(With utmost respect for a Canadian: Gordon Lightfoot, composer/singer and author of the best modern day ballad ever written, The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald)
Down the aisle a guitar man was taking requests.
I'd heard this song outbound and was taking inventory.
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well-seasoned.
This train was our ride on the California side
Coming back from casinos in Reno
As big freight trains go, it was shorter than most
With a crew and conductors ill-mannered.
Concluding some terms with a couple steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?
Concluding some tabs at a couple of bars
We left fully loaded from fun land.
And later that night, with Visalia in sight
We wondered what the hell we'd been smokin'?
A north wind blew, my jacket collar was up, and we raced down the railway platform. The impatient conductor waved us off, indicating the car for Hanford was some vague distance ahead. Eventually, we joined an equally winded group all of us looking as hopeful and spiffy as your average passengers waiting for the Greyhound. Off the "Snow Train" and transferred to Amtrak, the whistle blew loudly for Hanford.
I felt lower than the concrete platform on which we stood, weighed down by blackjack loses. Despite "two-to-one" and "ace-in-the hole" comps, I had dropped an entire $15 at the casinos of Reno. For me, that's manic-depressive devastation, the exact polar opposite of the godlike ecstasy I usually feel when leaving Nevada just $5 dollars to the good.
Trying to undo my inner funk, I replayed the free drinks won the night before, the game where my friend blacked out, not from drinking, but after marking every spot on his bingo card. And I recalled how he won us more free drinks, a couple of dinners for himself and his beautiful wife Jill Maurer and believe it or not, a gigantic big-assed Miller High Life bar mirror. Wow.
In the words of Joe Walsh, "Life's been good to me so far..."
My mental massage was waylaid, however, by two of my fellow boarders. A late 20's male, average height with sandy blond hair wearing an inappropriate-for-the-weather orange T-shirt. Guess he just didn't have time to change clothes after his prison release. And a darker man who stood apart, covered with more tattoos than Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man.
The train doors opened and everyone boarded, still clueless whether this was the right car for Hanford or the last train to Clarksville. But before long we were underway to... somewhere. Time and Amtrak wait for no man, woman, or criminal. Certainly, our car was spacious (or would have been if single passengers hadn't commandeered all the four person booths because they needed room to play with their I-Phones). So much for a little game of cards with friends. This train don't carry no gamblers, this train...
Deprived of sport and restless by nature I wandered back to the food car to scout out my options. Three and a half hours is a long time without burgers or beer. But thank the good lord, both were on the menu. I continued to study this menu while another customer stood before me at the counter.
"I'd like the combo, please."
The customer was a middle-aged black man, cardigan sweater, neat slacks. The "food conductor" was white, rotund and definitely not smiling.
"What combo? We have a lot of combos." I was looking at the menu myself and saw only one combo: drink, chips and sad photo of a chicken burrito, beans and rice included.
"I'm sorry," the man before me said and pointed to the photo, "This one."
"Well, what do you want for a drink?" the white man said briskly.
"Uh...coke, I guess."
"Well, we only have Pepsi."
"Oh say, I'm sorry, yes Pepsi would be fine."
Without another word the white food conductor microwaved his order and the black man paid and thanked him graciously. It was not so much what the conductor said as the tone he used to say it. I loitered around the posted menu hoping he would turn to me and say politely, "And how can I help you sir?"
He never did, so I didn't have a chance to say, "What do I want? I want all the racist bastards to take a flying leap off this train." I took my time before ordering something. He was brisk but not so much that I could ascertain rudeness or deference.
My snack in hand I walked back toward my seat and saw the black man bent over the tiny fold down tray, eating his combo while highlighting a thick book. Passing him again on my way to the restroom, I saw the title: The Differentiations of God. A minister probably or maybe a late life seminary student. And I wanted to sit down and say, "That guy was really an asshole, you know?" But he did know and had probably endured more of that kind of rudeness than I could imagine. Maybe not every time he tried to buy something but enough to know what it's all about. Perhaps that's why he was pursuing theology, I thought, and why others just get Ferguson angry. I walked on. There was nothing I could say to this man.
