Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Amtrak Nightmare Part II

In Part II – The Nightmare Continues

When last we left the nightmare train, the Loudmouth from Grocery Row had gone to get something to eat. The silence was unbelievable, spoiled only by the thought that he would return. Unless, by some stroke of luck, he took a wrong turn and walked out the door as the train sped through the South.

No such luck. Before long, he returned. I glanced to the side and saw that the woman who was sitting next to him had fallen into a coma. Her head lolled like that of a doll abandoned by a thoughtless child. The Grocer stopped to look at her before he sat down and noticed that she was unresponsive.

“Oh, goin’ to sleep on me, huh?” His voice cut the silence like a dum-dum bullet through plate glass.

She, of course, could not or would not respond. Instead she continued dead possum routine.

The Grocer sat and tried for about a millisecond to contemplate the back of the seat in front of him. Nope, being alone with himself wasn’t an option. Instead he pulled out his cell phone, in a train car filled with people trying to get as much sleep as they could squeezed and squashed in their egg-carton seats. And he begins a series of calls to what must have been his wife and then co-workers. There were worries about aisles with carrots and cabbages. Concern over milk cartons and orange juice. Who was taking a vacation and how would they work out the schedule. Did that delivery of green peppers really get dumped all over Main Street? Was the supermarket owner really banging the check-out girls? And, yes, honey, the train arrives at 9 AM!

That was a piece of news I almost didn’t believe. He was actually going to leave the train. In just a few hours. There would be silence for the rest of the eight or nine hours to Ft. Lauderdale. I would only believe it when I saw him leave.

At some point, he began to get no answer to calls he was placing. At least some of his friends were smart.

Then he fell asleep. His head rolled back and forth, his mouth open as if inviting whatever flying creatures there were buzzing about the train.

And then it began.

The Grocer snored. Not a gentle, low buzzing that signified contented sleep. No, this man snored like a pig in shit. Happily, loudly, as if gulping and grinding the air to get every last bit of sustenance from it. As if the air were a dishrag to be wrung out and shredded.

Reading became impossible. I turned out the lights and tried to sleep – using earplugs and lots of fortitude. Sleep did not come, at least not full, rejuvenating, reinvigorating sleep. Fits and starts was more like it.

But the good thing was that as we stopped here and there in little Southern towns and dots on the map, I was able to see some Christmas sights. Like the one town that had a huge Christmas tree and light display around a building next to the station. The tree was brilliant with white lights, everything was silent and still. The red brick building seemed clean and neat and almost like a movie set. I stared at it a long time and realized that snoring or no, it was a sight that made me feel good. And, to my surprise, even the snoring ceased.

But the best part of the Nightmare Train was yet to come.

The Grocer left the train. All was silence and discomfort. The seats were still small, the train car still suffocating, but at leas there was peace.

The hours dragged by. There was no sign of the conductor or anyone else from Amtrak officialdom. The train made its stops. The public address system was not functional except for occasional muffled static. But no words, no announcements.

We all had to guess at the stations and use clocks and schedules to figure out where we were and when our stops would come.

Finally the man we’d encountered at the beginning of the trip showed up in the car. This was the harried looking guy with hollow eyes and the hair which had gone through electro-shock therapy and looked it. The self-same man who seemed never to know what was going on or what he was supposed to do.

But he was all there was. So I got his attention and asked exactly what time we’d be arriving in Ft. Lauderdale.

“Train will arrive at 6:35 PM,” he said with exactitude.

I glanced at my cell phone clock and saw that we had an hour or so. Jason and I decided that we’d get our bags down about half an hour before arrival.

So Six o’clock came and we the train made a stop. No one announced it, the PA system didn’t even crackle into it’s half-life state. There was no clear sign what station it was but a few people got on and a few people got off.

We were getting our bags down when at 6:11 PM, the train stopped again. This time it appeared that we were ion the middle of a highway. One older woman, sitting farther up the aisle said so everyone could hear her, “Why are we stopped in the middle of a highway? What is this?”

Jason looked out the window and sad, “This must be a stop.” I said it couldn’t be. He said, “There are people getting on with a lot of baggage.”

Somehow that sparked something in my mind. Some tiny distant claxon began to sound. I got up from my seat and began to look around. I wanted to ask someone what stop this was but there was no one. Then, I felt the tug of the train as it began to pull out of the station.

