ESSAY / RIDING THE RAILS
Last September I went to fashion week with an earache. I had been on a surf trip the weekend prior, and it turns out that camping after surfing in the dirty Pacific is inadvisable, without properly cleansing the delicate canals of your cranium. I woke up on the morning of my departure, and it felt like a sock was stuck in my ear canal. I flew to JFK, and upon landing I felt the most incredible pain in my head as the pressure in the cabin changed. Over the next seven days, I held my appointments, while craning my right ear towards my clients in an attempt to hear them better. I thought perhaps there was something stuck in there. As the week passed, I experienced vertigo, confusion, and more pain in my head than I had ever known. On the morning I was to depart, I called my cousin, who is an MD. She said I should go see the doctor, because if I flew and ruptured my ear drum, I would have to stay out of the sea for up to six months. Enough said. I went to see the fancy ENT uptown. My flight was in 5 hours. He looked in my ear, and explained that the reason I could not hear was because the tissue in my canal was so swollen that sound could not penetrate. I was in such a terrible state that I was to take four different medications, and stay on the ground for the next seven days, because if I flew, my eardrum would burst. I would not be heading to JFK.
I went to the pharmacy and collected my $250 ear drops, and my menagerie of other tonics and balms. I called my husband in tears. I did not want to stay in New York for another week. I was desperate to see my kid, and get home to California. Luke responded calmly that I would take the train. The train. How simple. I got off the phone and walked back downtown feeling defeated and miserable. Thirty minutes later he had a sleeper car booked out of Penn Station the next afternoon at 3:30 pm. That night I stayed with my friends in Chelsea. They worked hard to help boost my esteem. The next morning, I went to Whole Foods and bought $100 worth of juices, fruits, protein bars, and jerky. I did not know what kind of food was served on Amtrak, but I was going to be prepared for the worst. I went to the bookstore and bought a new journal, a Paris Review, and a Joan Didion. I would be home in three days. I would have a new experience. I would have time to rest. I would make the very best of this strange turn of events.
I collected my bags and headed off to the station in a taxi. I sat for 45 minutes next to a large Amish group whose menfolk had the most incredible style. They looked like they were about to walk in a Comme de show, and had the finest black leather attaches I had ever seen. I knew better than to inquire. At 3pm, an announcement was made. My time had come. I wandered down to the track, found my train, and boarded. Each sleeper car has eight rooms. Each car has a steward, which is sort of like a butler. I met mine, and his name was Alfred. All I could think was Batman. As I made my way down the hall, a small man, humped over in his age, was ambling ever so slowly down the hall. I took his arm under mine, and helped him along. His room was situated directly across from mine. We exchanged names. His was Wilson. He was 78 years old, and on holiday from his retirement community in New Jersey. I put my bags into my room, and helped Wilson with his. I invited my new neighbor to be my date for dinner that night, and he accepted. He assured me that the key to riding the train was dinner at the first seating, which was 5:30pm, and then off to bed early so you could wake at first light to see the sights. I decided to follow his lead, as he was clearly versed in this manner of travel.
My room had a small table and two comfortable seats that faced each other. Next to the seat on the left was a small toilet, that folded into a bench when the seat was down. Above that was a sink that folded out of the wall, and a mirror. It was all very efficient and Japanese, and I was thoroughly impressed. As we pulled out of the station and headed North out of the city, I felt myself melt into my seat with a resolve that the next three days would be a retreat, and surely an adventure that I would not soon forget. As the weeds and trees rushed by the tracks, I felt at ease in my little metal booth.
At 5 pm Wilson and I met in the hall. He put his worn hand on my shoulder. It took 18 minutes to walk the length of the 4 cars that stretched out between our car and the dining room car. Wilson had an extreme humpback, and was severely disabled. I could not believe that he was out traveling the country by himself, with no assistance and no cane. He did not seem to mind.
Wilson suggested the salmon at dinner. He also told me exactly what I was to eat during the other meals, and at which time I would best enjoy those. Another couple joined us at our table. As the dining room filled, I realized that I was the youngest passenger by at least 20 years. We traded stories around the dinner table, as to where we were going, and the reason for our travels. Wilson was on his way to Portland, then down to LA, and back. I asked him why he didn’t fly. He raised his voice and thundered back, “You can’t see America from the sky, Jesse!” True that, Wilson. The food was decent. I would not need to eat jerky tonight.
After dinner we slowly made our way back to our car. In our absence, Alfred had turned down our beds, which involved folding down the seats, folding up the table, and setting a firm yet comfortable mattress atop. The bedding was neat and clean. We were on our way to Chicago. The moon was up in the sky. Wilson asked from across the way, “Jesse, would you like a glass of port?” I explained that I was on heavy medication for my ear, and that I was regretfully unable to join him. I said good night, and closed my little door with a click. I settled into bed with my copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and felt all at once the magic of this cinematic experience.
