Sunday, November 25, 2012

Strangers on a Train: My many Amtrak adventures

Hitchcock playfully reminds us that a mere letter separates "strangers" from "stranglers."

The very idea of a well-organized, efficient, and commonly-used mass transit system is, I am convinced, antithetical to the entire American way of life.

After all, this is the land of Rugged Inividualism, John Wayne, and Not in My Backyard politics. We're Americans, dammit, and when we want to get from one place to another, we do so the way God intended: with each person in his or her own gas-guzzling vehicle. If we simply must gather with our fellow Americans for transportation purposes, we want to at least use a method which burns up as much fuel as possible, i.e. airplanes. While Europeans and Asians may be satisfied with their versatile and convenient railroad systems, we Americans believe that trains are best used for carrying coal, sheet metal, and hapless schmucks. That last group includes me, I'm sorry to report.

As the only one in my family living in Illinois, I am expected to travel to Indiana every time a major holiday rolls around. Since I despise driving and all but refuse to embark upon any car trip longer than 40 minutes, my only real option is to take an Amtrak train to a town somewhat near the one where my sister resides. I've been doing this several times a year for about ten years now, which gets me wondering how much of my life I've spent aboard trains. After all, my job requires me to take a commuter train to and from Chicago every morning, so at least 1-2 hours of every working day is spent on the rails.

But there's a vast difference, at least in my mind, between the Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line train which takes me to and from my job and the Amtrak Capital Limited which hauls me to Indiana a few times every year. Let me explain. Do you remember those "All Aboard America" Amtrak commercials from the 1980s?

Yeah, Amtrak  is nothing like that.

Bagge's bluntly-titled comic
While my daily commuter train runs according a strictly-timed schedule and is used mainly by quiet, well-behaved business people, thus allowing me ample opportunity to catch up on my reading, the typical Amtrak train operates according to a vague, mysterious itinerary and is used frequently by social outcasts and twitchy psychotics, thus allowing me ample opportunity to ponder the futility of existence. Anyone who tells you that "life is short" has never ridden on one of these passenger trains, I assure you. Amtrak is where time goes to die a horrible death. Delays, disruptions, and malfunctions are frequent, and you will frequently find yourself spending many hours in fairly cramped quarters with some bizarre, ornery, and unpleasant folks. (If you're lucky, this applies only to your fellow passengers and not the crew members.) Cartoonist Peter Bagge wrote a very funny and true comic about his railroad experience a few years ago, and I strongly encourage you to read it. For my part, though, I'd like to share some of my more... uh, colorful anecdotes from a decade of experience with Amtrak.

My Amtrak companion
First and foremost, I have to tell you about Mitch, a burly and heavily intoxicated man in his mid-40s.  If you're trying to picture him, imagine Popeye as a washed-up alcoholic. His real name was Michael, you see, but everyone called him "Mitch." I knew that because Mitch himself told me -- without being asked -- within the first 30 seconds of sitting down next to me. He also told me of his unheralded one-man heroics in the US invasion of Granada and informed me that, if you knew anything whatsoever about boxing, you could tell that the fight choreography in Rocky II was in no way realistic.

Mitch talked of these and many other topics during my trip, all without any prompting from me whatsoever, and was convinced that his inspirational life story would make a great book -- a book he thought I should write. I politely demurred and made my way toward the exit, suitcase in hand, well before the train reached my stop. The last I saw Mitch, he was trying to pick a fistfight with some Menonite passengers who were seated behind us over whose carpentry skills were superior. Naturally, Mitch felt he could raise a barn better than any Menonite and was willing to "prove" this assertion with his fists if need be.

"Hello, complete stranger!"
Oh, and then there's the Pilgrim, a rather bland-looking middle-aged man notable only for the fact that he travels in a homemade "pilgrim" costume complete with a lidless construction-paper "hat." I've seen the Pilgrim on a few Amtrak journeys, both coming and going, and I can report that he wears the costume for the entire round trip. His crude, improvised get-up resembles the kind a child might wear for a school pageant, only sized for an adult's frame.

What makes the Pilgrim especially notable is that he lectures his fellow passengers about the First Thanksgiving, reading from what appear to be printouts of Wikipedia entries. He limits these performances to the train's "observation car," which serves as a combination lounge and snack bar. His audiences, chosen at random, are usually bewildered into silence by his unique "act," but occasionally some nervy teenagers will applaud when he finishes.

With passengers like Mitch and the Pilgrim, there is an element of tragedy lurking beneath the surreal-yet-entertaining exterior. But with other passengers, the tragedy is front and center, impossible to ignore or avoid. Such is the case with an elderly gentleman I encountered on Amtrak several years ago. This particular train had already been delayed by several hours before it even left Chicago due to some nebulously-described "mechanical problems," and somewhere in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, the train came to a dead stop for quite a long while. The passengers speculated over this new delay, and eventually, the story began to take shape. We should have seen it coming. One particular passenger, a haggard and wild-eyed older fellow, had been creating a tense atmosphere since we'd boarded in Chicago by wandering around the waiting area, babbling to himself, and glaring with menace at the other passengers.

