I needed the booze, no question about it. But five bucks was a little steep, and considering that I hadn't had anything to eat or drink in nearly 24 hours, the scotch and soda would have slapped me down hard. Besides, the line stretched halfway down the aisle. A sudden jerk tossed me backwards, and I lurched onto the steps, scrabbling for a handrail. I went down anyway.
On second thought, what's five bucks?
I started the morning in central Wisconsin; don't ask me why or how. Suffice it to say I got there mostly under my own power, and I was determined to get out the same way. By lunchtime I'm in Milwaukee, and I'm up against the wall.
Can't afford a plane ticket. Two hundred bucks for just to Chicago? If I had a car I could get there on ten bucks of gas and a lot less headache.
But I have no car. Just a dusty canvas rucksack full of laundry, a 120v power inverter, and an iBook. There's also a jar of Vicks Vap-o-Rub, which I don't remember putting in the bag. I get my ticket and find a chair.
The train station in Milwaukee isn't so much a train station as a bus depot with a overdeveloped sense of self-worth. It's a vast cavern with a wall of vending machines and row upon row of hard plastic chairs. A guy pumps coins into a candy machine like it's nickel slots; then he pounds on it when it won't pay out. An attractive college student pleads at the ticket counter; she's got a cello strapped to her back in a hard, white plastic case that makes her look like she's carrying the mother of all iPods.
With no fanfare, we're all on the train. We're underground, or at least under some huge building. I attempt to orient myself and fail. The train bucks and then rolls...backward. After ten minutes, my equilibrium has had enough. I weave down the aisle and trade backwards and side-to-side for forwards and side-to-side in a new seat. This is the short leg, the easy leg. There's almost no one aboard. I pull out a book and disappear.
I pulled myself off the stairs, and peered out into the aisle. The line was gone, dispersed. I heard the quiet snap of half a dozen Jim Beam miniatures being opened, followed seconds later by the sharp crack of half a dozen Pepsi cans. It's not like I expected Stoli and tonic anyway.
Then I saw why the line was gone. The bar was closed. "I'm taking my lunch," said the attendant to no one in particular. "I'll be back later. I'll make an announcement."
Ninety minutes later and a new plane of reality away, I reappear in Chicago. Now this is a train station; a buzzing hub of activity, with platforms and gates and porters in jackets. Labyrinthine, with escalators and staircases and half-passages that lead nowhere, like Escher did the blueprints. I’m starting to unravel; I need something to eat. And drink.
My plan was to scout out a place to buy a bottle of something. The path to the rest of the world winds like a corkscrew, spiraling up escalators and ‘round hallways until a series of doors expels me thirty feet over the Chicago River in as close to nowhere as you can be in the Windy City. Nothing but office towers in every direction. I don’t have time to reconnoiter for commerce. I take a last look up the cliffs of steel, spot the sky, then plunge back into the netherworld of transit. I grab a sandwich and stuff it in my bag as I wander in search of my new ride.
When I find it, it’s big. Two stories tall. I can’t see either end; it’s just a gleaming wall in front of me with a door. I believe it can move, somehow. “More powerful than a locomotive” now has a sense of scale. It’s crowded with families and kids. There’s a palm tree shoved in a bag dangling from the luggage rack. I have to have a seatmate. She says nothing, pulls out a book, and disappears. Lucky.
I waited for an hour; the bartender didn’t come back. On my last legs, I found an empty lavatory and stumbled in. With one hand holding my laptop’s cord in the outlet marked “electric razors only,” and the other hand holding the crushed remnants of my sandwich, I tried to recharge. The electric didn’t take, but the food did.
I opened the door and staggered out. I wasn’t the only one. In the scant ten minutes, the bar chick had returned and was again slowly servicing a long line of customers with one thing on their minds: “Hey, you got Coke?” No, sir, we only carry Pepsi. “Well how the hell can I have Jack and Coke when I ain’t got no Coke?!” I sat, hoping the line would diminish. Behind me, the line for the restroom grew. Easy come, easy go.
I have no power, and my seatmate is in her own distant world. I wander to the second story of the lounge car, which is surprisingly sparse in its occupancy. I see the America's backyard. Some of it is as picturesque as a Norman Rockwell lithograph. Most of the rest of it would make Iron Eyes Cody shed another tear. Between the two extremes is a vast sprawl of grassland and grain, corn so thick and uniformly tall that it gives the illusion of low ground cover; a steep glance down reveals that the earth is four feet lower than it appears. Each town offers up its unique form of commercial illiteracy. In Broadwell, it’s the “Pig • Hip Restaurant & Musem.” In Lincoln, it’s the “Qik n EZ” station.
Meanwhile, a child is being smacked down the aisle by her mother, a voluminous harpy shrinkwrapped into sweatpants that bear the Coca-Cola logo all over her ass, and "Official Soft Drink of NASCAR" stretched across each thigh. Twin brothers, musicians, both tall and broad in similar, but not identical plaid shirts prod their girlfriends forward; one of the guys clutches a ukelele. Then again, it could be a guitar, horribly disproportioned in the boy's massive hand.
