Sunday, March 4, 2012

Amtrak Travel Tips

I recently traveled to Texas via Amtrak, and I have to say it turned out to be quite a learning experience on many different levels. Here's what I learned about train travel in general:

It really does matter where you sit.  And here's why:

If the train is going north, and you are sitting on the east side of the train, you might as well forget about looking out the window and enjoying the sights because the sun will be glaring in your eyes for at least half the day. I know, because my train was going south and I was sitting on the west side of the train, and I finally had to move because I couldn't stand it any more.

And if you do change seats, pay attention. Don't sit directly across from Jehovah Witnesses unless you enjoy stupid religious bullshit. They cannot keep their mouths shut! And even if they aren't talking to you - they will be talking to the people in front of you, behind you, next to you, and three seats over from you... I know this to be true because it happened to me.

Don't forget your MP3 player. Don't forget batteries for your MP3 player. And above all, don't forget where you stashed it. Also, it can't hurt to invest in some good ear plugs just in case the above happens and you end up stuck sitting in the midst of a cluster of people who are talking endlessly and mindlessly about stuff you think is incredibly stupid..

If you don't like the people sitting around you, and if there are empty seats but you don't want to have to go to the trouble to move your stuff... you can always do the following:
  1. Borrow a crying baby from a frazzled young mom. She'll be happy for the relief - believe me! And it will clear out your area in no time. Even the sight of a baby and/or small children has the effect of clearing out an area... unless the children are attached to a young mom (or dad) traveling alone. If the mom or dad is eye candy - or black - or both... next thing you know there will be an extended family surrounding them... more on that later...  
  2. Can't find a baby? Pop your ear buds in, turn on your MP3 player and start singing (loudly) to the music. This works best if you are tone deaf and have a terrible voice. People will fall all over themselves to get away from you! Trust me.. it's true!
The second thing I learned is that it really does matter what you look like. And here's why:

Right away I noticed that people who look the same tend to sit together and talk to each other. Middle-aged fat men who smoke hung out with other middle-aged fat men who smoked. They swapped cigarettes and bullshit on the smoke breaks. Nobody else wanted anything to do with them... it was kind of sad really...

Well preserved, well manicured old people tend to travel in packs... or at the very least pairs. Most of the ones I saw traveled first class, and spent a lot of time complaining about the "service." Grandmotherly ladies (less well preserved) were most often seen in pairs, and generally seemed to like their travel adventure. When they were not traveling first class, they appeared to enjoy their trip much more...

And here is something else I noticed. White people (unless they were religious nuts) pretty much only talked to white people. White couples (with and without children) were extremely unlikely to talk to anyone other than each other - it was almost as if no one else existed except for them. Black people on the other hand, were almost instantly friendly with one another. Sharing food, watching each other's children, laughing, joking, passing out phone numbers, addresses, and invitations to visit...

Now... if you are a young black man, and you'd like to meet women. Ride the train. I'm telling you - it's a sure fire way to get hit on. I didn't see a single exception to that rule on my entire trip - and it was a long trip (6 days total) ... Young black men on a train are girl magnets. White girls, black girls, asian girls... girls with pink hair and tattoos... girls with children... fat girls... skinny girls... even girls traveling with guy friends... young black men traveling with small children will also attract motherly women who will offer to babysit during smoke breaks and layovers... fascinating...

If you are young, a guy, white, and a redneck... well... that's a whole different story. Chances are you talk too loud, you just broke up with your girlfriend, and your cell phone has a really annoying ringtone which is set way too loud, and is constantly alerting you to stupid texts from (or about) the ex girlfriend. Not only that, but you will talk to anyone ... even people who are studiously avoiding eye contact and trying hard to get away from you (because they are sick of hearing about your girlfriend). And, when you run out of people to tell your story too... chances are good that you will sing loudly and off key while listening to "she done me wrong" songs on your phone or MP3 player.

Another thing to be on the look out for is disheveled old ladies - the not well manicured types - they never travel first class and pretty much will talk to anyone... about anything... and you can definitely spot them by the pinwheels spinning in their eyes. Crazy old ladies ride the train - yes - it's true.

Interestingly... and here is one of my great insights. If you don't fit into any of the above categories... and people can't quite tell "who" you are, or what you're about... they will pretty much leave you alone. And if you don't smile at people who have just boarded and are looking for a place to sit, but instead shoot daggers out of your eyes at them... well... they'll try really really hard to find someplace else to sit.

And here's another thing: Don't piss off the Conductor.

The conductor for part of my trip was this cute little hispanic dude named Jesus. Which I found interesting when placed in context with the reason for my trip, and my Jehovah Witness encounter... but that's a whole other story.

Anyway... somebody, I don't know who... but I'm sure it was a man, was having a really hard time not pissing all over everything in the bathroom. And yes, the train does sway and jump around a bit.. but... on the walls as well as on the floor? come on... that was just nasty. Plus, there was someone who couldn't figure out how to flush the toilet... or didn't want to... or something. And Jesus was quite annoyed because I think he was the one having to clean up the mess... and probably the persnickety retirees were throwing a bitch fit about just about everything else... and so he gave everyone a talk about "Good Grief... you can at least flush the toilet and clean up after yourself..."

Our punishment? He didn't pass out pillows when it got to be late and time to sleep, nor did he turn off the overhead lights at 11pm as usual but left them on several hours longer... and to top it off... our particular section hooked up to a different train at one point, and instead of turning our seats around, we had to ride backwards for upwards of 3 hours. I think he was going to make us take the whole 10 hr trip backwards, but one of the young black men (and his bevy of brand new girlfriends) knew how to turn the seats around, and so we did it ourselves.

And by the way... It's very disconcerting to ride a train sitting backwards... your mind plays tricks on you. And even if you know for sure that you are actually traveling in the right direction, the fact that the scenery is moving the opposite way it "should" be, tells your brain that you are going the wrong way. And if you're me, pretty soon you're playing the "what-if" game... What if I really am on the wrong train? What if we really are going backwards? What if I fall asleep and wake up in New Orleans instead of San Antonio? And is the train really going backwards? What if it isn't? What if I'm actually not traveling backwards? What if I'm even really on a train at all?

Which brings me to the last thing I learned about traveling on trains. And this may not be true for everyone, but it was true for me. And that is this:

When you crawl out from under your rock, climb out of your familiar box, or leave the confines of your hidey hole... you will come face to face with that cowardly part of yourself that hid under that rock or in that hole in the first place. I know this is true because it happened to me... and I'll probably write more about that later.... but for now, I'll leave you with this thought:

And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going.

~Bruce Catton

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