Unlike airports, Amtrak stations have very few security checks for its passengers, so this obviously-deranged man was allowed to board. Once the train got underway, he stalked the aisles, mumbling and jabbering as the rest of us avoided his gaze. The crew members tried without apparent success to subdue him and convince him to return to his seat. When we looked out the window of the now-stopped train, we saw a whole assortment of emergency vehicles: police cruisers, a fire truck, and an ambulance. They were physically restraining this man and transporting him to the nearest hospital. (Judging by the terrain, there could not have been a hospital within an hour's drive of that locale.)

Later, once the train was again underway, a few of the conductors were all-too-willing to share the man's eerie history: he'd been a psychologist once and was under the mistaken, deluded impression that he was on his way to visit a newly-opened clinic on the East Coast. Amtrak managed to contact a relative, the man's brother, who said that the man had retired decades ago and that there was no such clinic. Apparently, this man had purchased a train ticket and boarded the Capital Limited without informing anyone. In case you're wondering, I got to my stop at four in the morning -- six hours late for what should have been a three-hour ride. That was one of the longest nights of my life.

"Vare iss ze food?"
Of course, not all the bad/bizarre behavior I've seen aboard Amtrak trains (both by passengers and by crew members) is as severe as what I've just described. Most of it would best be described as "eccentric rudeness" by people who have no perspective whatsoever on themselves. And I mean none. Perhaps these people don't realize that they can be seen and heard by others. Maybe they don't care.

Take the case of a passenger I encountered on my most recent trip, just a few days ago. Clad in all black and totally bald, this 50-ish man was a blustery German tourist who curiously reminded me of Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, except with a Teutonic accent and the temper of Yosemite Sam. It was like you took an old-school James Bond villain and put him through the indignities of waiting in line at a grungy train station and being cooped up with a bunch of common tourists. A guy like this really belongs in a secret fortress inside a volcano, with an army of jumpsuit-wearing henchmen at his disposal.

I knew he was going to be trouble even before the train left the station. Instead of taking a crew member aside and quietly asking a question, the way a normal person might do, he stood in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic in both directions, and loudly said to a conductor (and here I make an attempt to convey his pronunciation): "My schtop iss at four in zee morning. Venn ve get dare and I am shleeping, you vill vake me, yes?" After the conductor assured him that, yes, he would be properly woken for his 4:00am stop ("That's our job!"), he returned grandly to his seat.

A while later, I made my usual journey over to the observation/cafe car to pick up an overpriced bag of Skittles and a can of room-temperature ginger ale and consume them while I stared at the burned-out factories, past-their-prime strip malls, and empty fields which constitute the typical "view" along this particular line.

Just as I was about to pay the crew member on duty, our German friend burst into the room and demanded to know, "Vare iss ze food?" When the crew member limply pointed to the choices on offer -- prepackaged snacks and a few microwaveable items in a freezer case -- the would-be Bond nemesis blew a gasket.

"All ziss is frozen! Ziss is SHIT! Vare is food?!"

The crew member tried to explain that there was also a dining car aboard the train where he could purchase some fancier entrees (which ranged from $16 to $25), but this answer did not satisfy him.

"I pay! I pay!" he demanded. "Vare iss ze food?! Not ziss shit! I pay!"

A hippie-looking dude with a baby strapped to his chest said at this point, "Hey, bro, there are kids here, man. You can't cuss like that." This, I'm afraid, provoked only a further torrent of obscenity from the German traveler (even though the man's English might have been shaky, he was well-schooled in profanity), but he eventually did abandon the cafe car in a huff.

I saw him a few minutes later being forcibly but politely ejected from the dining car as he explained his gastronomic grievances to a new set of crew members, who were trying to convince him to return to the cafe car from whence he'd just come."You go first! You go first!" he told them, as they stared at him in total confusion. Eventually, the psuedo-Blofeld realized that he was not going to get his way, but before he returned to his seat, he turned and gave the crew members an ominous-sounding order: "You vill vake me!"

That's Amtrak, people. You can't make this stuff up. All aboard!


  1. Is it weird that this makes me want to ride more trains? The NYC Subway has its share of weirdos, but there's something about Amtrack and its long distance/no exit feel that just transcends that.

  2. These passengers do make for some entertaining moments. No doubt about it. What I didn't write about, however, were the more common annoyances: the crying babies, the slobs who just throw their discarded food wrappers on the floor, etc. On this last journey, my seatmate (who had said riding the train made her feel that she was, in her words, "taking the Pony Express") was an ideal companion in the fact that she didn't talk much -- or at all -- during the trip. She just played The Sims on her laptop the entire time. But directly across the aisle from us were two women who had previously been strangers to each other but apparently were bonding over their religion-based charity work and teaching. Nothing wrong with being religious or charitable, of course, but these women nattered on for hours, talking about God and salvation in a very shallow, self-congratulatory way that grated on my nerves. If you didn't speak English, you might guess from the tone of their voices that they were discussing Black Friday deals or how to maintain a gluten-free diet. Typical line: "I got saved when I was, like... when I was real young." Apparently, both women were involved in programs which taught religion to underprivileged children. ("They're so WILD!" said one and related an anecdote about a boy standing on his chair as proof.) What really killed me were the Chicken Soup for the Soul-type aphorisms and sayings which dotted their conversation. "Those kids teach me, like, so much!" was one pronouncement which provoked a deep, weary sigh of resignation from me.