I saw the station sign: Ft. Lauderdale!

I was panicked and furious. No one had come to remind us. No one had said that the station was too small for the train. The PA system never made a sound. We’d been left high and dry.

In an instant my anger overtook me and I ran through the cars in search of Mr. Electroshock Hair. I found him two cars back in an empty car – one which he’d conveniently not seated anyone. But he was busy checking out the seats.
“We just pulled out of Ft. Lauderdale. You didn’t tell us it was coming up. You said 6:35,” I snapped. I was loud, stern and angry. “What do we do now?”

“You can get off at Hollywood. The next stop?”

“But why didn’t you tell us the stop was coming up?”

“I did. I came into the car and told everyone. I told you, you were gonna hafta walk up two cars to get out.”
“No you didn’t.”
He shrugged. As if to say ‘I don’t give a good goddamn.”

I ran back to our car. Jason and I got the bags down and then I questioned several other passengers. I asked them if anyone had been in the car to announce the Ft. Lauderdale station. All of them said no.

When Mr. Electroshock Hair ambled into our car, I brought him face to face with the other passengers and asked them to tell him that he had not alerted us to the station stop. At first no one would repeat what they’d told me, as if this guy was some authority figure they had to fear. And that only served to increase my anger.

“Tell him!” I snarled. “Tell him what you told me. Tell him he didn’t come into this car.”

Momentary silence. Then I snapped again, “Tell him!”

And they did.

He just shrugged again, not giving a rat’s ass for his dereliction of duty.

At that point, exhausted and disgusted, I just wanted to get out of the train. Jason and I took our bags and hurried up two cars to get out at the Hollywood station.

Fifty dollars, a constantly whining cab driver, and a short ride later we were in glorious Ft. Lauderdale.

I wanted to kiss the ground. But I figured, germs I didn’t need.

Amtrak Nightmare Part I

AMTRAK Nightmare! Part I

Ever think of taking the train for a leisurely trip to a distant location?

Think again! And Don’t Do It!

This year, best friend Jason (who grows more muscular and hot every day as he spends his time exercising away at the gym) and I decided to take the train to Florida. We had first entertained the idea because we thought we’d take Jason’s car to FL and save the cost of renting a car while there.

Nope. That wouldn’t work. It cost nearly a thousand dollars – depending on when you go – it could be more it could be less. Amtrak is worse than the airlines when it comes to screwing around with fares, raising them arbitrarily, lowering them when you’re not looking.

Even worse: if you live in Philly or anywhere north of Virginia, you have to drive your car down to Virginia to board it and yourself onto the Auto Train. That’s several hours right there. And then, it won’t leave you at your desired location. No, it leaves you somewhere north of Orlando. So, should you want to go anywhere else, you take your car and (after an tiring train trip) drive to that location.

But I went into “take the train” mode and, since flying isn’t one of my favorite things, I thought why not? Priced it out and made reservations. Jason misheard me when I said that it would take 24 (actually more) hours to get there. He thought I meant overnight and thought that wouldn’t be so bad.

I was looking forward to the trip but not relishing the long train ride. I’d taken a similar route before. Once, when researching material for a novel, I was invited to a WWII infantry reunion. In the South. I went by train and remembered somewhat more comfortable seats than they have in reality. But on that trip the other passengers included some little children whose parents were not familiar with the concepts of discipline, sleep-time, courtesy, concern for others, awareness that they are not the only people in the train, or awareness that not everyone likes screaming, dirty kids running up and down the aisles throughout the night.

Well, when vacation time arrived, we boarded the train in Philadelphia. I should have known right then that things were not right.

First: they could not get the down escalator to work. So all of us had to lug our bags down a very long staircase.

Then: the train eventually arrived in the station and there was little indication about where to board. When an attendant did emerge from the car, he looked as if he’d been subjected to a barrage of static electricity for hours before being allowed out. He was disoriented, gruff, and mush-mouthed.

Passengers crowded around him looking at him with hope for direction. He stared back, zombie-eyed, and looked at us as if we were supposed to tell him something. So people started boarding, ignoring him. When I got near enough I asked which car we should take and he pointed to one and said “Seat 12 and 13.” I lugged my bags (three heavy ones) into the car, made my way to seats 12 and 13 and lo and behold, they were taken. No surprise really. The attendant was an idiot.

