The first thing you notice about Union Station in Tampa, FL on a Friday afternoon in late July is how miserable everyone looks. People are slumped back in chairs to the point where they appear to be sitting in bean bag chairs, children are glued to whatever handheld device their parents are letting them look at for fifteen minutes at a time, elderly people have their green visors pulled down practically over their noses, and then there’s me, I imagine I look miserable. It’s also extremely hot outside, everyone is huddled inside and, as it is in this part of the country, existing just a little bit slower. The air feels slow. The station is old, built in 1912. There are six tracks divided by three platforms, but I believe only one track is working, so a relatively small station. It was closed down in the 80’s and reopened in the late 90’s where it’s served a basic purpose since. There’s nothing fancy about it, it’s renovated and looks like any old train station. So that’s the first thing YOU notice.
The first thing I notice: I open the green wooden door, it’s one of those double doors but the one on the right doesn’t move. What’s the point of that anyway? I’d like my own choice of what door to open. Fuck the system. So, coming in from the glare of outside into a poorly air-conditioned building is one large open area filled with maybe one hundred and twenty people. Immediately at one o’clock in my vision I make eye contact with a skinny white fellow. He’s bald (shaved), maybe early 40’s, wearing a long sleeve green shirt that appears to be one of those green army jackets guys like Travis Bickle wear, upon closer inspection, it’s a shirt. He has a paper bag in one hand that’s about a foot long by four inches. “What’s he got in there?” I immediately think. A full dead fish? A box of Russell Stovers chocolates? A video tape but one of those early ones from Paramount Studios that came in a white bubbly case? A melodica? I never find out. On the glass empty counter he’s leaning against is a back pack that is so filled that if he put it over the front of himself and put an overcoat on he would look like Orson Wells. You’ve seen people with these backpacks out in the world. Usually on the subway or a bus, and they’re just out for that day. How many things do you need to have with you to exist over an entire day? I usually do pretty good with my wallet and phone. I keep a sweatshirt in the car in case a chill decides to show up. Maybe he’s a magician and he’s going to treat us all to that endless bandana trick that will go on for forty-five minutes. This entire thought process takes about four seconds in real time and I immediately tell myself I am going to have to keep an eye on this guy. He definitely has a “just getting my shit together right now” vibe about him. He’s a little shifty and if I had to describe who he looked like the closest familiar person would maybe be Maynard Keenan from the band Tool.
It’s a little crowded inside here, not enough to cause anxiety or anything like that. I apparently decide to change that and go outside and sit on a cement bench around the corner. I have three quarters of a joint with me that I take out and light. It’s about 99 degrees out, with the wind chill factor, about 99 degrees. After I decide I’ve had enough I put the rest of it back in the little tube and throw it in a trash barrel nearby. I have a small vape pen with me and if I feel the need to use that on the trip I will figure out where the best place to do that will be. I’m certainly not going to try it on the actual train and get thrown off (this is me saying this a month after this trip and I’m lying).
My journey is supposed to begin at about 5:30 pm, the train will arrive in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM where I then will have a seven-hour layover. Union Station in DC as you (may) know, is in the middle of everything so you can easily become a tourist and find seven hours of things to do. I had a bag with me that held a number of different charging cables and cords, a thin MacBook Air, an Amazon tablet, one 230-page book (softcover), one t-shirt, the usual toiletries and four albums I bought in Sarasota, FL. This bag is just heavy enough to be an annoyance around my shoulders but manageable. When I travel, especially by rail, I always keep this type of an “everything I need” bag with me. If I feel like I am going to fall asleep it’s between my legs on the floor with the straps wrapped around my legs. I barely sleep on vacation, especially if it’s a new place. Why waste your time with your eyes closed? Even if it is an endless stream of loading docks, silos, and small two-minute long towns that blur by. You’ll never remember a single one, but I like to at least see everything. The train ends up being about ninety minutes late, which is fine for me. I have now found a seat on a bench inside and I’m enjoying watching people come and go. I’ve always argued that although sometime it’s interesting to have your own soundtrack in earphones while you watch people go about their business, listening to the sounds of people is enough to keep me interested. Sure most conversations you catch are boring “Oh my cousin lives there”, “Wow so then you’re going to Wheaton College, that’s great”, etc. but I feel like I’m there. I don’t want to feel removed from anywhere unfamiliar. I never want to feel that, that’s the whole point of travel, even, quick mundane travel.
