train tripping

by tobias crabtree

Please be aware that I’ve written this as it happened, or as close to that as my little mind permits. Due to the nature of all that transpired, there will be some things that are considered crass by some. I see it simply, as life. There is cussing and sex and naughty statements. Be forewarned and read or don’t…or whatever. 

This is a story about trains. I say it’s a story about trains, but really it’s a story about trips on trains, so really it’s a story about people who take trips on trains. I guess this is a story about people, which is kinda the same as it ever was. One thing I’ll say about the following stories are that they did not all happen on the same train ride, that would just be ridiculous and I might as well include a unicorn with a tribe of Lilliputians on it’s back — although that may have been the reality of some of the characters riding these various trains. If there’s one thing I learned about trains, it’s that the folks on them are more likely to be marching to the beat of a different drum, than say, your average American. Most of these stories take place in the United States and I think that separates things further because trains are more of a common travel mode in other countries, at least the ones I’ve visited. So there, you’re prepped up. The following events are as true as they can be although they’ve been stored in a rather faulty compartment I call my brain. And I gotta say, that there is a good bit of correlation between a story reader (you) and a train rider (maybe you) because they both require patience and an inquisitive nature; the former because you gotta wait out the ride, you ain’t in charge of the gas pedal and you can’t just stop when you want, the latter because there are other, more accepted ways of travel and you really have to make a decision to go on a train ride. With all that in mind, climb aboard, the doors are shutting and the tracks are laid out, all gleaming and parallel into the distance.

Sounds that stick around

I’ve heard a conductor yell, “all aboard!”, but it was fake and on a train in the mountains of Colorado that was imitating the way it used to be. I never like them kind of things, like everyone dressing up and acting like it’s some other time. I know it’s fun and I should lighten up but I find it annoying within about 5 or 10 minutes and I just don’t know how to answer someone who asks me, “Woulds’t thou like a frothy grot?”  Uh, yeseth? Nope, not for me. Besides I stink bad enough without pretending to be from some other century, dressed in leather underwear and a thousand year old hat. But yeah, I’ve been on trains where they didn’t yell all aboard, but they sure as hell did start screaming at me for being late as I ran with too many things, including a rubber boat toward the waiting attendant. Once I got left, but that was a bus, and buses are a whole different can of worms. Maybe I’ll write about buses after this little ditty about trains.

I do love the sounds that are synonymous with trains. The swoosh of air from the brakes as they engage and disengage, the whistles that come from out of the past and feel lonely when you hear them in the distance on a summer night by the river in the mountains of Colorado and you are on your bicycle and have been burnt by the sun and are waiting for your ass to stop aching so you can finish the ride and get home to your mama because it’s been too long and the world mighta got too big while you were gone so you will go home and sit with your ma and shrink things back down again. And then, there’s the train when you are lying there as a child of 12 years, or a child of 34, or a child of 47 and you put some change on the tracks and that giant engine passes and the conductor blasts his horn at you for being too damn close but you squish your ears between your palms and endure the fury of the engine and the engine-man and then it is strangely peaceful with the clunk-unk-unk clunk-unk-unk of those huge steel disks as they roll with strange squealings and high pitched whinnings. After, you find the coins and they have the feel of the heat still in them from being crushed like something from the guts of the world where like things are formed from the freight-trains of stone, all the pressure from above.

Inside the train, the sounds are less. Inside the train sounds docile and easy with big and little snorings from travelers in every varied position and in every different part of their journey, some from just outside of New York, some just aboard in Susanville. There are now the apparently oblivious humans who have decided to watch their fav show on their smart phone at top volume, thinking that the whole train wants to listen to Houston Housewives as they squabble over who dissed who at the last gala event. There are folks who’ve had something slip and are conversing with the invisible person plaguing them. There are those who’ve let something slip and you hear it before you smell it and then you wish they would go find a restroom to reduce the possibility of a second slip. There are the attendants who are way cooler than flight attendants who come by and answer the ridiculous questions from the smokers about when the train will stop again and if it’s possible for “just a quick smoke stop, I won’t even leave the train, I’ll just lean out and smoke a couple super fast.”

(in the unlikely event)

I think about the announcements that no one pays attention to at the beginning of a plane flight. Now, I personally think about the plane crashing every time I get on there. I’m not a fatalist, but I would try to live if there was a water landing, and I’m pretty sure it would be every person for him/herself because I’ve been involved with simulated crashes and I’ve seen trained marines panic once the cage is upside down in the water and everyone is still strapped in. If you’ve trained like that, there are still sometimes complications. If you add a bunch of people who won’t look up from their iphones long enough to let you get into your seat and who haven’t done anything physical since playing dodgeball in the 8th grade, well, it’s gonna be bad upside down in the ocean. I like it that trains don’t talk about the unlikely event of crashing. They’re more like, “you’re on a train, if we crash, we’ll all scream and run away from the fire.” I’m down with that. And I think people on a train would be more likely to band together and help one another. I feel like I have proof.

