… and a Drain on my Brain
By Jeff Salter
We’re talking trains and my only significant rail experience was travel to a family wedding in April, 2002. This version is GREATLY condensed — the original was over three times this long.
The Birmingham “terminal” looks like a dingy underground bus station from the 1960s. One tiny office; a window sign says the single disheveled attendant is busy elsewhere.
The train from Meridian is late. The attendant finally appears at the other end of the large lobby and spots me outside his window … where I’ve been standing for 20 minutes. He shouts, “You need a ticket?”
“No, I’ve got one. I’m just trying to check in.” I reply.
“Okay, you’re checked.” And he dashes away.
There’s a flurry of activity above us — evidently the train has finally arrived. Shortly, five police-persons bustle through the doors hauling a handcuffed guy who’s toting his Burger King sandwich and basketball. They plop him down in a chair nearby. Then they get him back up and convey him down the hall to my left. In a few more minutes they haul him past us again, this time through the corridor to my right. His sandwich and basketball are left behind in the seat.
A lady from the Meridian train explains that the handcuffed guy was on a cell phone saying something about “taking care of business” when he got to Birmingham. The [post 9/11] train security folks evidently thought he meant business of a nefarious sort. Whatever “business” it was … would have to wait. Plus, he lost his ball and burger!
Shortly, an old geezer enters toting a small pet carrier. I assume it contains a cat or a small dog but the geezer loudly explains (to nobody in particular): it’s a ferret.
Geezer moves the abandoned basketball to another chair and plops down. The station attendant’s interest is evidently piqued by the smell of vermin, because he saunters over … hiking up his pants and looking very official.
“What’s you got in that cage?”
“It’s a ferret.”
There’s a pause, while the attendant tries to remember Amtrak’s ferret regulations. But Geezer continues: “We’re just meetin’ the train. Gonna show it to our grand-daughter.”
“Well …” the attendant’s still trying to contain this situation.
“Don’t worry, he can’t get out,” says Geezer, as the ferret sticks most of its upper body through one of the larger air holes. [These holes vary in size because – I subsequently learn from Mrs. Geezer – the hungry ferret chews on his cage a lot.]
“Well,” says the attendant, still needing the upper hand (for the sake of passengers’ security and terminal efficiency), “… okay.”
Granddaughter arrives, but is not terribly impressed with the caged rodent. The last I see of that family is a slender ferret head straining to reach for the abandoned cheeseburger.
Another future passenger has arrived in the meantime. He’s dressed up … or comports himself that way. And loaded with luggage. He voluntarily announces that the largest bag holds his shoes, the medium one his clothes, and the smallest has books to read on the trip.
At first, Mr. Shoes sits on the row behind me, where he is joined, briefly, by his wife. Within a few minutes after her departure, Mr. Shoes moves to the row in front of me — and begins putting the moves on a female passenger.
“Track 2 upstairs, Position 5. Sleeper cars on the left,” blares the announcement. So I double-time the stairs and sprint the quarter mile up-top.
Huffing and puffing, I inquire, “Is this where I board the sleeping car?”
“Not ‘til I know who you are,” says the plump conductor. So this must be the big security checkpoint.
I flash my ticket.
“Mis-ter Sal-ter,” she intones slowly, as if she’s trying to remember the last time I gave her any difficulty. Pause. “Okay, go on up. Compartment 8. Don’t worry about the luggage in there. The cook was just resting a bit.”
It rattles me that the cook rests in the compartment I’m about to live in for the next 21 hours, but I’m more concerned about getting settled. I bang into all the walls as I twist and turn along the 24-inch-wide aisle. I shouldn’t have worried, however, because the cook had actually been resting in No. 7 instead, directly across the aisle.
The reason it’s called a compartment
The door to No. 8 is open, but I’m sure it’s the wrong place. I had just examined the Amtrak pamphlet photos: spacious sleepers with luxurious appointments. When standing in this compartment, one can scarcely pivot; if the top bunk is lowered you’d better be lying IN it or sitting UNDER it. The actual measurements of the entire compartment are 37” wide by 74” long.
When the conductor lady [“…just call me Pat”] comes by, I inquire about the obvious mistake.
“No, honey, this is it.”
You can put luggage beneath both seats … or in the bird’s nest up over the aisle way … if you think you’ll be able to contort it back out of there. I choose beneath the seats … thereby forfeiting the ability to “recline” either chair.
The miniature toilet is right next to the smaller seat. Fortunately, it has a lid. The fold-down sink is immediately above: one must kneel on the toilet to use the sink.
There’s a minuscule TV (gets two channels) with a screen about five inches diagonal. It’s across from the smaller seat (74 inches away … and thereby practically invisible).
Pat insists on showing me the shower down the hall, despite my insistence that I intend to stay dirty until I get to Baltimore.
Sound really travels in these cars. Just as I can hear most conversations in the adjoining compartments – along with EVERYTHING in the aisle – I can unavoidably know when the people around me are using their potties!
We’re in the older of the two model sleeper cars. These have cloth curtains that don’t close completely because the velcro attachments are about 25 years old. While I’m, uh, ON my pot, I casually glance to my right. I can see through the gaps in my curtain, and through the gaps in his curtain, the passenger in No. 7 is ALSO sitting on his! I hurry and finish first, so everybody will think the smell is coming from No. 7.
The train tracks on this Crescent Line are rough and ragged … causing continuous turbulence and jostling. You can imagine the problems when a man has to urinate. My solution is to lean my left shoulder against the inside wall, brace my right foot against the small seat, grip the bar above the sink with my left hand … and manage everything else with the right hand.
I learn another lesson about using that tiny facility. While braced, as above, I notice the scenery outside my windows has dramatically changed. No longer am I amidst trees, fields, streams, etc. We’re at the station! Suddenly I’m side-by-side with another passenger train! Through THEIR open windows I can see some of them looking through MY open windows! And thereby my lesson: close the drapes when you use the facility … no matter how rustic the setting seems when you commence!
* When you pass between cars, it’s like traversing those wildly gyrating joints in a spook house “ride” at Six Flags.
* When pouring coffee (in the narrow aisle) you have to wedge your back against one wall and your feet on the bottom of the opposite wall.
* When brushing your teeth, what you intended to spit into the little sink might actually land in your seat instead.
* The train going through a tunnel sounds like an angry bee on steroids; passing another train in a tunnel sounds like the muscle-bound bee has a microphone and amplifier.
What is YOUR most interesting train experience?