Saturday, May 23, 2009

On the rails again

It's 6:15 a.m., and I'm in the Pittsburgh train station waiting for the Pennsylvanian to Altoona. So far this has been an uneventful trip. No one has talked to me; I wonder if meeting Chicago Tribune employees, amateur historians, and Mennonite farmers was a phenomenon limited to my youth, when perhaps I looked more interesting. The friendliest person I've encountered was the young man at ROM yesterday who walked me through all the choices and told me how coffee doesn't keep him awake anymore, and that he can drink it right before bedtime. If I were 20 years younger (which I remember well), I would have hoped he was flirting with me while knowing that he wasn't.

I discovered the Capitol Limited has an observation car. Unfortunately for me, all that was visible in the waning light of twilight was a blur of houses and buildings in northern Indiana, perhaps one of the least scenic of the 50 states.

In my car, there were some musical chairs so a woman could sit with her friends across from me. I warned her that I would be up and down several times during the night. She indicated that she didn't mind, and I indicated that she might feel differently in the middle of the night.

She did. I had to crawl over her at 11:30 p.m. and again at 2:00 a.m. And again at 2:15 a.m.

After the uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) in August, I didn't have a period until January, when I experienced a little spotting—not quite the real deal. Regularly spaced, lighter periods resumed in February and March (two, because of how they fell in the month!), but after what seemed like a prolonged bout of PMS that culminated in nothing in April, I stopped planning around my periods. After February and March, I'd hoped they'd returned to regularity, but my body wasn't cooperating.

So I was completely unprepared mentally or logistically when I went to the bathroom at 2:00 a.m. and discovered that my period had arrived out of nowhere.

I said, "Now is a great time for you to make a return appearance."

The only response I received was the twinge of cramps.

There I was, on the train without protection or painkillers. Typical.

I climbed over my grumpy seat mate to contemplate my options, which came down to hoping that the women's room in Pittsburgh had something. Meanwhile, the cramps were competing with an upset stomach.

After a bit, a memory penetrated my sleep-deprived fog—that I still had a couple of emergency tampons in my purse. I'd meant to take them out a long time ago, but had decided not to, and was now glad I hadn't. Once this dawned on me, I contemplated for five or ten minutes how I was going to get past my seat mate, who had my means of egress blocked off with the leg rest, without her openly questioning what was wrong with me. Instead, she groaned discreetly, swerved her legs, saw that didn't help as I loomed over her with nowhere to put my feet, and, instead of getting up, lowered the leg rest, ceding me an inch or two more ground on which to plant my feet. She sighed.

Hadn't I warned her?

As the train was pulling out of Pittsburgh at about 7:20 a.m., I was still awake enough to look out the window, spotting two wild turkeys strolling on a walkway below the grade of the track. I did a mental double-take, thinking they must be pheasants even though they looked just like turkeys, but the children behind me had seen them, too. They told their dad, who said, "Turkeys in downtown Pittsburgh!" in a bemused tone of voice. I've seen a turkey only in the woods, just in time to watch it fly off.

Who knew the better place to see turkeys would be along the rails in downtown Pittsburgh?

I went to the cafĂ© car so I could get a good look at Horseshoe Curve from the port side of the train. The conductors on the late Broadway Limited used to point it out passengers and talk about its history and at one point even had brochures about historic places along the rails in Pennsylvania, but on the Pennsylvanian they rarely do. Perhaps it's because they assume no one on what is essentially a "local" train cares anymore. The couple who sat across from me, retired farmers from Minnesota, didn't know anything about it, nor did the man across from me, the one feasting on the breakfast of champions—beer and pretzels. Someone pointed out the highway below us, which he found marvelous, even as he commented, "It's so green here!"

The woman from Minnesota was a talker, speaking in a flat monotone that I suppose is characteristic of parts or most of the Plains. She told me about their children and trips to visit them, including one to California. I asked how that trip was.

"The train left seven hours late and was delayed another couple of hours," so they'd missed their connection and had to take alternate transportation to get closer to their final destination.

When I had asked, I thought to get an account of the beauty of the journey, but I notice that most people dwell on the inconveniences and discomforts. I suppose it's one way to make an instant connection with like-minded peers and gain their sympathy. This must be why good poetry can move us—most of us have little or no poetry in our souls, and/or no ability to express it. To most, a spider is a pest or a terror; to a poet, it's a timeless symbol of perseverance, and its web an expression of combined beauty and functionality. A trip through the glorious West is an adventure, but not in the poetic sense.

I tried a different tack.

"I bet it was beautiful," I observed.

"Oh, yes, it was quite beautiful."

Specifics about the grandeur of the mountains, the loveliness of the streams, and the awesome power of the desert clearly were not to follow. Questions about family or delays were answered more volubly, although I have forgotten the questions and the replies. Such is small talk for me.

They listened to my half-remembered story of Horseshoe Curve with no more than polite interest, although I think the husband might have liked to have heard more. Possibly they wondered why I didn't have something more engaging to talk about, like family.

I arrived in Altoona on time, somewhat worn, but little worse for the wear, and perhaps ready to forget about work and to relax just a wee bit.

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