The train eventually boards, this trip will be relatively short, I am traveling coach. I would never be able to sleep on a train for more than an hour or two here and there, so getting a sleeper car is something I wouldn’t utilize. I get my own seat, on the left side of the car, put my big bag between my legs on the floor and am able to slide it under my seat, on the aisle seat I put a small grocery bag with some snacks, a magazine, etc. I call this a “soft reserve” If someone is coming down the aisle looking for a seat and see this little pile they might think someone is sitting there, or that I’m an asshole. The car is about half full so there’s no reason to sit next to a stranger. You know, unless you yourself are the asshole. I also have the luxury of resting mean guy face, so nobody is going to sit next to me. Well not until we hit Jacksonville, but hey this train hasn’t even left yet.
Sitting in my row, across the aisle is a young man, maybe 20 years old. Sideways baseball hat, laptop covered in stickers for shit I never understand, which I imagine is most likely snowboarding gear or something like that. We make eye contact and he gives me a nod for some reason. Outside to my left there are people hugging their loved ones, shaking hands and saying their goodbyes. I see an attractive young woman in her 20’s, she is dressed like a hippie. Sundress, and then just a bunch of necklaces and shit hanging off her elaborately braided hair as the hippies do. She is hugging a young man in his 20’s with a manbun, tattoos all over his body including his face, he’s got no baggage. They break apart and I watch her walk past my window and then out of view, sobbing hysterically. I’m jumping ahead but later that evening I see him cozied up with a new young lady in the next car.
The train eventually starts to move, and the first big stop will be Orlando, FL. Maybe fifteen minutes into the journey they announce over the PA that there is no smoking in any of the bathrooms and you will be ejected from the train if you are caught. Another fifteen minutes goes by and they make the same announcement, this time reiterating the fact that you really can’t be doing this. They also mention for the bigger stops where the train will have a longer ten-minute stop, you may get out of the train to smoke. When we hit Orlando I get out of the train and stand in an area where I use a vape pen with THC oil in it. I’m pretty sure marijuana is illegal in Florida, but I honestly don’t even worry about it a tiny bit. Living in Massachusetts and spending time in California where it is legal it seems ridiculous to me that this would even be an issue with anyone. Who walks up but my Travis Bickle buddy from the Tampa station. He doesn’t say anything to me but makes eye contact with me and then just kind of stands near me. I plan on doing this at every stop, not because I want to fall asleep but it will relax me enough to enjoy my surroundings with little stress. I immediately worry this guy is going to join me at every stop.
I get back on the train and notice the young man with the sideways baseball hat and his belongings are now gone. An hour or so goes by and he doesn’t show up. I see him in the café car when I get up to buy a cup of coffee. I make small talk with the woman sitting in front of me, an African-American woman with her eleven-year old son. They are traveling home to Baltimore, she is worried as she may miss her shuttle in DC to Baltimore since the train is running a couple of hours late. I hold back bragging that I am happy for the delay as it shaved a little time off of my seven-hour layover.
The next stop will be Jacksonville, FL. I step outside for a few minutes and get myself relaxed, it’s still really warm and the sun has now gone down. I notice Travis out of the corner of my eye just standing there doing nothing. I try to ignore him. I think too much about nothing sometimes. One thing about the train that I enjoy is the air conditioner is on so high it feels like we are outside…in Vermont…in November. This is okay to me but also, I literally have the clothes on my back with me, and one other t-shirt inside my bag. I’m wearing shorts, and my usual get up of two t-shirts and one button down black short sleeved Dickies shirt. I wear the same thing just about every waking moment of my life, and probably will continue to do so until I can’t. It’s easy and it’s one less thing to think about every morning. Some conductors will try to group travelers going to the same destination in the same cars. I imagine to make it easier to track people, so everyone going all the way to New York or Boston might all be in the same car. This train isn’t even close to being full so I imagine it’s harder to track people and how far they are going, etc. I also think there’s no real reason to do that on this undersold train.