A few hours later, I had a question for Alfred about the morning routine, and I pulled my curtain aside only to find the most incredible scene. Wilson’s door was still wide open. His curtain was drawn closed, but the lower half of his room was still visible from my window. He was clearly in the midst of getting ready for bed, as his socks and shoes had been removed, and his gnarled hoof-like toenails were poking into the hall. He struggled to pull off his jeans, which were sitting around his ankles, his hairy legs exposed in the the dim fluorescent light. A half empty bottle of port set upon the floor just to the right. This was a task with which I was simply unwilling to assist. I had not laughed this hard in a very long time. I was in fact starting to feel better.
The next morning, I took a shower down the hall. The stall was small but tidy. Wilson was already up and dressed, his room converted back to two seats and a table. He was reading the New York Times, and his port was neatly packed into a canvas bag by his side.
Two hours later we pulled into the Chicago station. Wilson and I were to part ways, as he headed Northwest to Portland, and I would head Southwest to Los Angeles. As I pulled my rolling bag down the platform, Wilson came rumbling by on the back of a luggage cart smiling his giant smile, and waving gracefully. I would miss this old friend of mine.
I had a four-hour layover in Chicago. Two of my dear friends from college met me in the coffee shop in the station. We stowed my bags and walked the streets, and caught up on the many years that time and distance had kept us apart. It was nostalgic to be back in my home state. I had gone to University two hours south of Chicago, and my family was three hours south of there. I sat for a long time staring at a body of water that I used to know.
At 2pm, I boarded the Southwestern Chief. This train would carry me home in 2 days. I found my new room. It was the same as the last. Over the next 2 days I would meet many people, all over the age of 60, traveling the country by train for many reasons. One gal was afraid to fly, most were on vacation. As I passed the hours in my room, I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the beautiful scene beyond the window. Most of what I saw were vast open spaces, with nothing but nature, and the telephone lines that ran along side the track. I saw antelope prancing, birds soaring, mountains rising, and fields rushing by. America was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
That night, on my way to dinner, I passed a room with a handsome older couple inside. The gentleman had a wonderful look. I peeked my head in, and asked him if he would allow me to shoot his portrait some time over the course of the next days. He smiled, and said of course… and then added that everyone always wanted to take his picture. I found that odd. How many people really want to document this fella’s rad fashion taste? But I believed him. His name was Bill, and was wearing a navy fisherman’s sweater, a Kangol hat, corduroys, and heather grey socks that sat in a well worn pair of Birkenstocks. His wife, whose name was Jan, said with a wink, “He’ll wear red tomorrow, so it will make a better picture.” Weird.
The next morning, after breakfast, we stopped in a small town somewhere in the southwest. I saw Bill out on the platform. He was indeed wearing red. I inquired as to whether this was an alright time to take his portrait, and he said of course. I shot a few frames of Bill, his large white beard glinting in the sun. Jan suggested that I might want my photograph taken with him. Again, I thought this was weird, but I said sure. As Bill put his arm around my shoulder and we smiled for the camera, he whispered something about me being naughty or nice, I thought for a moment that he was truly creepy, and then it hit me all at once, I was standing with my arm around Santa. When Jan finished, I hugged Bill. He pulled out his wallet, and passed me his card- He was from Knoxville, and he did parties, special events, school pageants, and more. Bill, who knew? I didn’t. I saw a hip well-fashioned sailor, and everyone else saw Papa Noel. So there was that.
The Southwestern Chief took us from Chicago to LA. It was a long stretch, and not many people changed trains. As the hours passed, and meals were shared, we the passengers started to form a sort of a bond. My story had circulated around the tribe, as I stuck out as a much younger traveler. The servers in the dining car called me tender names, and told others about my line of work, as if they had a stake in my business. Old ladies would yell across the dining room, “Jesse, tell Barb the name of your website again.” Thursday morning Jean leaned back over her booth into my ear as I was having coffee, and said “I looked you up, nice clothes, but too expensive for my blood.” We spent long chunks of time discussing the value of something that is made in a socially and environmentally conscious manner. I did not intend to stop Jean from shopping at K-Mart. I just wanted to explain where I was coming from.
By Thursday night, I was getting stir crazy. I had my 5:30 pm meal, and went to bed. I would be home tomorrow, and for that I was grateful. We were supposed to arrive at 8:30am. By 11am I was loosing my shit. We were running very late, and we were still an hour from LA. I was tired of eating Amtrak French Toast. I was tired of talking to Jean, and Barb. I was really fucking tired of sitting. The terrain outside started to to change. Industrial buildings overtook the scene. Garbage and spray paint replaced the antelope frolicking in the fields. I prepared my mind to re-enter the urban sprawl. As we pulled into the station, I felt many emotions. I stepped off the train with my bags in tow. On the platform was a handsome man, a face I knew as well as my own. As I wrapped my arms around him, he said, “Welcome home”, which I could hear with both ears.