Once upon a trainride…

We left Emeryville at some reasonable hour before noon. I’m not sure about the connecting trains and all that, I only knew that I had made it on time and that I was on my way to Portland from San Francisco for some necessary business. I was not, nor am I ever, in a hurry. I don’t like being hurried and that’s probably why I despise heavy traffic, because everyone in heavy traffic seems to find solace in riding about a foot or so off the rear bumper of my toyota dolphin — news flash for the misinformed : my dolphin is topping out at 60 mph, if God was riding shotgun, we still wouldn’t go faster because, well because it’s just against the laws of physics is all. So, the next time you’re jockying for position to flip the bird to the idiot in the little dolphin RV for going so slow (in the slow lane, mind you), save it. It’s probably me, and I cannot go faster, and I’m also not having a stroke from needing to get to the next stop light before everyone else. I’m slow and I like it. Uh, yeah, the train ride, we were on a train ride to Portland.

From Emeryville we went to Sacramento and an announcement was made that the trip to Portland was not possible due to a train derailment somewhere along the line. This prompted a mass exodus by all those who had the money to find another way. Those of us who were broke simply looked at one another and remembered the cliche that misery loves company. About an hour and a half later an update came over the speaker, barely audible, saying an alternate route had been negotiated with Union Pacific and the train would leave in 20 minutes. There was a little weird cheer from us derelicts and we boarded as soon as we could. There was an overall feeling of we got one over on all those rich idiots who took a flight or rented cars. Once underway, however, we all soon realized that we were all buffoons for having taken the alternate route. Since Amtrak rents the use of the tracks from Union Pacific, they must give the right-of-way to the work trains. The cargo trains are constant and they are often miles long, so within an hour or two we had stopped 3 times for almost an hour each time. The trip to Portland began to look similar to what I imagine the first trip to Mars will look like — we were all about to lose a good portion of our lives aboard an Amtrak. Even I, with all my I-ain’t-in-hurry righteousness, was a bit taken back.

I’d like to take a side trail from the story here, I won’t wander too far as I am prone to, but just a little ways out. Maybe if you’re still reading you can use this time to stand and stretch or make yourself a drink or use the bathroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. ———————- So, I wanna say something about cigarette smokers. Don’t worry if you smoke, this will be surprisingly uplifting to you. Smokers are savages when the time comes to smoke. Like, if you’re used to a pack a day or you’re used to a cig when certain things have happened, say maybe after breakfast or sex…or both, then it’s basically impossible to keep you from it. Smokers become part magician, part professional negotiator, part mixed martial artist when it’s time to smoke. If you handcuffed them to a rail to keep them from smoking you would come back and find them with their hands gnawed off, smoking with their feet. The look in their eye when it’s time to hoarf one down is akin to what I’ve witnessed in a male goat’s eyes when he is ready to mate; there is nothing else on earth but that next little smoke.

I said that to say this: the way trains work these days is that there ain’t a smoking car any longer. That car is called the Observation Car, but it’s where the smokers (and me) go to talk about the good ol’ days before everyone decided that dying from smoking was a bad thing. I always liked the smoking car because it was full of good conversation and folks were crazy on nicotine and booze and had a ton of stories to tell. I don’t smoke, but I guess I was second-handing it with the best of ’em, and hell, I love a good story. Well, on this trip to Portland I happened to be privy to the mutiny that was arising amongst the smokers. It was awesome. Even old men and women were in on it, not just the punks and ex-cons (there were 6 ex-cons all playing cards throughout the majority of this story) and meth-heads and pill-poppers. The requests to stop were no longer cordial queries, they were aggressive and demanding. When the announcement came across the intercom that the crew had run out of hours and would not be able to continue to drive the train, we were in the deep Oregon woods, on the side of an incredibly beautiful mountain. We were also informed that it would be approximately 6 hours before replacements would arrive. The crew, suspecting mutiny, also made it clear that we would be opening the doors for anyone that might want to smoke. Cheers, followed by a surge to the lower level. Before the doors opened, the conductor made it clear that we were on a very steep slope and that passenger would need to wait for the crew to figure out how to get them down. When the doors opened I watched as the smokers leapt from the train and into the air while lighting cigarettes in mid-flight, down the steep, scree slope to the landing made from the days when they built the tracks. It was a thing of beauty to see them folks sliding and rolling down the talus and finally smoking contentedly in a pile at the bottom. By this time, I decided I liked the smokers and I wanted to be among them. I made my way to the doors where a new situation had developed. An enormous old woman and her tiny husband were at the door, and they were smokers. From the door to the beginning of the slope was a distance of about 6 feet, in other words, too far for a big old lady to simply go for it. She was perched and had one leg out in the air with that goat-look in her eye and she was gonna go for it. The old man was encouraging her with a goat-look in his eye. I started to intervened but I knew it was for naught, they would not listen, and I kinda wondered how this was gonna end up. Ugly, I thought. Broken bones are uncomfortable and trains are uncomfortable. At this point I began to witness what would prove to be a theme from that point on. Several tough smokers from down below, including the ex-cons, formed a posse that would eventually cart that big ol’ gal to the flat ground below. They even came back up and helped the old dude down as well. Within minutes there were men with their shirts off, tanning in the evening sun and smoking like old west characters. I shed my shirt and started writing in a notebook, jotting down the things I was seeing. I watched a dude with facial tattoos from the pen as he went from person to person, telling them that he and another couple fellas were walking the 3 miles to a little town to buy liquor. To my surprise, they had a list that had quite a few names on it along with the amounts given. After I saw an old fella and his little wife give them cash and order a bottle of jack, I put in my order and gave ’em a 20. They were back in about an hour and a half, right as the sun was setting. I told the fellas to keep the change and I’m quite sure the other’s did the same, everyone was stoked. People shared and, as dark began to descend on us, the crew (who, by the way, went and fetched liquor as well) began to herd us all back on board. The system for remounting the train went seamlessly. The “Observation Car” took on a distinctly retro feel as one enterprising fella set up a little business selling $3 martinis and $2 beers in the long-unused service station on the upper level. This 60 year old San Francisco hippie who called himself the Junkman began to play his guitar and sing. People began to dance. One fella came in from another car and informed us all that there were two people “going at it” in the next car. Several gawkers authenticated the statement with raised fists and shouting, “yeah, we crazy now…people be fuckin’!”