I sit back down at my seat and decide I’m going to listen to a record called New Thing at Newport. It’s a record that was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965 featuring sets by John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest live jazz records out there. It begins with a gentleman by the name of Father Norman James O’Connor giving an introduction to the set. He was a Catholic priest that was also a huge jazz fan (he also introduces Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington on their respective Newport records) This Coltrane lineup is one of his many classic lineups with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass and of Elvin Jones falling all over the drums. You know how when you put on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid on and War Pigs starts and you basically get immediately punched in the face? Or when Greg Ginn’s guitar opens the Damaged album and you want to throw your TV set through the window? That’s how the music hits when the band starts. If you’re into this kind of thing, you’re in for the ride immediately. When I say this record is one of the best live records I am exaggerating a little. I love the two Coltrane songs here (One Down, One Up and a fifteen-minute blown out My Favorite Things), the Shepp stuff is great but the Coltrane stuff is perfect. My plan is to put this thirty minutes or so of music on and watch the backs of buildings flash by me. I’m feeling good about this trip. On past extended train rides I’ve hung out in the café car and talked with all sorts of people. This trip feels more like a mission. I’m a patient person, but I also just don’t feel like interacting with anyone this time around.
So maybe two minutes into the first song of one of my favorite albums of all time I see a person out of the corner of my eye walking up and stand facing me. He is walking direct, he’s not looking up at the numbers of each seat like someone would do when directed to a specific seat. This is an important detail that justifies my immediate paranoia and dread. It’s Travis Bickle guy and he’s motioning at my “soft reserve” and me at the same time. I remove my earphones and say “what’s that?”
“Hey the conductor moved me to this seat”
I’m completely caught off guard and now immediately filled with confusion.
“This seat? Oh okay”
I move my stuff, he thanks me and sits down next to me. Most people I would immediately ask where they are going and maybe introduce myself. I put my earbud back in and stare out the window. The music is still playing but it’s now been snapped in half and opened. I don’t know where I was. I hate confrontation, especially from people I get a vibe from. He now has a flip phone out and is texting with it (like that, “hit a key three times to get a letter” style texting) Is he sending in the coordinates to the white power militia group he heads? “I found the man with the Agnostic Front lyrics tattooed on his forearm, blow the train up when we get to Savannah, he’ll be long asleep, he’s been hitting the weed vape at every stop now” After about ten minutes he gets up and leaves. I leave at one point to get something to eat in the café car and he is sitting by himself with a cup of coffee and his flip phone. He returns to the seat a few minutes later and I say
“Hey you know that kid over there left over two hours ago I bet you could sit there…this way we’ll both have more room too” He says “works for me” and now I’m pretty much never going to sleep on this train as I am convinced he is going to slit my throat in the middle of the night.
The woman in front of me I was talking with earlier in the night is having trouble getting the leg rest thing up and asks me to help. I am now kneeling in the aisle with my head essentially between this woman’s legs helping her lift the thing up, hoping her young son does not wake up. He doesn’t and I go back to my chair to watch the orange lights pass by my window. Neil Young Tonight’s The Night, Miles Davis – Dark Magus and Cocteau Twins – Treasure all get spins on this overnight journey. Perfect sounds to fade in and out of, waking up to different landscapes and colors. At some point I end up dozing off and eventually wake up in one of the Carolinas. I watch the grey sky slowly turn orange, eventually filling parts of the train with sunlight. Most people are awake when the sun comes up on the train. Every single person you see looks like absolute shit. Thankfully this train isn’t so full so the bathrooms have no lines and the café car is empty. I get myself coffee and a better than expected microwaved breakfast sandwich. We reach a bigger town in North Carolina and I see my creepy friend who really wasn’t that creepy leave the train and walk down the platform. That’s the last I see of him.
