The Lester File

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Train Trip!

Jan 31, 2010
I arrived with the help of my parents at Union Station Dallas, Tx for a train bound for Chicago, IL. Leaving at 3:40pm. I had a coach ticket and at least 250 lbs. of my most precious possessions ready and waiting to board the train ahead of me. At my father's insistence, I gratefully (although, I would not know how grateful I was until later) allowed him to upgrade my coach seat to a sleeping berth.
The train arrived a few minutes later, then Mom, Dad, and I boarded the train together to check it out. The whole idea was quite strange and almost anachronistic considering the speed and efficiency that comes with air travel. We marveled at the tiny single room, were fascinated by the dining car, and stood struck by the lounge car that showcased windows from floor to ceiling. Chairs were set, staring out of the windows, inviting any passenger to enjoy whatever view happened to cross the tracks.
Dad started to think that the notion of traveling 22 hours in a train like this wasn't such a bad idea after all.
I started to feel the exciting sensation that adventure was approaching or at least that I had won the jackpot. That I had found the best, cheapest, most interesting way to travel long distances. I was going to see America! Awesome.
The train was threatening to leave, so my folks jumped off and we did the bon voyage thing on the platform. My attendant, Charlie, was very nice and assured my ever-loving, ever-anxious father that I would be alright.

I was all settled in my little berth, watching the view quickly go by. The scene began to change from city to town to vast expanse of woodlands and flatlands. But, the most interesting view of all of these was the one in the berth across from mine. A large (too large for a single plane seat) man who looked very much like Santa Clause on vacation was lounging in his seat facing diagonally towards me and had disrobed down to his britches. He caught my brief wide-eyed stare, but made no move to correct his awkward position nor to put clothes back on. So, I smiled to myself, quickly closed the blindes, and resumed my task of figuring out how to lay the seats flat so I could watch a movie that I had downloaded previously on my computer before dinner. The waiter, Lucion, came by to ask when I'd be coming to dinner. 8pm. I closed my eyes for a nap.

I woke up in time for dinner. Most people, passengers and crew alike, always reacted with a little surprise when they realized I was traveling alone. This reaction is probably due to the fact that I look much younger than my years (blessing and a curse), but it also created a kind of Russian Roulette when it came to dining partners. Whenever I came into the dining car, Lucion would seat me with whatever stranger had an open seat. I believe he got a kick out of this small social experiment, but always treated me with extra kindness and understanding.
My first round of this game landed me with a family of travelers from Long Island, NY. They had just been on a trip to visit George W. Bush's library in Austin, Texas. That was the extent and reason for their 3 day journey by train with a connection in Chicago from NY to Texas. In the hour or so that we sat together, I learned very little as they were not a very talkative bunch. I tried to crack a few jokes... to no avail. I finished my veggie burger (which raised some eyebrows from the immediate company) in record time and had a spoonful of ice cream before heading back to the solace of my tiny suite and attempted to get as much sleep as I could get. Thank you, Dad.

February 1, 2010
Crash! I woke up to the eery, unwelcome sound of crunching and grinding that was obviously out of place and abnormal for our journey. The train came to a dead halt. I laid awake for a moment waiting for an announcement or for Charlie to come to my door and give me an update, but nothing happened. As far as I knew, we were still on the track and had not derailed, so I put my headphones on and watched a little more of my movie until I learned something new.
About an hour later, a faint voice came through the PA letting us know that there had been some kind of malfunction and the conductor was off the train trying to figure it out. Having lived in Chicago for a couple of years and riding the CTA, I was familiar with this kind of announcement and didn't bother to listen to them speculate about how long we would be standing still. I let myself drift into sleep again.

I woke up, this time to a moving train, confident that we had been moving for quite sometime. The announcement came that breakfast was being served so I made ready to play Lucion's game again. As the train began to stir, the rumors began circulating that the train had been delayed 4 hours in the night. 4 HOURS.
With a groan, I started sending text messages to my friends in Chicago who were waiting for me to arrive. Bailey in particular had taken off work to meet me at the station at 2pm for an arrival that would probably not occur until late in the night. I was not in a particularly chipper mood, but I was hungry so I moved upstairs to the dining car.
Lucion saw me and sat me down with two ladies who were also travelling alone. As I sat down, one of the ladies, who had been talking non-stop since I entered the car, nodded towards me and continued telling her lengthy life story to the unfortunate, yet very patient and kind, to the other lady sitting in the booth. I ordered some coffee and oatmeal and started listening myself to the autobiography flowing from this woman's lips.
As I watched her, it became clear that the woman was either completely drunk or had not gotten a moment of sleep during the night. Her eyes closed, one and then the other, and then opened again as she talked. She was getting to the part about meeting her now husband on the internet when she almost fell asleep face first in her french toast. The other lady was long gone, but I was still finishing my food when she looked up seemingly confused that I was alone. She said, "I'm sorry, I don't know what I was saying. If I fall asleep in my french toast, laugh, because you're giggle might wake me up."
She then told me that she was a coach passenger and when the train stopped in the night she had slid off of her chair and onto the pathway in between the seats. The night was a series of slipping, falling, getting up, and then slipping again.
I suddenly realized that I could have been potentially peering at myself if my Dad hadn't graciously upgraded my ticket. Again. Thank you, thank you, Dad.

