… 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?
Well, I’ve always wanted to experience a train ride. There’s one near my city that runs up to a popular touristy mountain town. Probably won’t get to share any coordinated pottying though, and I’m pretty sure there won’t be a ferret in sight. Loved reading about your adventure though!
Glad to see you here, Paula. I wish somebody had WARNED me about some of these things before I spent 21 hrs traveling north and, later, another equal amount of time returning south … on the rail.
And, BTW, everything here is absolutely, to the letter, TRUE. And you should read the stuff I left out!
I don’t have a wacky train experience, but my then 4 year old daughter and I used to hop the train in Portland to visit family in Tacoma. We’d sit in the dining car and color and look out the window and it was magical. I have not heard a single person who took a 24+ hour trip say they would do it again, however. You are a brave soul, Jeff!
Many others in my family — incl. my mom, brother, wife, etc. — have had wonderful experiences on the rails. My 2002 travel, unfortunately, caught me at a time when I was a bundle of aches & pains … so it was impossible to be anywhere close to “comfortable”. That said, I certainly encountered some lively characters !
Thanks for posting, Laurie.
OH__MY__GOSH!!! I loved this account of your trip. Laughed seeing the visual you painted. You by the way are a very gifted author.
Thank you, Lavada. Excuse me for a moment while I blush. Okay. I’m back.
I wish I would have had room here to reveal the full story. Many of the scenes I skim over here actually unfolded over some half hour. For example, Mr. Shoes had phoned his wife to bring his hat (which he’d forgotten). When she arrived, you could tell from their interaction that things were very icy. Once she left and he was repossessed of his favorite hat, he became the randy traveler and began smoozing with another passenger within minutes!
I have never traveled on a full-sized train,(as my Friday blog will attest), but I have yet to hear of someone having an enjoyable ride on AMTRAK.I used to hear mixed stories , especially good ones, about older train travels,( I had an older customer when I had my bakery/restaurant who insisted on telling me of his trip on ‘The City of New Orleans’ , an actual train). I have heard so very many AMTRAK horror stories,(unmanned stations in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, lost luggage,accommodations as bad or worse than yours),I have steered-clear and advised people against taking them.It’s sad, really.
We have “My Old Kentucky Home Dinner Train ” here.I hear the trip is pretty when we have a nice Fall, but the price is very high and I hear the food is mediocre. .We do have a nice train museum nearby, in New Haven… Jeff,ever seen it?They have a trip that has an old-fashioned hold-up as a fundraiser every year for charity which sounds like fun…maybe one year I’ll take that ride.
The thing is: I really love the concept of trains. Especially the old-timey ones. Denise and I went on one in E. Tex which has been used in several western movies.
And, like you, I had heard of mixed reviews, though in my case, most of the related experiences were good ones. The prices jumped a couple of hundred dollars just in the few days I was considering whether to go through with the trip. That bummed me out. Our food was not bad, but I really didn’t like the cramped dining and having to share a table with 3 different strangers at every meal.
What appalled me was the so-called SECURITY. This was after 9/11 and It would have been easy for a terrorist to sneak on that train. Nobody EVER asked for my photo ID or anything else.
If I ever ride a train (which is NOT on my to-do list), I’ll be sure to keep all curtains closed. And probably never use the toilet. Ewww!
Love how the folks at the station are so chatty. Makes for a great blog. Ha!
Thanks for the laugh, Jeff.
You’re welcome, Jenn. ANd thanks for the compliment.
As for the toilet — on a 21 hr trip you don’t have many options, Hon.
Bring a few clothes-pins for the curtains.
Ha! You’d be amazed at how long I can hold it. As long as I haven’t had an energy drink, that is.
I will add that I once rode a steam engine train. It was pretty cool.
Oh, yeah, I LOVE those old steam locomotives !
HAHAHAHAHA!!! Love it, Jeff. Hilarious. You’ll have to add some of these details into the next novel. Have you read Double Crossing yet? 1869 train travel was probably better. LOL I took a train from Windsor to Toronto several times in Canada. The “facilities” are similar to an airplane, but no windows. I think Amtrak needs to go back to the 1800s and start over.
Thanks, Meg. No, haven’t read your award-winning novel yet, but it’s very near the top of my TBR pile/list. Because — despite this experience from 2002 — I really do love trains, especially the old-timey ones … as in your story.
