||[Dec. 7th, 2008|12:46 pm]
Before I left on Tuesday, I did neglect to mention that I was going to be in New York for the next two weeks or so. However, john_j_enright did helpfully (and poetically) inform a full half of my friendslist of my departure a few days ago. |
Anyway, I made a perhaps-misguided decision to take the train, as it was only very slightly more expensive than the plane, and I had six extra days to devote to making cross-country rail journeys, and I was curious to see what the vast portion of empty land in the middle of America looked like from ground level. So on Tuesday evening my mother and my brother accompanied me to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, where I arrived half an hour before the train left, due to some rather horrible traffic on the 101, which made us decide to leave the freeway and drive around downtown making illegal left turns and observe that if actual human people are walking around on the sidewalks, one is in a bad neighborhood (respectable people in LA drive their cars everywhere, and do not set foot on a sidewalk if they can help it). And then when we arrived at Union Station everyone was kind of snotty and gave disapproving glances and intimated that I was late and ought to have arrived over an hour before departure.
The train wasn't full, so I got a pair of seats to myself for the trip to Chicago. I should explain about the accommodations: the cost of taking the train is only comparable to the price of a plane ticket if you go in coach rather than paying for a sleeper. Coach class on Amtrak is a much better sort of thing than its airline equivalent. Imagine, if you will, a first-class seat on an airplane. An airplane owned by a rather crummy, cost-cutting airline, such that one has a decent amount of space, but the seat does not recline terribly far and is not upholstered in leather and does not come with a handy personal entertainment center and nobody treats you very obsequiously at all and you don't get a free bag of goodies with socks and toothbrushes and chocolates. Oh, yes, and and that seat is your new home for the next three days, rather than fourteen hours. Anyway, if you are so fortunate to get the whole row to yourself, as I did, with a fair amount of contortion you can sleep in those things, though I am a picky sleeper and did not manage more than three or four hours of sleep each night.
In fact, on the first night, I got barely any sleep at all, due to a sequence of occurrences that went like this:
SLEEPING ON THE TRAIN
a play in Three Acts
ACT I -- The first night
The train races away from Los Angeles in the dark. It is slightly after midnight. Inside the last car of the train, it is dark and quiet, with only the central aisle dimly lit. The passengers contained therein are sleeping, or attempting to sleep, and have arranged an assortment of pillows and blankets around themselves. The only noise is made by the train as it runs over rough patches of track. Suddenly, the relative silence is broken by...
A WOMAN TALKING ON A CELL PHONE: Why, hel-lo! I've been trying to call Carl for three days now! No, no, I'm his cousin. No, not that one. His mother was my father's sister. He's what? He's in the HOSPITAL? What happened to him? He slipped on a patch of ice and tripped over a stray walrus? That still happens, huh? What? What? Now the walrus is SUING him? What is wrong with this country? Larry H. Parker, huh? I'll bet his flippers still work fine and he's just faking it. Now what's wrong with Carl? Sprained vertebrae? Oh, oh, I see. Well, we'll be getting in to Chicago in the afternoon.... (continues in this vein for the next hour and a half, in an extremely loud tone)
OUR HEROINE: (is sitting in the seat directly in front of the WOMAN TALKING ON A CELL PHONE, and therefore can hear every word quite clearly. She is, alas, too timid to sit up and look over the back of the seat and give the woman a Cutting Look. After over an hour of this, she creeps from the seat and walks to the next car, in search of the conductor or some other Person of Authority. And the next. And the next. And then she reaches the lounge car, where the insomniacs are having a jolly party, complete with a guitar and and smuggled alcohol. No Person of Authority, however, is to be found.) Does anyone know where the conductor is?
THE PARTYING INSOMNIACS: No. Nope. No idea. That way, I think (pointing in the direction of the sleepers). They're dealing with an unruly passenger.
OUR HEROINE: Oh. Well, there is some woman in the last coach who will not stop talking on her cell phone and I can't sleep, and I am too much of a coward to tell her to shut up, so I came in search of the conductor to make him do it for me. (Stands despondently and anxiously at one end of the car, hoping that some Person of Authority will arrive soon. An OAFISH NOT-SO-YOUNG, THOUGH HE CLEARLY FANCIES HIMSELF SUCH, MAN detaches himself from the crowd and walks over to her.)
OAFISH MAN: So I heard you were going to New York?
OUR HEROINE: (distractedly, and not looking at him) Yes...
OAF: (leers at OUR HEROINE) Well, I think we'll be on the same train, because, you see, I am going that way, too, and... (OAF continues in this vein for some minutes, attempting to impress upon OUR HEROINE her great good fortune to be traveling with the OAF, who then implies that if she knows what is good for her, she will favor him with her attention and possibly sex.)
