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I stood third in line for the Amtrak customer service desk at Chicago’s Union Station. The customer that was being helped was dirty. Long hair, worn pants, gray New Balance sneakers that had clearly once been white. His voice was gruff, and it was obvious that the customer service agent was having a rough time helping this guy. He seemed like a real Frank Gallagher type, the kind of person who would do horrible things to make some money, only to spend it on booze and drugs for himself.
When they printed out his ticket, the guy turned around and shouted to the line, “WOO HOO! SO LONG, KENOSHA, I’M HEADING TO CALIFORNIA!”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “I guess this is my life now.”
You see, I’m on my way to St. Louis for a wedding this weekend. I don’t trust my car to make it down there on its own, and I can’t bring myself to justify flying there. I didn’t want to fuck with the bus system, either. I’ve had nothing short of horrible experiences on those, from my seat partner trying to sell me meth to watching a fart dissipate from the front of the bus to the back.
So, train it was. I’ve never traveled on the Amtrak before, and when I thought of what that kind of experience would entail, two thoughts popped into my head.
The first was a vision that took me back in time. It was the second the train left the station, I was a character in the classic Coen brothers movie, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? Dozens of men, both young and old, all wearing dirty overalls sprinting next to the tracks, trying to hop on board and freeload a ride to the next city. Are they running from the law because they’re accused of a crime they didn’t commit? Are they trying to reunite with their long-lost wife? Who’s to say? All I can see is them with their belongings slung over their shoulders in those stick-bandana things, stealing pies every once in a while.
The other thought is probably more realistic. If we really think about it, trains are a relatively affordable transportation option. In my experience, affordable transportation options usually result in the aforementioned experiences, like your seat partner trying to sell you meth or the person taking up the bathroom having freshly murdered someone.
Needless to say, I was apprehensive.
The line at the gate wrapped around the entire waiting area. Having only ever been involved in a scene like this at an airport, I had a few concerns. Things like, will there be enough seats? Will I have to sit next to that guy who is clearly on heroin? Where do I check my bag?
The line started moving rapidly. I showed my ticket to a train equivalent of a flight attendant and she told me to walk down track 24 until I saw the conductor, and then keep going. Unenthusiastically, I hauled my bag down the line and followed the other passengers. The train must have been at least a hundred yards long. At the halfway point, the conductor asked me where I was heading and it was everything in my power not to take my sunglasses off and look at him with a 1000 yard stare and say, “Out of here.” But instead, I said, “St. Louis?” and he told me to keep walking.
As I hoisted my carry on into the train car, I looked around and had a shocking realization: I was completely wrong about pretty much everything. The car was full of other unenthused people heading to St. Louis who lived in Chicago and couldn’t justify buying a plane ticket. Stylish young people filled the seats, but there weren’t nearly enough to fill up the entire car.
And so here I am, sitting in what seems to be an exit row, alone. I can stretch my legs, use the seat next to me as a holding area for my backpack, charge my phone using the electrical outlet in my armrest, and watch the landscapes fly by through my giant fucking window.
The moral of the story: trains are fucking awesome. Next stop, St. Louis.
Well, actually, the next stop is Joliet. Then Dwight, then Plainville, then Springfield, and then St. Louis. .