I have a friend who has read today’s blog who is a big train guy —and he DRIVES those old locomotives !
You now have me wondering if I really want to try an overnight. You have totally burst the bubble: I now know I could never be Cary Grant on the 20th Century Limited with Eva Marie Saint. I also now know why on the Amtrak website diagrams instead of real photos are used to demonstrate the compartment features.
My two train experiences, other than several MetroNorth transit rides into Grand Central from Connecticut (which doesn’t count), are literally and figuratively miles apart. When I was probasbly 4 or 5 years old, my parents thought my older sister Carolyn and I should experience train travel. Or it could have been a logical way for my mother to take us ahead for a trip to the city in which he would join us later. So my father took us to Bogalusa, with my mother, and put us on the train to New Orleans to see my great-grandparents. Apparently, he hopped in the car as soon as we boarded and headed back to Bush, since ironically, the only thing I recall from that trip was looking out the window and waving to my father and maybe my Uncle Branker and cousin Philip. They stood waving back as the train passed right alongside Uncle Branker’s grocery store in Bush. Odd how that memory sticks yet I recall nothing of arriving in New Orleans at what I presumed would have been a very large and busy station. Knowing my father, the trip may have also been arranged because passenger rail service into and out of Bogalusa was soon to end. And in a way, he wanted us to get the ‘Last Train from Bogalusa’. Sounds like a song for Clarence Gatemouth Brown.
Fast forward many years, many miles, and I had to attend the northeast regional pool and spa convention that took place each year in January in Atlantic City. This is in the ’80s when we lived in Connecticut. My company, headquartered in Stamford, had a booth there each year. It was depressing to attend—a northern, rundown beach resort in the very dead of winter. Perhaps like arriving in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday. I was going to be able to catch a ride back with a fellow worker, but had to get myself down there. I didn’t want to drive as I had done before. Flying was overkill, so our marketing manager, an astute traveler, suggested checking the train schedule to Philly where I could catch a bus to the casinos.
How convenient. I could get on a train right there in Stamford. And it was a REAL train, coming down from Boston, not one of the local MetroNorth units. After a stop at Penn Station and then on to Philadelphia I would catch one of at least two busses to the casino town. And the co-worker suggested I upgrade to ‘business class’ (the company would pay for it) instead of coach. That way I would have a waiter serve me dinner and I’d have a nice wide seat like first class in a plane. So I did.
On the day of departure a snow storm hit the NYC area. Never mind. I’m not flying, remember. Hah! Was I smart not having to be stuck at LaGuardia with a cancelled commuter flight to Atlantic City. The train departed on time. The seat was indeed very nice. I got extra service from a waiter who helped me stow my luggage overhead. Before dinner, I visited the bar car, a decent experience with a real bartender but really nothing with any ‘atmosphere.’ I had a drink, then returned to my car to have my dinner based on the time I had selected for serving (checking off on the little menu card). A decent meal, as I recall, was served shortly after departing Penn Station. Shortly after my tray was removed the train came to a stop somewhere in south central New Jersey. Apparently the snow storm had caused some trouble on the tracks ahead. We crept along, then stopped, then crept along some more. Oh, and did I mention that because the NYC airports were closed, the train suddenly was filled at Penn Station with businessmen who quickly switched to rail to get out of town. The bar car was crazily-busy, the aisles clogged. I am happy I had my wide seat at least.
We finally arrived, two hours later, in Philly where the weather was somewhat better, but way too late to make the last connection by bus. So a taxi ride. Yes a taxi ride for sixty bucks from downtown Philadelphia to my hotel in Atlantic City. Finally got to my hotel room at one of those gaudy casino places about 2 a.m.
Then the following morning I recall trudging down the boardwalk half asleep to the Atlantic City Convention Center which is the same old, old auditorium where the Miss America pageant was held for eons. Believe me, the pageant contestants aren’t the only things dressed up and made-up for that event. That old building is just about the most dilapidated of gathering places one would ever encounter and about the same age as the old, old Covington High School gym of my youth. It goes to show how much tinsel and colored lights and a good orchestra can cover up. Was that Bert Parks I saw over there with the lovely models at the hot tub booth?
Oh, I truly needed some more coffee that morning. Or better yet, a brisk walk along the cold and windy Boardwalk.
