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Plains, Trains and (Crappy) Automobiles: Part I

Updated on December 13, 2010
Not my train, but pretty close. Not pictured: unruly children and angry fat people.
Not my train, but pretty close. Not pictured: unruly children and angry fat people.

Public Enemies

The worst thing about public transportation is the public itself. Last weekend, by virtue of owning a crappy car (and suffering an entirely irrational fear of driving on busy interstates), I got my first chance to take a trip on a passenger train. For better or worse, it’s something I won’t soon forget, thanks mostly to the smorgasbord of goofy human beings I had the misfortune of being seated amongst.

Getting a good seat on the Indianapolis Amtrak is good, old-fashioned pot luck. I arrived in plenty of time to settle my arrangements with the ticket office and collect my nervous person for my journey to the Chicagoland area. There was little to fear as the announcement was made that time had finally arrived to board the train… until I looked around.

You know how when you’re out in public and you see squirrely-looking individuals whom you’d rather not make eye contact with, much less come within 10 feet of? Yeah, I was surrounded by them and I hadn’t even stepped onto a railcar yet. I hoped against all hope that I could find a seat by myself as the gaggle of travelers and I bounded up the steps to our waiting train.

We stood in a long line waiting for the attendants to check our ticket stubs before being given what amounted to a raffle ticket. This is how our seats were designated. Some people “won” window seats, easy access to the dining car, much-needed rest and peace of mind. I got an aisle seat next to a surly sleeping salesman.


Fat Guy in a Little Coach Seat

I followed the rest of my group to seat 35 on the barely-lit train car. As luck would have it, the window seat I had so longed for was already taken and I was stuck in the aisle. I packed my bags overhead and sat down, finding the man in the chair next to me fast asleep and snoring loudly.

An announcement came over the intercom from the assistant conductor that our trip would be delayed slightly, as more cars were being connected to our train. Great! Who in their right mind wants to get on a train in downtown Indianapolis at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning? Well, besides me and Captain Breathe-Right strip over here? The last thing this train needed was more people, because after no more than five minutes aboard, I was ready to throw myself to the tracks below.

We waited… and waited… and waited some more without an announcement until the conductor came to our car and informed us all that they were having problems connecting the extra cars. Disappointingly, Mr. Conductor was not the reanimated zombie corpse of George Carlin. This is the kind of thing one imagines when going on two hours’ worth of sleep. Well, that and how the guy next to me can possibly stay unconscious through all this.

Eventually, the extra cars were connected successfully and we were off to our designated destinations. I had no idea the next stop would be Jerk City: population uno.

A train trip? It's bad for ya!
A train trip? It's bad for ya!

Stress of a Salesman

The guy next to me nodded in and out of sleep as the train began it’s relatively slow start up the tracks to Chicago. He was a large man, gone mostly gray with a beard not unlike what’s hung on Fidel Castro’s sour puss for the last four decades or so. He wore a plain white t-shirt and black slacks that seemed to be a size too small. We had been moving for about 45 minutes when finally he spoke.

“Where are we?” he queried.

“Not sure exactly,” I answered in surprise. They said we should be in Crawfordsville in less than 20 minutes, though.”

“Okay. Excuse me.”

He got up to use the restroom, giving me some time to be alone for a few minutes. The young ladies in front of me chatted incessantly about the DS videogame they were playing, while an incredibly annoying guy near the front of the car paced the aisle constantly and moved from seat-to-seat.

One of the girls in front of me began humming the theme from Super Mario Bros.

“I f-----g love this game!” she shouted obnoxiously.

Gee, lady. I love Mario as much as the next guy, but that’s not an excuse to drop f-bombs all over a passenger train. There are children here, for God’s sake! Since when does playing Nintendo cause a person to turn into a Richard Pryor comedy special?

It was clear I wasn’t going to get the rest I was hoping for. It became crystal as soon as the fellow seated next to me returned.

“Goddamn Amtrak assholes can’t ever be on schedule,” he complained, munching popcorn purchased from the dining car.

“I guess. This is my first train trip. Do you travel often?” I said, hoping to change his mood with some lighthearted banter.

“Yeah, I do sales in Chicago and all over.”

His phone rang and he excused himself from our conversation.

“I don’t know. I’ll be home when I’m home; I told you that already. No, I don’t have a clue. It’s not my fault the goddamn train can’t leave on time. Love you, bye.”

