August 2014: Both of these previously pieces were posted here, I’ve put them together as one long piece here, separated into two stories about journeys I took by train. One from 1990 just after I turned 20 (Boston to San Francisco) and one from 2009 right before I turned 40 (Oklahoma City to Boston) after reading an article in Vice about travel by train I think has some good points but mostly is the opposite of my experiences I’ve had traveling by train.
July, 2009 – Oklahoma City, OK to Boston, MA
I caught a train out of Oklahoma City early Tuesday morning for a brief four hour journey south to Ft Worth, Texas. The night before I left, I slept about two and a half hours. Monday night. The next time I would go to sleep would be Thursday night/Friday Morning around 3:30 AM.
The double-decker train was an empty train, a pleasure compared to the rest of the trip which was back to back full trains. Arriving in Ft Worth it was hot as piss outside and although as the case with most train stations it was a shady area of town, I only got approached by one guy asking for change to “buy an ice cream”. I hate having tons of change in my pockets especially if I am going to be sitting for long periods of time I handed him a handful of dimes and pennies and he made his way into the train station and did indeed come out a few minutes earlier with an ice cream. Who doesn’t love an honest beggar? I would also meet an honest beggar in Chicago who asked for money for “The Jack Daniels Foundation”, I of course gave him a crisp dollar bill. I did quite a bit of writing on the trains, and since I didn’t really have a full night of sleep over three days some of it made no sense. Here is some of it:
“6. If enemies are not close. You will automatic win any battle. For I will move far from.”
“When I reach California I will burn this book finally. Words in here from 1992. Some guy in 1992 wrote about long forgotten women. Such messy writing that I purposely used so no one could read it if they found. Who knows who all of these spirits are in here, I can’t imagine I will ever need to refer back to this to improve anything in my life. I will throw this book in a barrel. Like in Repo Man when they have the ‘Plate-o-shrimp’ conversation. You know, like dudes under bridges in Los Angeles burning shit in barrels. Having a couple of beers”
“Feel like I will start seeing things any minute now. I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in whateveramountofdays now. I feel like ripping this map in front of me into a trillion little pieces. I stare at it and the schedule for hours. Not minutes, hours. This is all you can do here sit and wait sit and wait sit and wait. People are off sleeping, sweating and smelling up that car back there. This thick warm bad breathy hospital silence lit by a thin strip of lights on the ceiling as you sway to the back of each car trying not to bump heads and legs spilling into the aisle. You get good at this acrobatic feat by the end of the trip. Even in the shape I am in, like if I tried to operate heavy machinery, it would not be pretty. I can’t believe that this trip take 24 fucking hours to get from Chicago to Boston. It sounds like some sort of trap the Gods of confusion set. Let’s make this guy think something is true that isn’t true. Wait, what? Some moments here I blink my eyes but they don’t re-open. I enjoy sitting in these cars writing even though I just saw stars while writing that last sentence. I saw an Amish woman at a pay phone at the Chicago train station”
The first half of this trip was pretty depressing for the most part. The second half I met a number of people that I spent a good amount of time with and finally as painfully tiring the trip was I felt like I was having a good time and was able to keep my mind in other places other than where it actually was. This first group of people I saw for a couple of days walking around and hanging together. A young man about 22, but maybe younger. Big tall, could be menacing, but a baby face. At least 6’ 4”. Also, had one leg and was on a crutch. There were two other girls, around the same age. One was a nerdy looking girl, glasses with a jeweled chain on them to hang from her neck whatever those are called I have no idea. Other girl seemed young and sheltered, kind of an unfortunate look that I won’t go into but let us say she kind of looked like this bass player from a Canadian rock band I won’t mention the name of. I kind of got the vibe that this girl was sort of a pain in the ass and these other kids did not like her. When I did meet the three of them, at the end of my trip to Chicago, or about four hours left in that journey they were mean to her. Right to her face. The young girl did not understand sarcasm and was getting ruined and not knowing it. I felt kind of bad and then remembered this is how young kids are, they judge and judge and pick on and pick on until they eventually settle in on some set of standards which is: Be a dick. Don’t be a dick. I picked the latter when it was my time. On the other hand, these other two, the nerdy white girl who did in fact know things about Star Trek and asked me “is that Gandalf?” regarding a tattoo on my arm seemed to have been around, and this kid with one leg. He was writing in some little notebook. At first when I saw him I said to myself “jeez, fucking trench coat mafia over here”. Same sort of reaction you have if you see like a Juggalo (or the more rare but better Jugallete!). You always say to yourself “Oh yup a juggallo…where’s the hatchet man thingy? Oh yup there it is on his thing there, does he have the…oh yeah there’s that thing too they all have.” And then you go on wondering what Insane Clown Posse even sound like and wondering why people hate ICP fans. There is clearly not one good reason to care about these people good or bad is there? This kid though, here I am judging him the second I see him, meanwhile I looked like an even bigger asshole on a number of occasions from age 10 to say age….39 so yeah. He was a nice kid, the nerdy girl was nice but I could see was a little too “oh my god I am in art school, check me out” for me. The annoying young girl would be on my next train from Chicago to Boston. She was going to Ohio somewhere with her mom. These people looked like they stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. The girl may have been annoying, but was 18 and probably never left the little town in Arizona she was from. She sat with me on the next train in the lounge car while a line of folks waited for food, coffee and drinks. She was very loud and told me a story of some young kid who ran his car into a metal fence at her school and blah blah blah eventually winding her way to September 11th somehow telling me in an un-ironic way “now that is a day I will NEVER forget”. I replied, “well yeah, you’re not supposed to forget that day”. She mentioned they had it on the television at her school when it happened and I told her we had a similar situation when I was in high school when the space shuttle with Christa McAuliffe blew up. She said “was that Apollo 13?”. I said “I’m not that old, jeez”. The whole time the line of people can hear every word of this painful conversation until finally she leaves and people stop looking at me and having eye-rolling contests with me. I never saw her again.