11:30 am
We were passing into St. Louis I decided to check out the lounge car and take in the view of a city I had never seen before. I was interested in seeing the great Arch and taking in what I could. I wrapped myself in my warmest shawl, grabbed a book and my iPhone, and headed up to the great windows. All of the seats were fixed in their outward staring position and getting past them to be able to sit down was a little tricky. A bit like stadium seating or a movie theater. I didn't want to climb over other people so I picked the chair I wanted and stepped over and onto the chair before sitting down. As I righted myself, the man next to me began to stare.
I looked up and he started, saying, "Where were you raised?? You don't put your foot in a chair!"
Me (laughing a little): "You know what, you're right."
Old man (still very serious): "You young people I guess...."
Me (starting to realize that he is serious, in my best Texas accent): "You are right. I do apologize."
Old man (angry now): "I can't believe you just did that."
I was no longer amused by the old man's ramblings and feeling I had done my duty and politely apologized, I resumed righting myself in my chair and pulled out my iPhone. The old man continued to stare at me, which I ignored, and I continued staring at St. Louis. I needed a drink of some sort because whatever had just happened was just straight out of a Chevy Chase movie.

Time for lunch and the last round of Roulette for the trip. Thankfully, the kind ladies at the Valley View Surgery Center had stocked me well with food and water so that I was never in danger of going hungry. I still went up to the dining car for the sake of taking part fully in the railroad experience. This time, I was seated with two gentlemen from Austin, Tx. One man had sort of squirrely features and gold rings adorning most of his fingers, but he seemed friendly, harmless, and married. The other man smiled a toothless smile, reeked a bit of body odor, and loved to laugh at his own jokes. This was going to be a treat.
I quickly learned (as he was eager to tell) that the toothless man was recently divorced, had three children, and taught computer science at the University of Texas. As a Doctor of Computer Science, he said, he was expected to act and dress a certain way, but he didn't play by those rules and went to class comfortable. Yikes. While the other man left to check on his wife, the toothless professor from UT Austin (whose name escapes me) asked me some pointed, not-so-veiled, personal questions about my marital situation which I politely answered. We began complaining about the delay during the night and mentioned something off hand about wanting a bloody mary and he said "that sounds good. I think i'll join you. Matter-of-fact, I'll buy you one. Deal?" He stuck out his hand and at risk of ruining dinner I shook his hand and agreed.
At that moment, squirrely married man came back and we talked about our iPhones and all the cool apps. I welcomed the change in conversation and patiently finished my food while toothless man attempted to keep my attention and move in closer to "see my phone."
In a final attempt to win my affection, he started accidentally showing off hundred dollar bills and paid for his dinner with one such bill. Upon arrival of his change, which was mostly in $1 bills, he made a joke about the usefulness of such bills at strip joints to which I replied that I was very tired all of a sudden and was going to head for a nap. Thankfully, toothless professor man was in coach.

Original arrival time comes and goes. An announcement reverberates through the PA advising that we were about 5.5 hours behind schedule and that the crew was "sorry." Passengers were getting anxious, crew began snapping at anxious passengers, and there were no definite answers for or from anyone about our new ETA. I went back to sleep.

We are within walking distance from Chicago's Union Station, but we are halted again. Waiting for signal clearance. The conductor announces again his apologies and I fall back asleep. I finally order a bloody mary from Charlie and he brings me one along with a serving of delicious bread pudding. AWESOME.

We roll into Union Station and I feverishly text Bailey that I'm off the train and in the baggage claim. She comes around the corner and we begin readying ourselves for the hug to commence when, out of nowhere, a wandering woman blocks her path, asks her for money, and effectively ruins our moment of reunion! It's ok because we hugged it out anyway.

Bailey and I arrive with all of my bags at Aerin's house, we get inside, order a pizza and watch movies on the wall while unpacking. It was a good ending to a strange and unnecessarily long journey. But, i'd probably do it again. Just so I could tell about it later.


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