Darkness falls just as we cross the Mississippi. The Arch shimmers. When the train grinds to a halt, I’m looking at a shack smaller than most interstate rest stops. This isn’t a station, it’s a depot. I expect to see a sign that says “Hooterville.” I shoulder up my bag and tromp down the stairs for the last time. It’s been a long day. A long ride in the belly of a steel snake which will now slither without me, all the way to San Antonio. It’s almost a shame to leave, but I’ve got a life to resume.
I never did get that drink.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
more about russ carr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.26.04 @ 9:43a
2 songs for title and subtitle - isn't there a rule against that? :)
I remember on a train from Raleigh to DC, there were all sorts of interesting characters. Matt and I couldn't find 2 seats together, so I sat with a lovely woman who was one of those eerie, all seeing, black women. She was the 1st female to attend North Carolina Central University, she was grandmother to 25 children, and when she got off the train, she looked me square in the eye and said, "You and he will love well together, and for a long time" and pointed at Matt.
We had been dating 2 months.
7.26.04 @ 10:20a
Train travel generally violates my (admittedly off-the-charts) personal space requirements, but on those rare occasions when I can get a car to myself, I love to stare out the windows. Especially traveling through residential areas of the city, where you can see wildflowers growing up through piles of old tires in people's backyards.
And no matter how many times I find myself in Chicago's Union Station, it STILL looks like a movie set to me.
7.26.04 @ 10:29a
This perfectly captures train travel. I love passing through cities and towns because you generally see things that aren't meant to be seen.
I can't get the "Pig Hip" link to work.
7.26.04 @ 10:33a
Somehow the link was changed. Click here to see the sign I saw. The banner stretches across the back of the building, not the front -- purposely placed to face the trains going by.
7.26.04 @ 10:36a
Did your prophetess say anything about seeing a cow on a cotton house, Tracey?
7.26.04 @ 10:42a
I so love that movie. We made Matt's mom watch it not too long ago. She laughed a lot, in most of the right places, but at the end just said, "Well, it was different."
7.27.04 @ 1:02a
I shouldn't have tied this into a movie. I kilt my own discussion.
Please, back to the trains!
7.27.04 @ 11:40a
I love trains. Cheapest way to travel the Northeastern Corridor. DC to Philly, DC to Jersey, DC to New York, even DC to Boston if you've got 10 hours to kill. Cleaner than the bus, less hassle than the airport. Love it!
7.27.04 @ 11:52a
Takes too long. I occassionally took a 4-5 hour train ride from Boston to Connecticut in college. It took forever and was not so much fun.
7.27.04 @ 12:23p
with all the stops there must have been, I can see why... at least on the longer distance trains, the stops are fewer and farther between.
7.27.04 @ 12:28p
Yeah, I think if I was in for a 10-15 hour trip, I could at least settle in and relax, maybe hit the bar. The intermediate trips are no fun.
7.27.04 @ 4:46p
Trains are good as long as they keep moving. But when you have long stops (say, half an hour or so outside of Richmond while another train goes by) it feels.. futile. Any trip over 10 hours makes me fidgity.
7.27.04 @ 4:53p
I'm fascinated by trains, but I wish we still had a more widespread system in this country: I live an hour and a quarter from the nearest Amtrak station. I briefly flirted with the idea of going down to Pittsburgh to stay with my brother and then riding the rails down to IMVDC, but as DC and Chicago are considered the main destinations of the Capital Ltd., it zips through Pittsburgh at 4:30 AM.
Taking the train across New York state is wonderful, though. You may make better time on the Interstate, but you have to stay awake through a boring, boring drive.
7.27.04 @ 11:18p
It's true that we don't have a rail system as intricate as Europe's, Brian, but it's still rather remarkable how many areas do have Amtrak coverage. Certainly there are more cities served than I would have guessed...and the size of those towns isn't always what determines service. I have no idea what allows little towns to hold on to their stops. The train I was on from Chicago, the Texas Eagle, makes six additional stops before it reaches St. Louis. Some make sense: Bloomington, IL, home of the U. of I.; Springfield, IL, the state capital... but then there are stops in Pontiac and Lincoln, IL -- little more than a train platform in the middle of nowhere, frankly. But the train stops, regardless.
If you think about it, though, the rail system offers only slightly less coverage than the Interstate Highway System. And, as you put it, the endpoints are the big thing; intermediate stops are subject to however long it takes the train to reach that particular locale, which isn't always at an hour convenient to the traveler. At least with planes, you're pretty much assured that you won't be traveling in the middle of the night.
On the other hand, riding the train does have the advantage (however slight) of being relentlessly in motion. Yes, there are the bizarre middle-of-nowhere stops to let a long freight train take the right-of-way at 1:30 in the morning... but for the most part, the train is in motion. If you can sleep through the night, chances are you'll wake up several hundred miles farther away in the morning...something you can't do if you're driving yourself and staying at a hotel.
7.29.04 @ 4:12a
They're talking about building a metro between Columbus and Cleveland. A great thing, for Indians fans who have been exiled down here, but like a good ballgame in a great stadium without requisite sobriety.
Not to deviate from trains, but I like this narrative Russ. It's unique for a feature, and could be any one of us on train speaking.