Friday, July 28, 2006

All aboard Amtrak

I'm on my way, I don't know where I'm goin',
I'm on my way, I'm takin' my time, but I don't know where.

"Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" by Paul Simon

Since my father passed away in 2001 and since Amtrak eliminated the train from Chicago that stopped in Altoona, I haven't taken Amtrak very often. Even when I did, the trips had become uneventful. No one spoke to me any more or did anything of note, except for the Amish man who wanted to know where he could charge his mobile phone—that is, until today (7.20.06).

Nothing of note happened today, really, unless you count my meeting a couple of characters, the type of people who make me realize how reclusive I am, and why.

I was on my way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a scheduled 4.5-hour trip. It's just long enough to read, write, and nap without starting to get antsy.

At Hammond/Whiting, Indiana, a woman in late middle age with a heavily seamed face came and stood next to the empty seat by me and announced loudly that there was nowhere to sit. I moved my straying purse and indicated the empty seat. I don't know why she couldn't have pointed out to me that it had encroached onto the seat and that she wanted me to move it. The direct approach is not dramatic enough, I suppose.

Plopping down, she announced, again loudly, in my direction, "I hate to ride backward." Thank you for sharing that insight into your character with every person in this car and the next.

She seemed itchy—itchy to chat. I appeared to be engrossed in writing, while the girls across the aisles were doing college work. Thwarted, frustrated, and itchy, she pulled out a cell phone and dialed an aunt, with whom she had the world's most mundane, pointless conversation at approximately the same decibel level found on the typical Rolling Stones one-more-time tour. At any rate, I know she loves her aunt, because she announced it several times to the phone, just before starting to cry. For me, there was no warning and nowhere to hide.

Finally she hung up and soon disappeared. I had a feeling she'd gone to the cafe car—there's nowhere else to go on a train—but at the same time I really, really wanted coffee. I'd been up since 4:30 a.m., and I really, really wanted coffee. So I risked it. I ended up sitting at the table across from hers; later, she left, then returned and sat with me. I managed to keep up my level of engrossment, so she, still itchy, tried to lure the conductor into the realm of tedious chatter. He answered her questions while deftly fending her off; he seemed more comfortable talking old-time rail talk.

Later, when she and I were both back in our seats, at one of the stops—I think it was Jackson—she said something like, "They stop where they stop, don't they?" Honestly, I did not know how to respond to this observation, so I smiled weakly and promptly fell asleep.

I hope her return trip is planned for any day but Sunday—the day of mine.

Meanwhile, the visit to the cafe car proved that coffee will be my undoing. There I met the attendant. Before I could make my request, he had shared with me his knowledge and/or opinion of organ harvesting in China, the economy, George W. Bush, and the intelligence of people who pay extra for business class for no real perks or benefits. I admit that this verbal onslaught left me speechless. After I got my order in, I heard commentary on the price of flat-screen TVs; his wife's boss, who bought one when they were $10,000; and the reputed stinginess of several ethnic groups his wife represents or might as well represent—I think that was the gist of it. And all of this in five minutes or less, with little (no) encouragement from me. It was a verbal flood, unstoppable.

When my garrulous seatmate placed both her orders, I wonder if she managed to get in a word or two.

Or had she met her superior?

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