. They, in fact, were struggling manfully to cope with it and to keep people happy. There was a run on the Lounge car. Cell phones were beeping all up and down the train. I phoned ahead to let my friends know what was happening, and kept them posted as delay followed delay followed delay...
Soon we ran out of food, liquor, coffee, snacks, and I was pretty sure we'd have to turn on the smaller, weaker passengers for sustenance. My vote was that we eat the World's Loudest Children. They were already stuffed with candy and would probably taste pretty sweet... The other passengers approved the idea, we ripped out some seats and built a bonfire, and soon I was made King Of The Train! No-- wait... I was just hallucinating that last part.
We pulled into Chicago approximately 27 hours after we left D.C. I did not commit mayhem while on board, but lived to meet my friends, turn a year older and even got a little wiser in the bargain-- wise enough, any way, to talk AMTRAK into comping me a sleeper compartment for my return trip.