OUR HEROINE: I am waiting for the conductor. Would you be so kind as to direct him to the last car when he comes back? (flounces off and returns to her seat, where the woman is still talking on her cell phone. After a few more minutes, she finally finishes her conversation, just as the conductor comes through. He observes that everything is quiet, and leaves. Then the woman starts talking again, this time to her companions, explaining the whole saga of Carl and the walrus.) Aaaaaaugh! (flees from car)
Our Heroine finally finds someone in the next car, which is nearly empty, and is permitted to set up camp for the night there. For about an hour, she attempts to fall asleep. Just as she is about to drift off, a noise intrudes itself into her consciousness.
OUR HEROINE: What noise intrudes? Is it...it sounds like...snoring? (sits up and frowns, for she has cleverly shoved earplugs into her ears, and they really should drown out noises of this sort. She eyes the MAN near her suspiciously.) Obviously, something is wrong with these earplugs, if I can so clearly hear these snores. I will get some new ones. (She pulls the earplugs out, and discovers that she has unjustly condemned them, for what she thought was the MAN is in fact THE LOUDEST SNORER IN THE UNIVERSE.)
LOUDEST SNORER IN THE UNIVERSE: Snore-ore! Snore-ore! SNORE-ORE!
OUR HEROINE: (glares at the LOUDEST SNORER IN THE UNIVERSE, who has cleverly positioned himself in the far seat, where he cannot easily be kicked awake) Why, oh, why didn't I just take a plane?
Our Heroine creeps back to her original seat, where, miracle of miracles, the loud woman has actually fallen asleep. After a few hours of tossing and turning, she, too, manages to sleep, and when she wakes up the train is skimming along a picturesque mesa in northern Arizona. The scenery this day is very picturesque and attractive, as the train climbs through canyons and mountains in New Mexico. Our Heroine gradually begins to think that perhaps taking the train is not so bad after all.
ACT II: The Crazy Man
Night has fallen again as the train goes through ... Oklahoma or somewhere. This time, for some reason, the passengers are more inclined to want to go to sleep soon after sunset. It is only nine o'clock, and most of them have already taken out their pillows. Suddenly, there is a commotion near the back of the car. A CRAZY MAN has stood up, and has started talking unintelligibly.
CRAZY MAN: Mumble mumble mumble conductor mumble man sitting next to me mumble trouble mumble mumble. (strides towards front of car, waving his arms in total stereotypical crazy-man fashion. He walks into the next car, but is back within a few minutes, with the conductor at his heels.) Mumble mumble that man mumble hasslin' me mumbly-mumble-tums.
CONDUCTOR: (very loudly at firmly) That man is not your problem. That man is my problem. I will deal with it. Don't worry about it.
CRAZY MAN: (continues to mumble, and point wildly at the seat next to him. The CONDUCTOR repeats himself a few times, then gets fed up.)
CONDUCTOR: I need you to come downstairs with me, sir. (The train has two levels--the top where almost everyone sits, and the bottom, where everyone enters the train and stores luggage and where the feebler types who can't climb stairs sit.)
CRAZY MAN: But that man! Mumble mumble all his fault mumble mumble didn't do nothin'.
CONDUCTOR: Sir, you need to come downstairs with me or I will have you put off this train. (The CRAZY MAN finally goes down the stairs. The CONDUCTOR follows him, presumably to give him a stern talking-to.)
The car is no longer filled with the ramblings of the CRAZY MAN. However, this episode has ruined the quiet atmosphere of the car, and everyone has started talking again. OUR HEROINE goes to the next car, which is, again, nearly empty, and strikes a deal with the car attendant allowing her to occupy an empty seat until the train gets to Kansas City early the next morning. She has some little success in sleeping until a few minutes before midnight, when a man bursts in from her original car, and demands to know where the conductor is.
MAN SITTING BEHIND OUR HEROINE: I haven't seen anybody who works here for a while. They're all down there, I think. (points toward the other end of the train, in the direction of the lounge car, the dining car, the sleepers, and, well, everything else on the train that isn't the last car. The man exits in that direction.)
About five minutes later, the doors slide open again. The CRAZY MAN enters, close upon the heels of another man.
CRAZY MAN: Mumble mumble this man mumble always hasslin' me mumble mumble do something about it mumble mumble.
MAN WHO IS SUPPOSEDLY HASSLIN' THE CRAZY MAN, BUT ONE RATHER PRESUMES THAT IT IS IN FACT THE OTHER WAY AROUND: Help! Help! I need some help here! Where's the conductor? Help! Help me! (starts running down the aisle and goes into the next car. The CRAZY MAN runs after him, still yelling.)
The train pulls into its next stop, Dodge City, Kansas. According to the timetable, the train ought to be stopped here for only a few minutes. However, it remains in the station for a long time. From the cars ahead, faint noises and sounds of a struggle can be heard. A few of the characters who passed through the car a few minutes earlier come back through, followed by a SECURITY MAN. When OUR HEROINE looks out the window, she can see the CRAZY MAN standing outside, surrounded by police officers. Eventually they repair to a trio of police cars, and OUR HEROINE goes back to her old seat for a better look.
