Monday, April 08, 2013

Amtrak Mosaic

Stained glass train, Dunedin Railway Station
Stained glass train, Dunedin Railway Station. [Photo credit: Velvet Android]

Pissing on a train is easy if your goal is to cover everything in piss. If this isn’t your goal, you will find upon entering the bathroom that it was someone else’s goal and they’ve risen to the challenge.

Unfortunately for you, it will be very difficult to maneuver around the piss because Amtrak has decided to sacrifice volume in order to have more bathrooms; so while there are six bathrooms on any train car, each one is so tiny that when you open the door, you expect 12 clowns to walk out one-by-one.

(This is my infamous clown-car joke. I think it’s hilarious. Nobody else does.)

The bathrooms are small enough so that when you sit on the toilet your knees pop the door open. It’s like short-sheeting someone’s bed. It makes you wonder why they didn’t just put saran wrap on the toilet seat, which would still take your dignity but at least leave you your privacy.

One time the lock on the bathroom was so loose that the vibrations from the rails opened the door while I was standing with my pants around my ankles, facing the outside world. The door swung wide at a leisurely pace, revealing an elderly woman with an oxygen tank and a deflated look on her face, as though I had let her down somehow. The last woman I slept with made a similar face the first time my pants were down.

(I have too much class to make the joke about something in my pants being deflated, but if you wish to do so silently to yourself, take a moment to do it now.



I’ve seen a lot of train stations. Some, like the one in San Luis Obispo, look like broom closets. The one in Seattle looks like the crew got about halfway through building it when the city realized that the place was primarily going to be used as a dormitory by the local homeless population and promptly stopped funding it.

Union Station in Los Angeles reminds me of a Catholic church. For one thing, the outside looks like a mission. For another thing, the inside is filled with Latinos, and they’re pretty much the only serious Catholics left in the world. The waiting area is filled with sunlight streaming in from enormous windows and has these Frank-Lloyd-Wright-esque wooden chairs that always remind me of pews. It’s one of the most beautiful interiors that I’ve ever seen and the seats almost make up for what you’ll be sitting on for the rest of your trip.

Churches are sites where mythology lives. Train stations are like churches in that they strive to bring to life an American mythology. Amtrak marketing, and even some of the architecture in Amtrak stations, calls to mind a romanticized American past. Where churches bring the devout closer to mythology, Amtrak wants to bring you closer to the idealized past that never existed, and I know it didn’t because I’ve taken the train and there’s not much romance in it.

Certainly, the scenery can be gorgeous, but you have to consider that land near the train tracks is often cheap. Occasionally, you will gently roll through Elk Horn Slough and delight in the different birds that live there. Mostly you will tour the outskirts of waste processing centers and the backyards of the poor. So, in a sense, it does live up to its promise of taking you back in time. A time before there was a building code.

Think of socializing on the train like you would in a bar. A bar located in the middle of the poor neighborhood, with windows so that you can stare at them as you drink overpriced booze. I say this because the first thing almost everybody does when they get on a train is go down to the cafĂ© car to start getting hammered. Like a marriage, this is what you do when the romance dies. Now, imagine that once you go inside that bar, you can’t leave the bar for 40 hours. This environment has a way of making people sociable.

Now maybe you understand why people like to talk to strangers on the train. But imagine the kind of people who would willingly stay in a bar for 40 straight hours. Now you have a sense of who you can expect to talk to and the kind of ambiguously truthful stories you will hear on your journey. And the best part is you get to sleep next to one of them.

Someone has described how to sleep in coach seat on a train. This is entirely wrong. The seats are purposefully designed to recline just far enough for you to be aware of the six degrees separating you from actual comfort. The only way to sleep in a coach seat on a train is to mix quaaludes and vodka. That’s the only thing that will let you sleep through your seatmates’ night terrors and the reason why Amtrak doesn’t let you drink your own liquor.

Some of the people you will meet are frightening. I was befriended, against my will, by a combat vet with his own stash of whiskey who entertained me with stories of how he pulled guns on people when they least expected it for minor infractions like waking him up in the morning. He had a way of not staying on topic during a conversation that I would have found hilarious if not for the fact that he was a trained killer with PTSD. And when he would speak to you, he wouldn’t face you directly or make eye contact. I was happy when he detrained in Northern California. He had the aisle seat next to me on one of my trips south. Needless to say, he went to the bathroom first that morning.

As luck would have it, two weeks later, he was on my train going back to Seattle. That was the trip I spent overdosing on Tylenol PM because no one would sell me any of their quaaludes.

One time, I set as my goal having an entire relationship, from start to finish, while on the 40 hour ride down to Southern California.

I figured this would be easy. Hours one through four are the honeymoon stage, the euphoric “wow, you hate sushi too, we are so compatible!” phase. Then there’s the “what do you mean, you don’t like peanut butter? Maybe this was a mistake!” phase of hour 5, followed by “you’re right, at least we both like ice cream” calm, that lasts all the way until you get to “you could have just told me you wanted to move out of our seats, you didn’t have to just move into seat 44 with Captain Morgan over here.” This is typically how my romantic relationships work: they often end long before I ever actually talk to a woman. I find that this way only one person’s time is wasted.

I actually succeeded in this endeavor, but as you might imagine, any woman who could help me make this possible would also have to be emotionally unbalanced. I’ve learned that no matter how strong I think a woman is, once I know her better I find out that her self-confidence belies insecurities that are easier to see when doused liberally with alcohol. In culinary terms, these emotions are “alcohol-soluble” and cannot be detected by the palette otherwise.

Normally this takes me months to discover. But because of the time dilation of the train ride, we hit this stage of our relationship within hours of meeting each other. It may also have been the two bottles of homemade wine (read: grape juice and sterno) she drank in quick succession. Some would say that I should have recognized that she had had too much to drink, but it’s not unusual for women in my company to drink excessively if they can’t leave, so things seemed copacetic to me. When she broke down it happened with its own momentum and grace, like a natural disaster, like she was built to fall apart.

On my numerous trips riding on trains I’ve met many people like this, looking to share their stories with somebody. Arrogantly and naively, I used to think it was something about me that brought it out of them; later I thought that the urge for empathy from a stranger was something that people who ride the train have in common. Now I wonder if, in an age that is post-myth and post-romance, unsure if it wants to be sincere or ironic, we're all like this, looking for empathy from whomever is nearby, be they friends or strangers.