I met some interesting artists and musicians later in the evening, a tall pretty girl from Portland, Oregon originally from New Hampshire. We both thought we looked familiar but I think she was much younger which leads me to believe we probably do not know each other at all. I talked with her and these two artists from the Oakland area, one also played guitar and trombone with Citizen Fish. Very cool down to earth people I enjoyed shooting the shit with for a few hours.
The last day of the trip my head and body were gone. I spent the better part of the day dozing off for a few seconds here and a few seconds there. I probably looked like I was on drugs. The last time I felt semi-normal on this part of this journey was for my long layover in Chicago where I left the station, went to the Sears Tower, shot up the elevator but the lines were too long for the deck so I just went back to the lobby and had steak and some sangria before heading back to a Starbucks to charge my phones and then back to the station to wait. It was nice not moving back and forth on a train. Had a couple of good phone calls and then back to hell.
The evening is when I met these folks above. The next day, the last day where I never even attempted to go to sleep until I eventually reached the critical/best point of being exhausted the “now I’m completely wired and don’t even know what it feels like to be tired”. From around noon on the last day until we arrived in Boston around 10:30 PM I was wired. I spent about three or four hours with this African-American woman maybe in her early 50’s. She was a writer and also a minister . We talked about life for a long time and it was great. She was an intense person and we connected on all sorts of subjects. One of those people you meet along the way that gives off a cool vibe. She has a book available online that I am going to check out. One thing I enjoy about taking these trains is you are trapped on this thing with these people and you are kind of forced to talked to them for hours at a time as long as they are willing to do the same. Most of the time it turns out to be a great conversation. As I was saying to the woman “everyone’s story is interesting on some level. If they have the gift to tell a story then that story is even better”
I spent the remainder of the day with a guy named Dennis. He was from Milwaukee and was heading to Dorchester to see his mother who was sick. Dennis, turning 50 drives a tractor trailer, and has been with the same woman for I think he said twenty-six years. He kind of looked like Snoop Dogg, which I’m sure he would take as an insult as he told me he didn’t like rap music. He had some great stories of driving trucks in different parts of the country. We both mentioned different parts of the country we enjoyed seeing. He clearly has more miles on me and more states but I feel like I have enough experience to talk about a number of places in the US anyway. One thing I really like with sitting with some of these strangers for hours is how much you can learn about people if they are willing to tell stories and are as bored as you are with just sleeping in your seat all day. So hanging with him until the last few minutes of the journey was great as we were still swapping stories about areas of Massachusetts. Good times indeed. There were a number of other people I spent some time with but most of them weren’t as interesting or were kind of messed up.
Best part of this trip was probably the last couple of days. It was a long mentally and physically exhausting trip that I still haven’t fully absorbed. If anything it was an exercise in patience and a preview of the lengths of road I have to travel myself in August. I forgot how long some of these drives get. A three hour chunk of driving through nowhere has the feel of a five hour chunk of driving. The August trip has an ultimately happier ending for the most part, and I will have a laptop by then for documenting that trip as I go with hopefully less stream of conscious than this, which I am not even going to proofread. Here it is.
February 1990 Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA
So I get on this train in South Boston and I’m immediately feeling elated to be leaving and seeing parts of the country I had never seen. I was a painfully shy person, but being on a train for four days straight will make even the most timid person a “life of the party”. I think we were maybe two hours into the trip and we stopped in Springfield, Massachusetts. The train was relatively empty, and I was lucky enough to score two seats, so I could sit at the window. In Springfield the train sort of filled up and I see this character walking down the aisle. About five feet tall, cowboy boots, denim jeans, a denim jacket, long black “ZZ Top beard”, and sunglasses (it’s 9:30PM in the dead of winter), a duffel bag in one hand, and a guitar slung around his shoulder. I of course make eye contact with him, and he immediately sits down next to me.
