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Half the Country on a Train

I left on a Friday evening around 8 at night for the train station. And then sat there waiting for a good two and a half hours listening to podcasts. And attempting to sleep.

The train pulled up an hour late. I was not comfortable- conscious of all the people around me, and conscious that I would be even closer to people for the next 24 hours. A baby starts crying loudly at 11:30 at night, and finally they call us to board the train. We stand up on the train platform together, waiting for our train as other trains whir past in the cold December night air. Coincidentally- my neighbor is there and comes up to say hello. She is going to Cleveland.

We don’t get in the same car, since I am going to Chicago. Though, I wish I could have slept that night next to someone I knew at least a little bit. When I got on the Chicago car, it was completely full, so the train people directed me back to a car that was full of people going all different places. Because of this, the people on my car got off at every single station it seemed- every twenty minutes. They never turned the lights off because of this, and my seat partners were constantly changing while I snoozed next to the window. My first train companion was a woman with the strong smell of strawberry chapstick. She was having a minor- or full blown- panic attack. And I didn’t have the energy, and was verging on my own panic attack as well at the time so did not have the ability to help soothe her. She ended up getting off a few hours later. I fell asleep.

I wake up around one in the morning to a woman shouting in Spanish to her son. She pushes a bag into his arms and commands him to sit next to me. There are no seats for them to sit together, so he has to sit alone. He is half awake, and is visibly uncomfortable. He eats a bag of Cheetos next to me, and has a horrible cough. When he falls asleep, I am thankful that he is facing out toward the aisle, and not coughing on me. When I wake up again around three in the morning though, he is cuddled up next to me and coughing right onto me.

The train is far too hot, and I press my bare arm against the window, to try to soak up a little of the freezing air from outside. I wake up again around three in the morning and we are in Cleveland. The boys mother is again shouting in Spanish at him, and trying to pull him out of the seat. He says something argumentative, and refuses to open his eyes. The train stops, and the woman pulls the boy up out of the train seat, and they exit.

I check my email by chance while people are loading back on the train, and see that I have gotten an email from Amtrak. They state that there is something wrong with my reservation. I still have to catch a connecting train in the morning, and I scramble to find a train attendant. He takes one look at my email, and sighs.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ll be back,” he says.

Train attendants like to give you the least information possible.

Fifteen nerve wracking minutes later he is back with another man, who takes a look at my email, does something on his blackberry, and says it should be all fine now. I will catch my connecting train in Chicago as scheduled tomorrow.I’m back on! I am so thankful for my smart phone, otherwise I would never have realized the mistake. Apparently Syracuse train station does not do a great job of scanning peoples’ tickets. Even though I asked them to scan mine directly, they said I didn’t need it and then my reservations disappeared because the system thought I was a no show.

I tell the train attendant thank you so much, and relax into the seat cushions.

For the rest of the night, I spread my legs out, and fall asleep in the hopes that no one else will sit down next to me. And they don’t!

I wake up around 7:30 in the morning after a pretty solid sleep, and look outside. It’s beautiful.

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I open up my purse that I have been clutching to my chest all night, and take out the loaf of homemade bread that Carp had made for me for the travel. I eat half of it in a hurry, awake but not caring about the looks I am getting from the passengers around me.

On our next train stop, we pick up a car full of Amish people. They are speaking deep German, and dressed to match by gender. Bonnets for the women and severe bowl cuts for the men. The stocking caps that the men are wearing when they take off their top hats remind me of the stocking caps that men wear in prison- all matching.

I take a deep breath this morning, and realize how close to all different strokes of humanity on this smelly train. I tell myself I want to get back to seeing the beauty in the mundane. Or at least seeing art in it.

We make it to Chicago right before lunch time- a few hours later than expected. I wander around the train depot- unable to find the bathroom or the coffee. Finally I find the bathroom, and with my spirits low, my faith in humanity is restored by the long line of women waiting in line for the bathroom. It feels like we are all having a shit time, and we want to help make this situation a little bit better for each and everyone of us. So we’re all smiling at one another, and making jokes, even though there is not much funny. The delirium of traveling and communing with strangers. I finally smile, and thank them all silently.

I also find a coffee later on- at a Starbucks in the food court. The food court is reminds me of Narnia- there is one escalator that takes you up to it, but you could easily pass this little doorway. Anyway, I get my coffee, I kill my caffeine headache, and pretty soon after I have taken off my shoes and am chilling in my socks in a corner table, surrounded by three tables full of Amish families eating Mongolian BBQ.