In the last car, which is full and where the CRAZY MAN has been sitting for the past two days, everyone is awake and talking to each other. There is a rather festive atmosphere as everyone compares stories of their experiences with the CRAZY MAN. The CRAZY MAN has done more to create camaraderie and a sense of fellowship amongst the passengers of the last car than a year of more officially-sanctioned icebreakers could have done. OUR HEROINE learns that the CRAZY MAN is "crazy," has not been taking his medications, has been uttering vague but disturbing death threats to the passengers seated around him, that the CRAZY MAN is lucky that the WOMAN TALKING ON A CELL PHONE's brother was not on the train, because he would have socked the CRAZY MAN in the nose hours ago, that the CRAZY MAN got on the train in Los Angeles, that that was hardly a surprise as lots of crazy people live in Los Angeles, and that many of the people on the train are glad that they are going to Chicago, which is presumed to have a smaller population of crazy people.
It does not seem like anybody in this car is going to sleep anytime soon, so OUR HEROINE goes back to the other, emptier car, and manages to sleep for a full four hours, until she is woken up by the car attendant, who tells her that the train will be in Kansas City in a few minutes and that she can stay in her seat if she wants, but in that case she will have a seat-mate who is getting on at Kansas City. OUR HEROINE considers this for a few moments, and decides to flee back to the last car, where everyone is still asleep after being up late participating in the shenanigans.
At breakfast OUR HEROINE is seated with a couple who have opted for the luxury of a sleeping car, and recall being disturbed slightly past midnight by people shouting for the conductor. The CRAZY MAN cleverly timed his craziness during the shift change of the train crew, when every single Person of Authority on the train was all the way at the other end, near the engine, and therefore the entire train was woken up by the people from the last car trying to find someone who could deal with him. The couple, however, had no idea what was happening, and most of the other passengers in the sleepers are similarly in the dark, and OUR HEROINE finds herself in great demand as a raconteur, and relates The Tale of the Crazy Man to the other passengers several times. The two Amish couples (the train is, for some reason, filled with Amish people) sitting at the table across the aisle look disapproving of all this gossip.
The scenery this day is flat and dull. There is snow on the ground as the train approaches Chicago. In Chicago, OUR HEROINE must wait six hours for the train to New York. However, she is met at the station by john_j_enright, and after some disapproving looks from the Amish couples and a tussle with the train station lockers, which require fingerprints to open but don't like any of OUR HEROINE's, they go off to climb the Sears Tower and look at things and have Chinese food for dinner and see snow and have merry time.
ACT III: Overnight to New York
OUR HEROINE gets on the train to New York, which leaves Chicago at 10 p.m. and arrives in NY about nineteen hours later. This train, alas, more cramped, because several pairs of seats have signs on them that say, DO NOT SIT. OUR HEROINE sulks because the pair of seats she has claimed is not positioned very well in regard to the window. However, it is the last free pair, after which people are forced into the indignity of sitting two to each pair of seats. OUR HEROINE stretches across the seats. Then, from a few rows in front of her, she hears...
CONDUCTOR: You can't sit there. Didn't you read the sign?
ELDERLY WOMAN: Whine whine whine what are you talking about whine whine whiny-whine-whine.
CONDUCTOR: Out! Out I say!
ELDERLY WOMAN: (after much grumbling, gathers her things and looks for an empty seat. Spies OUR HEROINE, who, admittedly, looks more respectable than the vast majority of the other people in the car. And plonks down next to her, complaining of having been "turned out.") Don't you look at me with that sour face, missy! We all have to double up here and you won't get anyone better than me sitting next do you!
OUR HEROINE: (does not say, "Actually, I think I could do considerably better than you as a seat-companion, you old hag. I mean, I could have had one of the hot-but-disreputable-looking young men sitting next to me.") Humph. (takes out cell phone, calls dianthe and has a long, loud, whiny conversation that is calculated to annoy the ELDERLY WOMAN.)
The train starts to move. People attempt to go to sleep. OUR HEROINE stays up and tries to read. However, when the lights in the car go out, she discovers that the reading light over her head is not working. OUR HEROINE barges out in search of the conductor, whines and is given a pair of empty seats to herself. As these are situated much better in regard to the window, OUR HEROINE smiles smugly to herself, and eventually goes to sleep.
Five hours later:
MYSTERIOUS MAN: Mumble-mumble grumble-grum!
OUR HEROINE: (opens her eyes, stares, and squints. She pulls out her earplugs.) Wha?
MAN: U.S. Border Patrol. Are you an American citizen?
OUR HEROINE: (still completely sleep-deprived) Buh...??
BORDER PATROL MAN: All right then. (moves on to next passenger) Are you an American citizen? (He goes down the car in this fashion, waking everyone up. The only people who answer him coherently are Canadian, and are made to produce passports.)
The train is near Buffalo, and it is six o'clock in the morning, and it is snowing. The rest of the day passes uneventfully, and OUR HEROINE arrives in New York in the evening, where she is met by dianthe and they have an exciting time wrestling her luggage down the stairs to the subway.