The clocktower at Union Station in Denver has a neon sign that says Travel by Train. Like the station in Portland with a similar message, it is a telling thing that people should need to be reminded that traveling by train is still an option these days. A hundred years ago how were you going to get across the country? In a covered wagon or stage coach? Not if there was train you could take.
Most people would consider a rail journey if it were pitched as a quaint vacation. When it comes to needing to get somewhere, however, they’ll either drive or fly. Trains have been known to run hours behind schedule, and that unreliability factor would be hard to accept for someone on a tight schedule. Having been unemployed for almost four years now, I didn’t need a sign to tell me to take the train. As long as I could sleep on it, I didn’t care if we ever got where we were going.
By the time that we arrived in Denver it was dark. We had a half hour to stretch our legs, so I wandered inside and then had to get in line again when it came time to reboard the train. Up until the very last second, it looked like I’d get lucky and have a seat to myself for the night, but then a kid who’d been having trouble with his ticket got on late and sat down next to me. That was all right, but right away he got busy putting up the leg rest, pulling down the tray, getting out his laptop and headphones, making a little cubicle that blocked me from getting to the aisle. I suggested that he take the window seat, as I’d probably need to get up and down a few times during the night and that was OK was him. He was going as far as Omaha which was ten hours away.
I stayed in the observation car as late as possible, reading a book of travel stories I’d picked up at another free library in a station along the way. When I returned to my seat, close to midnight, the kid was still working on his laptop, programming beats that were spilling out of his headphones. I let it go and turned my back to him, trying to find a position that might work for sleeping. That wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
We were supposed to arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska at three-thirty, but were running over two hours late. By the time we left the station the sun was rising. My father had been from Lincoln and as we passed Cornhusker Stadium it made me think of him and his parents and brother, all of them gone now. I’d been in Lincoln the year before and had tracked down the house he grew up in. The house looked largely the same, but the neighborhood had changed. It was mostly the fast-food restaurants and chain stores you find everywhere in America. Any ties I’d had to the city had long ago been severed.
When the café car opened, I went up to get a coffee, and upon my return the kid, who hadn’t slept all night, was talkative, perhaps excited about the new jams he’d been composing for nine hours straight. Since he was getting off in an hour, I was forgiving and willing to listen to his story. He was a DJ who went by the name of Rad T. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten that name. People in Colorado Springs, where he was from, just started calling him that after he started playing at house parties. Now he was meeting up with a producer in Omaha who had his own studio. The idea was to start making music as soon as he got off the train. The fact that he had no money wasn’t about to stop him. He’d been stranded in Los Angeles once. He wasn’t about to let that happen again. He was sure he was onto something, and I hoped that he was. No money usually means no chance in hell, but that has just been my experience.
Because I’d hardly slept at all, the anxiety started coming on strong once we got into Iowa. There wasn’t anything particularly stressful about the farms and small towns we passed, but now the guy in front of me was supplying the beats, not making them, just passed out with his headphones around his neck. There was a couple behind me with a fidgety baby, and a guy across the aisle who was worried about getting his rental car in Chicago since we were running late and the office would be closed by then. At first, I wasn’t particularly sympathetic, since he’d used a duffel bag to block the seat next to him and I’d ended up with the DJ.
Since I couldn’t help listening to all his drama unfold, however, I gradually got interested and then involved. They weren’t willing to keep the office open an extra half hour for him. He was supposed to be driving all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, that night to visit his mother. When he asked about picking up a car at the airport, they quoted him an extra six hundred dollars. He needed some place to stay, but couldn’t afford a hotel downtown. At that point I let him know about the hostel I’d stayed in a week earlier. If he could still pick up the car in the morning that might work best.
Helping him seemed to help me. I’d been spiraling into a bad depression, sickened by life and the choices ahead of me, but no matter how late we arrived I’d still have hours to kill in Chicago. This guy was in a worse situation and I could tell that his mother was worried about him, even though he was older than me and recently retired.
We crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington and by now the guy had decided that the hostel was his best option and had booked a bed there for one night. If he was immune to snoring, there was a chance it would work out for him. If not, I’d only been trying to help. It was clear now that a lot of people would be missing their connections, and they were trying to come up with a plan for them. A woman I met in the observation car was scheduled to travel on the Capitol Limited to Washington DC, and now only had about five minutes to spare.
Princeton and Naperville were our last stops. An hour later I was arriving in Chicago for the second time that week, once again with an onward connection to Miami that had been cancelled. It was the worst kind of déjà vu that can happen, something bad happening in exactly the same way. To make matters worse, I’d soon be hopping on a train to New York City. What in God’s name did I want in New York City? My tailbone was aching and my nervous system was shot.