Now, I’ve been on trains in many countries. I’ve taken trains in Peru and Ecuador and Chile and Argentina. I’ve been on subways in major cities north and south, but I’ve never seen the stuff I saw on that one trip between San Francisco and Portland. At one point I closed my eyes and imagined myself to be living 100 years ago, it worked. I felt like it was an easy jump in time. When the gal who had been having sexy time in the next car came back, the car exploded with cheers and she raised her arms like she had just won a gold medal. The Junkman began playing “backdoor man” and those who knew the song began to sing along. The sexy time gal was dancing close to the Junkman, her glass of white wine in a clear plastic wine glass was clutched and sloshing. As she hooted the song she leaned down and said in a solidly seductive tone, “I love, love, love, love, love…to give blow jobs.” The Junkman had one blind eye that he kept closed, but when she said that in his ear, his blind eye flared open and I saw the moonish white eye inside. Other than that, I saw no reaction. The new crew arrived and saw the debacle and there must have been a decision made that they would ignore it for a while and see what would happen. The lower level bathroom became the smoking section, not limited to just cigarettes and weed. All manner of smells came boiling up from down below. One fella who had found romance with a tough looking gal with a nervous disorder came up from the depths with a full cucumber cream facial, with him the gal in a cucumber mask. They were high on something speedy and they were suddenly very helpful with everything. The dude had a plan for me to make millions with my art and he wanted to record the Junkman because, “he was a godamn genius with music.” I had a bit of a conversation with him, but mostly it was him talking about several things at once and me trying to keep the stories sorted out. Overall, it was good practice for if I ever get taken by aliens and need to communicate.

When the train ride came to an end, the conductor himself came into the Observation Car and allowed himself a moment to take it all in. There were many bottles of booze in different states of empty. There were folks hammered and out, some were frying like it was 1967, some were simply living exactly like they would if they were home, which was the same as being hammered and fried. He surveyed the scene like a man who just bought some property but realized too late that it actually butted up against the mouth of Hades. He said in a loud voice, “I cannot see any liquor bottles.” One of the ruffians from the ex-con card game raised a handle of Beam and slurred back, “right here’s one.” The conductor, un-phased, repeated himself and added, ” there will be police at the station.” Of course there was some back-talk but the bottles did slowly disappear as folks prepared to disembark. The last thing I remember was that this kinda gothic 20-something gay kid was whupping ass at the ex-con card game and everyone was in the best of moods and the woman who had sexy time was shouting,”let’s hear it for my prison peeps” and the old man with a plate in his head was cuddling up to her while they all danced to the songs by the Junkman and the young girl named Jay was showing me her glass eyeball collection and the dude, high on meth, was making out with his new girlfriend at breakneck speed and the rest of the goths were dancing on the table and on the backs of the booths to beats from someone’s little speakers and the lights in the car were dimmed as we rolled into the station and the people in the other cars were sleeping. There weren’t any cops. Some folks got off, some stayed on. There were goodbyes and hugs and fist bumps and bleary eyes and little empty cups under the seats.

A trip that would have been somewhere around 12 hours had taken 30+. Folks that would have never spoken to one another had become aware of one another, in some cases friends. There were barriers that broke down and there were strange liaisons and there were deals made. There were, as always, the darknesses that we cannot seem to eliminate, but there were streaks of light that make me wonder about the future of our race. Above all, I am aware that we are all capable of great good and great evil. I’m not so sure that living a life of leisure brings out the best in humanity. I believe that mutual suffering tends to make us see one another…and that’s a start.

please collect your items and check the aisles for debris

I have more stories. This will have to do for now. I have a feeling that I may be writing to myself at this point. That’s good as well, it’ll match up perfectly with my internal dialogue and the voices in my head that I know better than to talk about. After all, that could end me up in one of them places with padded walls and the long sleeve shirts with buckles around the back. This train is in the station. See ya on the next trip.