Around two thirty- about twenty minutes before my connecting train is about to board, I decide to check with the Amtrak front desk workers to make sure that all of the confusion from last night about my train reservations is actually resolved. They take one look at my ticket, and say, oh no.

NO!! I think. I just want to get home to see my family for Christmas. Let’s not make this into a tragicomedy, please!!

Fifteen minutes and three train attendants later, they have got the tickets all set for me. They say that the guy who claimed to fix it last night did not actually do so. They had to re-reserve all my tickets for me. And I thanked them, thanked them, and then ran off to catch my train.

I was a little late in the round up for boarding the train, and was almost dead last in line. I was unhappy about this at first, thinking I would get the worst seat. As we filed on to get onto the train though, the train attendant herding us counted me and the other last seven people at the end of the line, and told us to go into the small lower deck car reserved for people who were unable to climb stairs (this was a double decker train). It ended up being the most pleasant public transportation ride I’d had in a long time. We were a small, intimate group- all traveling from Chicago to Kansas City. Everyone was silent for most of the whole eight hours of tracks it took us to get to Kansas City. We were the last car on the train, carried in the caboose.

On this last leg of this journey to Kansas City I had the pleasure of sitting next to one of those older women you just wanted to hug the whole time you’re sitting next to them (aka 8 hours). We talked a tiny bit, and she fed me peanut butter crackers that her son had packed for her. She had lived her entire life in Chicago, and was heading to Kansas City to move in with her daughter. This was the big trip for her.

Around ten thirty at night we entered Kansas City and began mingling with the bright lights of the big city downtown after hour and hours of darkness on the road. I pointed out the window to the woman sitting next to me and said,

“Here it is. Welcome. Enjoy it for me. I miss it.”

Back Northeast

I had a great time being back home in Kansas City with my family, we ate homemade sauerkraut for days and enjoyed staying in a warm home together.

Arriving at the train station, my family and I take a little trip around Union Station, and then wave good bye as I am shuttled onto the train. I am on the caboose car again, and this time I am directed up to the upper level. Getting up the winding, narrow staircase with luggage along with fifty other people is near hellish, but is thankfully over with pretty quickly. I sit down next to a middle aged woman. We have assigned seats this time, because it is such a full train.

After a few hours, I wander through the train and find the observation deck.

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It relieves a bit of the claustrophobia I was feeling after being on a train for so long. The Amish know how to travel on trains well — there are Amish women at one table sharing a bag of pretzels and laughing. There is a table full of Amish children playing settlers of Catan, and then the men are sitting separately to themselves. A girl comes up and eats a hamburger that has condensation on the plastic wrap surrounding it from heating it up. The snack bar is right below the observation car, and I end up leaving an hour later though because it smells too much like cheap microwaved hot dogs up there. I check out the snack bar because I think I might buy a few beers — but they are each $7 each and I turn back around.

I am relieved to find that a little man with a coffee is walking in front of my toward the back of the train as well- there is someone else to push all the train door buttons that I can’t help but imagine to be unimaginably germ infested.

Halfway back, someone smiles and waves at me as I pass and then I am immediately slammed against the wall by the trains unexpected movement.

12:00 pm

I return to my original seat and the woman sitting beside me is crushing a bag of peanut M & Ms. A little while later, after settling in, I realize the train is no longer moving. Thirty minutes later it is still in the same spot. I overhear one of the train conductors talking to one of the train attendants in my car:

“Nothing now. We’ll cut the axel out of the car in front and remove it. Then we’ll try keep going In the meantime, just walk and talk. Try to keep em calm.”

The conductor shakes head and moves on to the next car world weary way. Some announcement comes on over the speaker, but the speaker is not working where I’m sitting in the train.

Later, I learn that a train has been disabled ahead of us and they have to remove it before we can go on. There is only one track. One. I can’t control this. Travel good for reminder of how to let go when there is nothing one can do. And yet… desperation sets in.

1:15 pm

I will live on this tiny road of track in northern Nebraska forever. I will never leave. I will be trapped in this weird hell with half awake people with big suitcases and seven dollar bud light beer forever.

1:35 pm

Beginning to hallucinate the train taking off.

But it’s just the guy kicking seat behind me

1:45 pm

I ask the conductor for an ETA. He said he hopes sometime in the next few hours- but the way he says it implies that it we could potentially be talking about days instead.

“It could take one hour to remove the axle and train or could be seven hours.”

2:00 pm

We’re moving again!

3:00 pm

Woman next to me cracking up because the snack bar is announcing that they just have Doritos left along w two breakfast biscuits for the whole train. Come and get them. Oh, the resiliency of people.