We remained silent for several minutes as he swigged water out of two large Gatorade bottles. I nearly drifted off to sleep, but the constant munching and crunching kept me far from the dreamland I so wished to visit.

The train stopped in Crawfordsville and the salesman excused himself again, this time making a beeline for the exit door. An announcement came over the intercom.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your conductor speaking. We have reached Crawfordsville. Sorry to inform you there will be no smoking. We are running behind schedule, so please remain in your seats as we attempt to make up time. There will be no stops long enough to smoke until we arrive at Union Station in Chicago.”

A loud groan filled the cabin, the most audible of which came from my traveling companion.

“Son of a bitch! I hate these damn trains. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about my schedule. Thanks to these morons, my wife is pissed AND I can’t smoke. This is great, really great.”

“I have some gum,” I offered, once again trying to lighten a mood that teetered ever more closely to an act of domestic terrorism.

He was silent for a moment, then appeared to be fast asleep again. I leaned back against my chair and closed my eyes, hoping for just a few minutes of peace and uninterrupted quiet. It was not to be.

The salesman got up and excused himself once more to use the restroom. “This guy’s bladder must be the size of a peanut M & M,” I thought to myself as he made his way down the aisle. It was now pretty much a certainty that I wouldn’t be catching any z’s on this trip.

I stared out the window and into the deep greenery of the wooded area we were passing through. On a list of most geographically boring states, Indiana would be somewhere near the top as there’s very little in the way of interesting things to see. It was nothing but trees and peaceful-looking sunshine - surroundings very conducive to rest if one could be so fortunate. Too bad Unjustifiably Angry Fat Guy was on his way back.

He returned for a few minutes, then excused himself yet again, this time apologizing for the inconvenience. After returning for the last time, he sank into his chair, tired, defeated, and looking nearly as disheveled and out-of-sorts as I was feeling. After a few moments more, he was asleep again, snoring away his animosity.

Don't Bogart this pic.
Don't Bogart this pic.

Train Car Film Noir

Aware that no matter how hard I tried no sleep was going to come, I busied myself by alternating looks out the train and around the car. Some children ran up and down the aisles, ignoring the angry admonishment of their parents. The ladies in front of me put away their videogame and took naps. Train personnel walked from car-to-car, checking to make sure everything was in order. The annoying guy had disappeared altogether. I began imagining things.

The sound of the wheels on the rails reminded me of those old black and white films you see on AMC or Turner Classic Movies. Those characters always boarded locomotives to get where they were going, caught in the middle of mystery and intrigue with adventure around every corner. In a way, I felt like Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart, off on another caper. I imagined what it would be like to be in one of those movies.

“Don’t go, Johnny! Say it ain’t so!”

“Don’t get all misty on me, Mildred. Dry those peepers, Dollface, and get a move on. Every copper, dick, and flatfoot from here to Chinatown is gonna be all over this place in a hot minute. Pull yourself together!”

“It’s enough to make me blow my wig, Johnny. It’s all wet and this brodie is gonna put you in the hoosegow for good, if you ain’t careful.”

“I’ll be safe in the apple, Millie. Get yourself to a blower, muffin. We’ll barber on the ameche soon as I get to Chicago.”

“Oh, you’ve always been an Abercrombie. I need a snipe and a pint of giggle juice. How’d I ever get mixed up with a butter and egg man like you?”

“You know I love you, dame. I ain’t going to the big house this time. I’ll rub ‘em all out!”


“You’ve gone daffy, you no-good grifter! They’ll put you in a Chicago overcoat before tomorrow, you ain’t careful. Somebody gummed up the works bad, Johnny. It’s over! Turn yourself in!”

“Not a chance, Millie. I ain’t no joe and I sure ain’t keen. Bump off the booshwash and gimme a honey cooler.”

*Overly-dramatic kiss*

“Here’s a sawbuck. Take my flivver and scram!”

“Come back to me, Johnny! Come back!”

“You’re my best kitten, Millie. I’m dizzy with ya and always will be. Take the cabbage and get back to the cave. Railroad dicks will be on me ‘fore too long.”


A loud crash jarred me from my old gangster movie fantasy. The slovenly salesman next to me finally woke up as well. We had reached my destination at last! I grabbed my bags and headed for the exit as quickly as humanly possible. But my journey wasn’t nearly over.



Posted July 21, 2010


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