The remainder of the ride to Washington DC is uneventful, and long. A few more delays, as freight trains have the right of way, and now the good news is my seven-hour layover in DC is now a four and a half hour one. This seems much more manageable to me. The slow crawl into Union Station is showing me a side of DC I am not familiar with. I see the Washington Monument , the Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol Building in the distance, but all in quick bursts in between a bunch of ugly office and apartment buildings.
My original plan when this was going to be a seven-hour layover was to maybe grab some sort of public transportation or a ride sharing car and explore some of DC, maybe hit a museum or seven. I essentially would have an almost full workday of nothing to do. I even had a nice friend put a list of potential places together for me to check out. Me being me, I immediately feel bad she put the effort in and I didn’t even use the information. I would have though, and it was obviously appreciated. The plans were immediately crushed when I stepped outside of the train station. It was hotter than it was in Tampa when I left the night before, and way more humid. I could see the Capitol Building at the end of the street, but walking their seemed like a hell of a task. I took a picture or two and went back inside to search for dinner. I tend to have an extremely spotty track record when it comes to meals when I am traveling. Some trips I spend checking out small local holes in the wall people recommend, or places Guy Fieri visits. Say what you will about him, but some of the places he essentially gives free advertising to are pretty great. Even if he looks like he went to a stylist and said “Ummmm, give me ‘the date rape’ look” Other trips, if I’m feeling miserable or just needing to put something in my body I make extremely bad food choices. Today was no exception. Union Station is pretty much a shopping mall that trains come and go from. The basement level has a food court with a couple of curious places I’ve never heard of. Me though, I decide I am going to eat at Johnny Rockets (yeah, I know). If you’re not familiar with this establishment, it’s basically modeled after a 50’s diner, with burgers and fries, milk shakes etc. I think at some point if a certain song comes on the stereo the wait staff have to do this choreographed dance, at least they did in the 90’s when I had a friend who worked as a waitress at one. On a scale of 1-10 of chain restaurants I’d vote it a 4.5. There is one other customer in the restaurant, and she is sitting in a booth. I sit in the booth two away from her, facing her. I don’t know why I do this but I immediately hate that I did this and also am filled with anxiety about getting up and moving to the other side of the booth so I just stay put. This move was essentially the same move as the guy who uses the urinal right next to you when there are seven more open ones (Speaking of this, this is a real thing, “shy bladder”, I should know as I have it. Especially at work, where the men’s room has one urinal, and then three stalls to the right of it, he third being the luxury suite of the public restroom, the handicapped stall. If I walk in there and there is one person in there in a stall I will usually just turn around and walk out. Often times someone is walking in as I am walking in and I will walk up to the urinal and basically stand there with my thingy in my hand literally thinking in my head ‘they must hear that there’s nothing going on here’ – or as is most times, they will want to hold a conversation with me from the stall or the sink. If all of them men I work with knew how many conversations they’ve had with me while I’m just standing there with my hands on my dick that is doing absolutely nothing they might be horrified. I wonder if anyone has noticed me leaving the bathroom and then immediately walk back in six minutes later. I mean I could always say I have a bout of diarrhea) I order a burger and onion rings which are okay. I am only really in this restaurant for about twenty minutes.
Four hours to kill, I should go outside and get high on marijuana. It’s legal in DC. It’s now around 6:30 pm and my train leaves at 9:20 PM, to arrive back in Massachusetts at 8:30 am or so. I walk around looking for a store to go in or anything remotely interesting and find nothing. Instead of wasting money or eating more I grab a cup of coffee and sit on a bench among the other travelers. It’s a busy hot summer weekend day in the dead of summer. There is a large group of mostly teenagers and some adult chaperones all wearing the exact same t-shirt. They appear to be from some sort of Christian choir group on a field trip. They make a lot of noise and are running around acting like typical kids who are out of their normal situation. At one point in my life I would be annoyed with this but nowadays, it’s just kids being kids, I’m not really supposed to care about things like that. There’s better things to waste energy on.
