riding the rails 8

Chicago is the hub of the Amtrak network, so if you can’t find a long-haul train leaving from there on short notice, you probably can’t find one anywhere.  As I dragged my suitcase towards the Great Hall, passing the various gates with their prerecorded arrival and departure times all playing at the same time, like an unsynchronized symphony of androids, my sense of dislocation was only heightened.  It was hard to know which street to exit to in order to reach the hostel I’d booked the day before.  Climbing up a staircase and walking out the first door I came to, I discovered that the sky was overcast and it was beginning to drizzle.

Until very recently, I’d had no experience with google maps, but by now I had a hard time living without it.  It began directing me towards my hostel, but was difficult to make out as I needed to clutch the phone to my chest in order to protect it from the cold rain.  The street it wanted to take me down was closed due to construction, so I was detoured a block north, and then over the 91 freeway.  The area I found myself in was a Greek section of town.

Check-in was fairly simple, but the room I was assigned to wouldn’t open at first.  I went back down to ask about it at the desk and was told to push harder.  When I did, I was met with a blast of hot, stale air, perhaps the same that greeted the workmen that blasted Al Capone’s vault open thirty-five years earlier during a televised special that Geraldo Rivera had hyped as equal in importance to the excavation of King Tut’s tomb.  Outside of the stale air, all they’d discovered was dirt, rubble, and two empty bottles.  The only way Geraldo could’ve justified his extravagant hoax at that point would’ve been comparing it to the American Dream, mostly hype and empty promises.

The room I was staying in had twelve beds in it.  Fortunately, there was a bottom one open.  There were also lockers available, but I’d need to provide my own lock, so I took a walk to a Walgreen’s on the corner to pick one up.  It had stopped raining, but was still cloudy and cold. After locking up my things, I walked back in the direction of Union Station and found a pizza place that was showing the Monday Night Football game between the Packers and Buccaneers, a highly anticipated match-up between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, which came down to the last second and justified my buying a second piece of pizza so I could sit there until it was over.

Back at the hostel, I sat in the stuffy common area for a few hours, watching back-to-back episodes of NCIS, nothing I would’ve considered under different circumstances.  Most of the odd characters I observed charging their phones and checking their facebook accounts ended up in the same dorm room as me.  By the time I went up there at ten o’clock, half the beds were full and two guys on top bunks by the window were already snoring.  I lay down, but was never going to sleep.  The snoring was beyond intrusive.  One old guy with a white beard was lying flat on his back, like a corpse come back to life, trying to blow the lid off his coffin.  A younger, bearded apprentice in the bed next to him sounded like he was releasing the air from a whoopie cushion, one rattling blast at a time.  Between the two of them, they’d been tasked with gathering all the stagnant winds of the universe and releasing them into the already putrid air of the crypt we were in.

After a few hours I was rigid with fury.  A few times I leapt to my feet and shook their beds in frustration.  They would rearrange themselves, it would get quiet for a moment, and then as soon as I lay back down it would start up again.  One guy got up with his blanket and pillow and disappeared.  A short while later I went down to the common room and found him sprawled out on the couch.

As soon as daylight appeared at the window, a chorus of alarms began ringing like the chirping of birds.  The two snorers were the first ones up, now wanting to smile and wish everyone a good morning.  Good morning.  How did you sleep?  My anxiety was at peak levels.  I’d hadn’t slept at all and in ten hours was scheduled to be on a train heading towards Miami.  All signs now indicated that Hurricane Ian was going to be a real thing, perhaps the most destructive storm to hit Florida in years.

I knew something needed to be done, but wasn’t sure what.  I’d have to figure it out fast.  Maybe New Orleans.  That might be a good place to lay low for a few days.  Jumping out of bed, I snatched my computer and travel documents out of the locker and hurried down to the common room to see what I could do.

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