5:00 pm

It gets dark and people start faring freely. Something about not being seen, even if we all know where it’s coming from. Or maybe it’s everyone who’s doing it?

8:30 pm

Chicago Union Station with everyone running around taking pictures with the great big Christmas tree… I sit in a corner and eat the cookies my Mom packed for me. The phrase “trains never again” keeps running through my head…

9:30 pm

I’m supposed to be on my second train headed back up North, but it’s been announced that the toilets on our train have frozen. Thankfully for this choice piece of news, I have newly acquired friends waiting in line to laugh about it with. Charlie from San Franciscio, and Toby from Chicago. Toby’s dad is also waiting with us, and tells a story about how one year he took the train home for Christmas, and one of the train’s doors were jammed open. He said it was so cold that his ear buds froze into one of his ears that was pressed against the window while he slept, and he had to have it surgically removed on Christmas day. Charlie shares poppyseed bread with us.

Right after this announcement, I realize I need to shit. I decide to take my last chance at a working toilet while we’re waiting.

10:10 pm

They call for senior citizens to line up to board!

10:30 pm

They called for senior citizens to stand up in a line twenty min ago. Yet there has been no signs of anyone getting on the train. They are effectively making all the older people stand in line while we still wait. Seems illegal?

10:40 pm

The Amish people are starting to get pissed. When you know it’s bad

11:30 pm

The TV’s keep getting louder and the announcers have stopped using microphone and trying to use their own voices to speak over TV in huge room. Fucked.

12:30 am

We’re finally on the train. I’m on a car with a bunch of people heading to Buffalo and Rochester.

“I can tell you’re not from here,” my new seat mate comments. She’s a older Black woman with a hesitant smile that I already adore. That’s why I chose to sit by her.

“What nationality are you? I would guess Italian or Puerto Rican by your accent,” she tells me. I’ve only ever been mistaken for Eastern European in the past. I am elated.

1–9 am

Sleeping with the lights on. Feet, snoring and close spaces. Took shoes off last night and someone sighed so put back on. Boots on 30+ hours and counting.

11 am

Massive caffeine headache but don’t want to pay for train coffee. Dorothy, my seatmate and I bond over this. We also inspect the cake box that is sitting at her feet- with a butterscotch cake for her brother in law. It’s melted overnight because it was right next to the heater.

2 pm

All the smokers are starting to get antsy. We take a mini break around Fredonia, and they go outside in a pack.

“My wife says ‘why you so crabby?’” A guy in painters clothes is ranting to other passengers. “I say, maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to smoke in 16 hours and they only serve teaspoons full of coffee on this fucking train.”

A little kid runs by, pushing through the pack of smokers ready for their break.

A woman comments how rude this is, and where are the kids parents and says “doesn’t it just make you want to trip them?” She laughs hard with a few others, then realizes that the mother of the child is in the seat behind her giving her the evil eye.

3 pm

Dorothy is a lunch lady at charter school. She lives alone. Hope I see you again someday she says as she gets up to leave.

“Bet you’re missing him.”

Who? I ask.

“Whoever it is that you’re going to meet in Rochester.”

She gives me a big hug and we tell each other Happy New Year

3:30 pm

A man with an Indian accent saunters through the train, and smiles down at me. I move my things, “you can sit here.” He says thanks, and starts some small talk. The train attendants come though next, and ask for his ticket. He gets up to grab his jacket, and can’t find his ticket. Then he realizes it’s not his jacket — — he puts it back up on the top carrier while the woman across the aisle shouts — “That’s mine! Don’t touch that!”

The man is obviously really confused, and cannot find his coat. The couple sitting behind me posit that maybe he was sitting in a different car, and got turned around? The man seems in shock, and continues to look around in all the luggage compartments. Finally, he moves on to looking in another car. The train attendant tells him he has twenty minutes before the next step to find the ticket, or else he’s off.

“Poor man,” the couple behind me comment.

3:45 pm

We’re supposed to be arriving in Rochester already, but the train is running so slow. Finally, they announce that they are following a freight train and that’s why it’s so slow. You would think they would be able to account for these things

4:15 pm

Arrive in Rochester. Carp picks me up with a thermos full of coffee, and a handful of kleenex, at my request. He tries to take a picture of me in my frazzled state, and I push him, possibly a little too roughly, and say, “Let’s get out of here!”

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© Copyright 2018 Annie Windholz

midwestern librarian, writer, activist. subscribe —

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