Sometimes my ignorance gets me into trouble, sometimes it’s an innocent thing that doesn’t hold any significance to anything and sometimes it’s just me ignorantly stereotyping a person. A shorter, disheveled looking man is heading towards the seat to the left of me. He is wearing some sort of NASCAR shirt under a flannel shirt (remember the weather here), dirty jeans with holes in the knees, his light brown hair is lightly feathered under a faded baseball cap that I can’t read. He’s missing a tooth, not right in the front, but on the side. Despite his look and whole vibe I do note he has an attractive face, and upon closer look he has a tiny diamond stud in his left nostril. Dirty shaven with an emphasis on a mustache, but one of those light ones that guys named Dave who sold you weed in 1979 had. There’s another younger guy with him that sits down next to him. Between the two of them they have about five suitcases. I am sitting here with my bag on the floor between my legs, my coffee on the floor to the right of me and my phone is put away. I’m in people watching and listening mode. No music in my head, the soundtrack of a Saturday night in July in this busy train station in Washington DC has enough life in it to keep my eyes and ears darting around like a crack head. As soon as this man sits down we make eye contact and say hello, and he starts
“I’ve been battling with Amtrak customer service over there trying to get them to put us up. We missed out connecting train and now we have to wait until five-thirty tomorrow afternoon for the next one. That’s twenty-four hours away. I can’t stay in here, I have metal rods in my arm and we forgot my pain meds…”
He goes on and tells me he is a registered nurse, they are from South Carolina, he thinks his arms will start to hurt once night falls (he shows me scars on both forearms) and doesn’t want to resort to going outside and trying to buy drugs on the street, for fear that he could lose his nurses license. Not because that’s just a pretty fucked up thing to do. It’s still unclear how staying in a hotel would change that whole aspect of this situation, but I’m trying to at least listen. I have a few more hours to kill. Sometimes I enjoy talking to strangers, if I get a bad vibe or think they want something from me I’ll move on. I don’t get this from him. A tiny bit but the idea of money never comes up in any part of the conversation and that’s usually how scammers work. Maybe even something as small as mentioning the price of something they just had.
I now get a better look at the other guy with him, he’s much younger, maybe in his 20’s. Where the guy I’ve been talking with is a classic “Scrawny redneck” looking fellow, the younger guy who I assume is maybe his son or nephew is much bigger. His mouth just kind of hangs open and his wide eyes (one is crossed a little) are sort of just staring at nothing in particular. He seems like that guy in the group of friends you get to do crazy things like smash a TV set in front of a police station or light an alligator on fire. Those kinds of things.
I ask original guy where they are headed and receive a surprise I did not see coming.
“My husband here and I are heading to see his mom in Wisconsin, she is sick and he wants to spend time with her…” This is where I feel ignorant, or prejudiced. The fact that I was surprised to learn the relationship of these two men is ridiculous of me. Not that I am ever actively thinking of what the relationship of two random people is. Being blind to the idea that the only gay people are the ones I know who are musicians or writers, DJs, etc. There’s no social or economic background that changes anything, so silly of me.
I sit with these two for a few more minutes, and while they are nice people and harmless as far as I can tell, I just don’t feel like being part of anyone’s situation right now. I move on to go buy that inevitable bag of nuts that I literally will have for four months before I throw them in my garbage (Update: I ended up throwing them out just about three days ago, almost two months later) and a bottle of water. The wait for the train just about becomes unbearable when they finally board us.
This train is extremely empty, I have no worry that anyone will sit next to me (well until a man and his terrible son decide to sit directly in front of me and both immediately put their chairs all the way back and go to sleep – I make an audible “really?” and get up and move back one more row. Same guy as the pee next to you in the bathroom or the guy facing you in the terrible 4.5 rated hamburger and soda shop you’re in, this is him and his son. He’s teaching his son to be one of those people and I witnessed it. Have you noticed when you talk about bad driving practices with people you know 100 % of the time the person agrees with you. Are those bad people who do these kinds of things just out there having the same discussions with people “Can you believe it, I didn’t use my directional signal the other day and this guy beeped at me, what a jabroni!” These two also, before they sit have a hell of a time getting their luggage situated. All of the luggage is those hard plastic ones, they’re giant and at this point I just want to fall asleep. There is also a wife and daughter who sit two rows away from them – WTF? Right? – This family is European, maybe Swedish or German so I give them the benefit of the doubt and then I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt because what does that even mean?) and nobody does for the entire relatively short trip. I’m able to stretch out a little more. Unfortunately for everyone on this train they never turn the lights down low, so this overnight trip from Washington to Boston is basically in fluorescent light. I cure this by draping a Neurosis t-shirt over my head, occasionally a person walks by and is justifiably creeped out.