Jeff, would the roomette you were in have stood some mood-changing LED lights in the recesses?
Wow, Ted. Loved your multi-leveled accounts … and glad you stopped in today.
I can’t say I remember a Bogalusa run, but I think I recall the train still stopping in Hammond. And of course, Slidell, where my brother embarked for the first leg of his trip to England in ’67.
Your written accounts always have vivid descriptive detail … and (like this one) truly paint a picture.
BTW, there WERE nicer compartments on that train I took, but at considerably higher prices. In fact, the nicest room I saw was the one near the entrance which was likely 4 times the size of mine … and was where the several conductors & servers lounged & socialized. I still don’t know what that cook was supposedly doing in Compartment # 7, unless he was just catching ZZZs between stops.
Ted always has so much to add…remind me to invite you both to my next dinner party…it might be quite a drive…consider taking the train???LOL!(No, AMTRAK runs nowhere near me;the lack of trains or busses here has my friends in India scratching their heads.)
Ted also has a photographic memory of nearly everything in the history of the little town we both grew up in — Covington LA.
I’ve been trying to convince Ted to put all that history on paper (well, electrons) before he starts being as forgetful as the rest of us which are “that” age.
Yeah, Ted! Oneof the reasons Ilike this blog and am workingon another is getting people to tell their stories; too many are lost out there.GO FOR IT!
That’s worse than I remember from the few times I rode in a sleeping car.
You may have had the larger compartment, Lindsay. I got the smallest private compartment which was available … though (in the brochure) it looked plenty large enough. Thanks for visiting today.
Well, I thought I wanted to ride a big fast moving train. LOL Now I’m not so sure! I’ve always liked the little ones at the zoo. 🙂 Thanks for this enjoyable read!
Great to see you here again, Melissa. Yeah, I’ve tended to enjoy the trains such as they have at Disneyland and other theme parks. Though my favorite trip was the one in E. Texas on one of the few operational trains on a such-and-such scale rail. [I don’t recall the designation of the scale, but evidently it’s not what the modern trains run on.]
Only been on a train once, Jeff. My aunt–who owned the kindergarten I went to–took our class on the train from Mobile to Biloxi and back for a field trip. My one specific memory: The seats were upholstered in that (1960s) nylon loop fabric. It was scratchy behind my knees. Isn’t that sad? Adults work so hard to give children exciting and enriching experiences, and it doesn’t always pay off. The effort is important, though, right? There’s hope that the other children in my class were more charmed, and could report a more engaging memory.
Welcome back, Chris. Yes, Mobile to Biloxi is some 50 miles or so on the highway … must have been about a two hour trip on the train (each way). Funny how personal comfort issues can affect our memories of experiences that might have otherwise been ‘grand’. As kids, we traveled through out the west and SW, for example, and saw many wonderful things. But the overwhelming memory is of the stultifying boredom and discomfort of riding for some 10-12 hrs a day in an un-airconditioned car with barely room to wiggle our toes.
Lol Jeff! Too funny!
Thank you, Tiffany. Very pleased to see you here again. Our traffic has been down somewhat this summer — so many people traveling and working on projects.
What an adventure! LOL! I wish the ferrett had been successful in getting that burger, He could’ve casued some havoc if he’d gotten out. I’m not sure I would want to be there if that happened as I have an aversion to rodents.
LOL, Jillian. Had I been writing FICTION instead of relating actual real-life experiences, I certainly would have let the ferret loose. Imagine him scurrying among the legs of those other passengers. Or getting loose inside the train as I boarded! ROFL
Hi Jeff- Well, I have to say, that was an…interesting trip. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden the train in the states, but I’m not sure I want to now.
I have had the pleasure to ride over an over night train in Thailand and it was wonderful. Our rooms were spacious and you couldn’t beat watching wild elephants and water buffalo from your window. I’ve also done over night trips in Scotland/England, and in Switzerland (The Orient Express) and have had many many hours training all through Europe. All in all, I love training and would do it again in a heart beat…over there.
Glad to have you back, Stacey — both at your own Muse Tracks and here to comment.
From nearly everything I’ve heard, I think I would really enjoy rail travel in either Europe or the British Isles. And I love the notion of being on the storied Orient Express.
Pingback: Misadventuring on Vacation | Four Foxes, One Hound