riding the rails 21

Once known as The New York and New Orleans Limited, and having passed through many incarnations before and since that time, the train now known as the Crescent does just that, travels between New York and New Orleans on a daily basis.  If it is not my favorite train in the world, the reason is this.  I’ve ridden it three times and have seen virtually nothing of North or South Carolina while doing so.  Meanwhile, I’ve seen enough of Alabama and Mississippi, from those particular set of tracks, to last me a lifetime.  The only reason that I was even on the Crescent once again is because my train to Miami, the Silver Star, had been cancelled two times due to Hurricane Ian.  I may have given up on taking the train to Miami, but hadn’t given up on getting there.  Time was moving quickly, however, so I’d have to move fast to make that happen.

When the train boarded at Washington Union Station in DC, there was a young guy sitting next to me, traveling back to see his girlfriend in Manassas.  He’d recently graduated from college and had gotten a job and apartment in DC.  As we talked, he suddenly got nervous, and began searching his pockets and the paperback book he was carrying for his ticket.  He couldn’t find it anywhere and was taking it hard.  It seemed to me they’d scanned our tickets when we got on the train.  I thought he’d probably be fine.  Then I grabbed my backpack and retrieved the keys I’d inadvertently lifted from a hostel back in New York.  See, I showed him.  It happens to the best of us.

After he got out, I had a long time, hours really, to listen to the old man in front of me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Scatman Crothers, in both appearance and voice, regale his seatmate with tales about his conquests in sports, both as a student and later as a coach.  The seatmate led him on, sharing a few of his own stories about playing high school football, but eventually couldn’t get a word in, and became the living definition of a captive audience.  All at once I grabbed my phone, found the site for Greyhound, and bought a one-way ticket from New Orleans to Miami, leaving the day after my arrival.  There, that was settled.  Now all I needed to do was to cancel my reservation on the Sunset Limited and see if I could still use that last section of the Rail Pass at a later time.

I’d just gotten a hold of a representative, when the train stopped in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The agent couldn’t seem to handle a simple cancellation and had transferred me to one of her superiors.  Just as the woman got on the phone, a guy showed up to claim the seat next to me, totally wasted.  I tried to make room for him, but he waved me off and went looking for beer.  It took a long time, but finally the woman, who complained that she should not have been contacted for such a trivial matter, admitted that there was a glitch in the system that wasn’t allowing them to cancel the reservation.  She said that instead, I’d be issued a voucher that I could redeem at a later time, as long as the travel was completed before the 22nd.

When my new seatmate got back from the café, he was wanting to bump fists all night long, letting me know he was cool like that.  He’d been visiting his father in Virginia and was on his way back home to Fort Lauderdale.  For some reason he was taking the train to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then getting off and flying the rest of the way.  When he heard I was heading to Miami, he got out his phone and tried to show me some of the best bars in Fort Lauderdale, like the Elbow Room and Hard Rock Café.  At one point he got up to use the bathroom, and I leaned back and pretended to be sleeping.  It took some effort, but was easier than keeping up with him.  My feeling was that he was looking for any reason to get offended, and things would escalate quickly once he found it.

It was a relief when we arrived in Charlotte and he finally got off the train.  No one else got on, so for a few hours I was able to bend over and sleep on both seats, a technique I’d nearly mastered by now, even with a fractured tailbone.

When the morning arrived, Scatman Crothers went from snoring, straight back to reminiscing, and his seatmate, who by now I’d learned was a pastor, continued to egg him on with exaggerated gasps of wonder and mild-mannered chuckles.  We passed through Gainesville, Georgia, with the coach rambling on about the speech he’d given at some hall of fame event, where the players had been urging him to wrap it up. That was probably the sentiment shared by anyone on the train who’d been sitting within three rows of him.

When we got to Atlanta, there was a half-hour layover.  The coach and pastor were both getting off, and the pastor asked if maybe they could pose for a picture together.  I’m assuming that it happened.  In the meantime, the crew got ready preparing the train for the next set of passengers.  There was a good chance that this would be the last leg of my big train trip.  Even with the voucher they’d just given me, there was nowhere I could get to from Miami.  Chances were, I’d be flying to my next destination.  Colombia kept popping into my mind.  I did a quick search on Expedia and found a number of cheap flights from Miami to Medellin.  Now, there was a thought.

The guy who got on in Atlanta and sat next to me got out knitting needles right away, and then groaned in exasperation when a baby began to fuss.  He asked the conductor if there were any window seats open, but was told that the train was full.  By chance, however, he happened to know a guy with a backwards baseball hat and sparkly jacket who was sitting two seats behind us.  It turns out that they’d graduated from the same school, only a few years apart.  Having someone to talk to cheered him up considerably.  At one point a group of them went back to the café car and when I walked through later, saw the guy in the sparkly jacket with four empty cans of White Claw in front of him.