“HOW YA DOIN BUDDY, I’M JIM (I can’t remember his name at this point), WHERE YOU GOIN!!?”
“Ummmm, San Francisco.”
“WELL IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE TRAVELING TOGETHER, I’M GOING TO DENVER!!!”
Yeah, real excellent.
So he starts talking and doesn’t shut up about music and traveling. It was interesting, but his voice, and overall demeanor made it a little hard to take him serious. The best part was yet to come though.
“YOU LIKE VODKA???”
“No, I don’t really drink at all”
“WELL IF YA DO, I GOT PLENTY”
He opens his jacket and has two fifths in each inside pocket of the jacket, two nips in each breast pocket, opens his duffel bag, and he literally, no joke, had a little bit of clothing, and what looked like 6 more bottles of vodka. I got up and went to the restroom, and he showed up in there.
“OH THERE YOU ARE, HEY YOU WANT A SWIG OF THIS OR WHAT????”
“No really, I’m all set”
So we get to Albany and I know what I have to do. I knew that we would be switching trains in Chicago in the morning, but I really couldn’t deal with him anymore. I got out of the train and went into the station and asked if I could get a room for the night on the train. It would be eighty bucks. I forked down the money and got my upgraded ticket.
I went back in and told “Jim” that they fucked up, my ticket stated I was to be in another train. A likely story, as anyone who knows Amtrak, you buy a cheap ticket, you sit wherever the fuck you want. I went to my room, and it was literally about the size of a stall in a restroom…okay the handicapped stall (which begs the question I often ask myself when I perpetually use the handicapped stall, can I get arrested for using this, or get a ticket? I mean it does seem to me the same crime as parking in one of the handicapped spaces, but the room in there is great, you get those railings in case you’re sick, drunk, or handicapped; it’s a whole new world in there. I imagine the women’s room to have a similar affect on me if I was to ever walk in a “good one”[as opposed to the one I was in at Saratoga Springs, New York, which was so dirty I thought I was in the men’s room]). It was tiny nonetheless, enough room to stand, and fold down the bed which was right against the window.
Waking up in Ohio the next morning was an absurd feeling. Ohio. Who lives in Ohio? Guided By Voices. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and ummmm…some other people that apparently love corn. So Ohio is pretty boring…on the train at least. I won’t ever just say a state is boring if I haven’t stepped on the soil there. Driving through Nebraska is as boring as watching ice melt, but when you get out and walk around a little, late, in the middle of a chilly, damp night you realize there’s nothing like it in the world. Nebraska.
So we arrive in Chicago, where you get to get on the double decker train. Much bigger, much more exciting. I still hadn’t seen “Jim”, but I was aware we was around. I did see him in the middle of the night actually for a couple of minutes at the bar (“why is he buying drinks with all that he has on him?”…I figured it out, he was just making his drinks even stronger, that’s apparently what you do or something when you’re a big drinker. Up the ante a little). The next time I saw him was in Denver where he was getting off. I went up to him and, knowing he was getting off for good and said:
“Hey Jim, I was looking for you the past day and a half to see if you wanted to hang out, we were supposed to be traveling together and all that…well, hopefully I’ll run into you again…have a good life”
It’s funny, all of the people I met on that first train ride it always ended with “Have a good life” What a strange departing phrase. There was no internet, well, not that I was using anyway, so there was no e-mail exchanging, and I was certainly not going to write anyone letters. I met a lot of great people. The most memorable after “Jim”, were the two old black men from Mississippi who got me drunk and told me stories about segregation, and John Lee Hooker and that kind of stuff. I have an amazing picture of one of the men reading the newspaper at dawn that I will post on here some day when I remember to scan it.
The other guy was an African fellow who was with me from Denver to San Francisco. He didn’t speak very good English, and he had a ton of money. He owned farms, had a big family, and traveled the world from time to time. Sam was his name. When we got to San Francisco, neither of us had been there before so we sort of hung out for a little while, until we got our shit together. I took a good photo of him at the San Francisco train station that I’d also like to put up here. I love meeting new people. I especially love it when I’m traveling though. You can’t really rely on small talk at all. You don’t have to make impressions though either. I like to put on an act from time to time when I meet people traveling. “Yeah, I’m a policeman in Boston” So this first trip was the first of a dozen of these, most of them small ones with friends, but I did three summers where it was two week excursions by myself that were both healthy, and bad for me at the same time. I had this a little on the first trip.
The train ride home got tedious. “Shit, Indiana again”
For subsequent summers, I will probably not be going on the same type of excursions though. There are no tours to follow around at my age. I am going to go somewhere though.. Either way, I need it again, and it can’t come any fucking sooner. That’s it, I’m going across country again.