So I lugged my stuff back and said that the seats were taken. He shrugged and pointed to the other car, saying nothing more. I figured zombies don’t talk much anyway.

We took our bags and found two unoccupied seats. After piling things where we could, we sat down and tried to get settled for the 25 hour trip.

It was then I noticed that the seats were nowhere near as comfortable as I remembered them to be. The space was small and cramped. There was a baseboard that was supposed to lift out and up to give your legs and feet a place to rest. Most of them were broken. And mine was one of the broken ones. But that wasn’t the worst thing about the trip out.

No, there was worse coming on that train. Amtrak Hell was just beginning.

Once we were seated and the train got underway, the guy across the aisle started talking. Not low and he didn’t have a nice voice. I glanced over at him and noticed that he was kind of like an uncooked ham hock. Large, pasty faced, with short cropped hair that was of a nondescript color. But his voice, now that was distinctive. Something between falsetto and baritone, with a Southern twang, and a whiney, grating, unappealing quality. And he rattled on to the woman next to him. I glanced over and noticed that she was an elderly black woman who was half interested in what he was saying, a quarter being polite, and a quarter in need of entertainment for the long train trip.

He was only too glad to provide thrilling tales of his work as a grocery store clerk. He threw in his marital life for kicks, his home renovation adventures, and odds and ends when tales of too many carrots, or too much cabbage weren’t enough.

Problem is that he enjoyed talking at the top of his lungs and never, I mean never, came up for a breath of air.

For FIVE hours straight, he talked and talked. The woman next to him would occasionally laugh or ask a brief question (which he talked over). And he’d barrel on.

I went for some food and tried to find the attendant so we could chage our seats (they were apparently nutsy about people changing seats). He was nowhere to be found. A second attendant laughed about the problem and said I should find the attendant assigned to that car. Which didn’t happen because he apparently perfectred the art of being invisible.

I returned to my seat and, after casting many a scowl toward the loudmouth green grocer, tried my best to ignore him. Jason gave me earplugs. Even they didn’t keep out the guy’s buzzsaw of a voice.

We tried getting something to eat. Since Jason didn’t want to go to the dining car we each went to the snack bar for something. Jason came back with some kind of sandwich which he found satisfactlry and gave me hope that maybe the snack bar would be cheaper, quicker, and just as good.

I went to the café car and looked over the menu. There was little that a normal human would want but I managed to find a bratwurst sandwich listed. I ordered that and waited while the guy popped it into the microwave and heated it up. Things didn’t look good and I wondered why I didn’t just go to the dining car – I didn’t want to sit at a table with strangers, that was one reason. The other reasons are more complicated.

When I and the bratwurst got back to my seat, I squeezed myself into the oddly shaped space (the space was cramped because the leg rest was stuck in a half-way position, one of my bags had to be wedged under my seat(since all the overhead racks were taken) causing less space to stretch my legs, and various other little inconveniences.

Once seated I tore open the wrapping and bit hungrily into the sandwich. To my surprise, I came up with a mouthful of rubber! The microwave had rubberized the sandwich bun making it damp, far too chewy, and inedible. The bratwurst was marginally better but I figured I needed some protein and ate it without the bread. Didn’t need the carbs but wouldn’t have minded not paying for them.

I choked that sausage down with bottled water for a chaser and went back to trying to read a novel while the Grocer rambled on. Occasionally I’d hear him say, “Are you still with me? You awake? I’m putting you to sleep, ain’t? Just tell me when you want me to shut up.”

Well, no person in their right mind is going to tell someone to shut up who just told them to do just that. Because they never mean it and to tell them to shut up would mean disaster. So, the poor woman just mumbled something which allowed Grocer Man to keep talking (not that he ever really shut up to hear what she had to say).

I’d have battered him with the bratwurst well before he got the chance to as me anything.

Jason was trying to stay busy with books and other things. His earplugs kept him buffered from most of the Grocer’s monologue.

The lights of whatever burg we were passing through created a yellow-red blur in the window and I wished that there was an eject button on the Grocer’s seat. The darkness and gloom were thickening and my mood grew ever more dark. It was getting late and I should have been tired. Just the tension of travel sometimes lets me sleep while on a trip. But the Grocer’s voice was so annoying it kept sleep at bay.

Then, he announced to the woman, dazed in the seat next to him, that he was going to the café car before it closed to get something to eat.

Next: The Nightmare Continues Down the Track