When my seatmate returned, he was glowing, possibly because he’d had such a social time so far.  The guy in the sparkly jacket got off in Anniston.  Either he was drunk or was just in the habit of hugging strangers.  My seatmate explained how they’d both escaped from the same small town in Alabama, him to Atlanta, the other guy to Colorado.  When the church he’d grown up in had found out about his lifestyle he’d been excommunicated.  Recalling it, even now, seemed to choke him up.  He was just traveling to New Orleans for one day of work, and was hoping his boss wouldn’t be mad that he was taking two travel days to get there and back.

The train we were on seemed determined to blow its whistle all the way to New Orleans.  We passed through the Talladega National Forest, where vultures hung above the pine trees.  Every small town seemed to have a water tower, a red-brick church with a white steeple, and a Dollar General Store.  As we approached Birmingham, I noticed two characters had tagged their names on the side of an underpass, East Coast Mike and Biker Joe.  Don’t say we don’t have the best outlaws.

It seemed it took half a lifetime to get through Mississippi.  I’d been to Meridian before, the home of the Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers.  From there we passed through Laurel and Hattiesburg.  I was trying to control my mounting anxiety by meditating, which had never really worked, but counting my breaths at least helped pass the time.  We wouldn’t be arriving in New Orleans until after nine o’clock, and now I was worried about that, not sure how late the streetcar would be running.  The walk from the station to the hostel looked pretty dodgy on google maps.

Sometime close to dark we arrived in Picayune, and a short while later were crossing Lake Pontchartrain.  I looked for a hopeful sign outside, but only saw black water.  About a half hour later the conductor came down the aisle and it was like a scene from a movie.

Slidell, she shouted.  Slidell.  Coming into Slidell.

riding the rails 22

Everything I’d feared so far, had mostly not come true.  In only two weeks I’d ridden trains from Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco back to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Washington DC, and DC to New Orleans, all for five hundred dollars.  In every city I’d arrived in, except for Los Angeles, where I’d started from, I’d found a hostel for around fifty dollars, meaning I hadn’t spent more than a thousand dollars to see a huge portion of the country and some of its most famous cities. 

Still, I’d spent most of the trip worrying, often paralyzed with terror.  Small things, like my trains to Miami getting cancelled, or losing two sections of my Rail Pass, had upset me greatly, causing me to curse my life.  Yet here I was in New Orleans, I’d just bought a bus ticket to Miami, so I was going there anyway, and the UPT streetcar was sitting right outside the station door and could drop me two blocks away from my hostel.  I went to get on it and the few people waiting on it seemed friendly.  In a few minutes the driver jumped on and we went lurching down Loyola Avenue.

In my early twenties, I’d spent about eight months in New Orleans, thinking I was there to make music, but mostly drinking and lying in bed depressed.  At one point, desperate for a job, I’d gone to bartending school and gotten a job in the French Quarter, at a famous restaurant called Antoine’s.  The place that I was staying was just two blocks from Bourbon Street, so as soon as I checked in and got my things put away, I headed over to the Quarter.  Back then, it had easily been the most exotic and intimidating place I’d ever been to.  By now, it was just another place.  A mobile DJ had parked a party bus on Canal Street and was leading a line of women through a booty-shaking dance.  Right past him a guy was selling gold balloons and bunny ears.

I walked past the Bourbon House and the Cigar Factory.  Two guys were playing chess on the sidewalk.  Some group had hired a brass band for a private party and were dancing in the middle of street, lifting white umbrellas and scarves, as a man on stilts, in a top hat, looked down and waved his hands.  There was Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and Voodoo Blues.  A kid playing a plastic pail with two drumsticks berated me for taking a picture, and then just glared when I only dropped loose change into his can.  I saw Big Daddy’s Topless, still in business after all these years.  Then, there it was, just down Saint Louis Street.  I walked half a block and stopped outside of Antoine’s.

We never know what will make a good memory or story.  Back in the day, the job had been just another grind.  I’d been making five dollars an hour, with no tips, mixing drinks for the waiters in the kitchen, but how many times had I brought up working there since.  I’d worn my small apprenticeship in the city like a badge of honor for over thirty years.  Now the evening shift was ending, and the employees came streaming out the side door.  A lot of them were just kids, about the same age I’d been when I worked there.  I waited to take a photo of the sign above the door, but two couples had posted up there, and seemed to have no place better to go.  Neither did I, so I just waited.

After finally getting my picture, I headed up Royal Street, behind the cathedral, home of the famous Touchdown Jesus, then walked around to the front of Jackson Square.  A few fortune tellers were still doing business, but outside of the homeless rolled up outside the church in their makeshift beds, it was empty. It wasn’t late by New Orleans standards, but it was late for me.  I walked as far as Armstrong Park, and then started back up Bourbon Street. 

A woman on a balcony had some beads she was looking to unload.  I walked up right beneath her, and she shouted down to lift up my shirt.  I did, but only went so far as to flash one nipple.  That was good enough, apparently.  She tossed down a necklace of gold beads, and I put it on and continued into the night.