This hasn’t really been a long trip, or a very eventful one for that matter, but I am now a mixture of exhausted, wide awake and maybe stoned, I have no idea. Everything has a very surreal feel to it. This feeling has always been my favorite moment on train journeys. Sleep deprivation. With the right soundtrack and environment, it’s much cheaper and safer than tripping. As I sit there and peer under my makeshift hoodie outside the window and around the train, the final boss shows up. He’s short, like make fun of a person type short, but just in your head, has some sort of balding comb-over mullet Neil Diamond type hairdo. I imagine I am not the first person in the entire world that has seen this person and thought to themselves “That little fellow looks like an Oompa Loompa” He definitely looks a little shifty, he has one big bag with him that looks like it may weigh more than him. We arrive in New York City at 1:30 AM and the train is scheduled to sit here for about 45 minutes so I of course go out on the platform. We are underground now, so it’s just that heavy train station smell, it’s incredibly stuffy and hot but a relief as they have the air conditioning blasting inside. I decide to vape more marijuana, I have no idea if I even need to or should. This train is scheduled to arrive in Boston at 8:30 AM, there is then a train at 11:00 am that travels to Franklin, MA which is the town next to me. From there I will schedule a ride sharing company to drive me the six miles back to my house. I realize I can get off the train in Providence, RI at 7:45 am which is about a half hour from my house. I’ll get a ride from there, that makes more sense. That’s the best plan anyway. I don’t really want to sit in another train station and wait three hours to get on yet another train. That’s the plan, yeah. A normal person might just not get any higher at this point. Well not a normal person, but my best idea is to just stay awake the last seven hours of this journey. I’ve barely slept much anyway, what’s one other night?
The final boss approaches me as I stand there on the platform far beneath Madison Square Garden.
“Hate these long layovers, I wanna get home” he says
“How far you going?” I ask him
“Hartford, but I’m from Providence”
He has a generic Northeastern accent, part Long Island, part Boston, part Rhode Island. And then he gets into it
“They cleaned it up up there” he motions to above us
“Used to take this trip all the time, Back in the day you get an hour wait here you’d go up there and get with any woman up there”
“Yeah I remember there was a half hour layover and I went up there and met a woman in an alley and she sucked my dick for twenty bucks, right then and there”
“Oh wow, yeah?”
Is it cool? Not really, to have that done to me standing in a dirty alley with the added anxiety of missing the train if they don’t hurry up, that sounds like an experience where you’d have to pay me. I let my new friend that I’m going back inside and try to sleep. I watch him standing out there after I return to my seat, he’s swinging his arms back and forth waiting for someone to talk to, he’s not smoking or anything. This feeling of loneliness and melancholy sweeps over me, not just for him, but anyone I briefly paid attention to on this trip, and myself. When I think of people like this, myself included just going through life not really noticed by anyone. We have these stories we always want to tell someone no matter how absurd they may be, or how non-eventful they may be. Everyone has them and even when they are some sort of testosterone fueled “hey check it out just because I’m small I get blow jobs” trying to impress another dude story, it still holds some weight. How sad would it be if you went through life and never got to tell anyone a story?
I’m contemplating this kind of thing while I drift in and out of sleep which I am completely unaware of and finally come to and realize we have passed Providence Rhode Island and I will now be spending four hours in South Station on a Sunday morning in Boston. I could technically take a ride share from here but the idea of small talk for forty-five minutes in a stranger’s car at this mental state sounds like a nightmare. Instead I grab a coffee and find a table to sit at, I take my earbuds out and listen to the sounds of a Sunday morning in my home town. It’s nice to be home and hear the accents, and laughs and conversations. No need for me to pay much attention here. I’m from here and I know everyone’s story, the good ones, the bad ones and ones like this one where nothing happens but I felt like I wanted to tell it.