Stop thinking and relax said my voice of mental preservation. So, despite lurching surprises and inexplicable decelerations, I got back to my seat without falling. And choosing to ignore a few stains when I sat down, I decided the upholstery and chair was relatively comfortable. Seeing a huge red knob to my left, I decided to close my eyes and recline, nobody behind us. I leaned back and pulled the knob, nothing. I pushed it forward backward left and right, nothing, nothing, nothing. I asked my wife if she had a knob. She smiled coyly, "Not on my seat."
So I pulled up on the knob and then smashed it down, all the while pushing hard against my seat.
I could hear my wife giggling during these efforts.
"Maybe it's just a joy stick."
"Well if it is, I'm not getting much joy!"
In an effort to avoid grumpiness, I turned to our friends across the aisle.
"Hey, Ken, pull up on your knob"
"Pull up on your stick and see what happens."
Ken and his wife looked at each other, then gave me the "look".
I don't get it. Why am I always getting that LOOK?
After a lengthy discussion, we established that Ken's knob was no more effectual than mine and I decided not to prolong the discussion.
Strike two against Amtrak.
So I closed my eyes and imagined I was reclining. It worked, too, until thundering hooves came from behind. A conductor so corpulent that I couldn't imagine how he was squeezing between the seats roared past us as if outlaws and Indians were on the attack.
Then the train stopped abruptly, right out in the vast agricultural wilderness of Stockton.
It was dark.
And we waited.
I leaned across to Ken and whispered, "We're lucky. Just look out your window and enjoy the sparklers--not fireworks but gun fire. This is Stockton, the murder capital of the world, one homicide per hour--guaranteed!"
I'd had some bad experiences in this city, proof that the wild west was still wild, more wild than your average NHL hockey game.
Which gave me time to notice that the ex-convicts who boarded with us were now sitting together engaging in an animated conversation, probably one-upping each other on the easiest way to make a shiv out of corn flakes or bragging about how many innocent bystanders they'd shot due to shitty marksmanship. Nothing good would come from this.
Eventually (and by this I mean a short millennium) a few more people straggled on board and a frazzled lady collapsed into the seat behind me. The train resumed its slow southern roll. I looked across the aisle and telepathically asked my friend Ken, "What was that all about?"
He shrugged his shoulders. Enough said.
Or so I thought. But the frazzled lady behind us had other plans.
"You were on the train before me, right?"
"We were on the train, yeah," Ken answers (Thank God, she wasn't talking to me).
"And you saw the car on the tracks?"
"Well, there was a train on the left and on the right."
"I was just getting on at Stockton. I was on the outside."
"Uh huh, how'd they do that?"
"How did they manage to stall a car on the tracks? (Ken pays attention to what people say)
"What? Elderly lady... guess she didn't realize where she was, guess she thought she was on the street, going really fast. Could you see out the window?"
"No." (Wrong answer, Ken, and the frazzled lady took a deep breath)
"There were these guys, they tried to lift the car off the tracks. They couldn't do it. They couldn't get it up that high. Guess she was on medication."
"Probably she didn't know how to react," Ken said.
At this point I had to interrupt, "How DID they get the car off?" I mean really, tell me this train didn't just plow through a car with some old lady inside!
"A flat bed tow truck came and uh..."
"Winched her off?" Ken suggested.
"Yeah...so they hooked her up. They lifted it off over the track as if they were going to put it on the truck. But I guess there wasn't enough damage to it so they went ahead and left it on the ground. But then they had her get back in it. They were telling her to do something. You could see they were pointing. The police... but first a white man shows up, then the crime scene techs and, um, the tow truck shows up, then the regular police officers. And they were all pointing for her to get in the car--they were trying to get her to back it up or move it over. She got in the car and just sat there with her hands on the wheel..."
We were ducking our heads back and forth during this extended narrative so the convicts could pass by and purchase beers in the car behind us. And I had no problem with this except the last time I looked forward I saw them holding their bottles high above the seats slamming them together, no doubt celebrating their unholy alliance or toasting some nefarious plan.
I tried to ignore it all by closing my eyes, pretending my seat was settling back while inserting imaginary ear buds.
But wait, there's more!
The frazzled lady behind me wasn't ready to shut her pie-hole.
"And there was this big to-do. These other guys that were hanging around there. There was this guy that worked for Amtrak, this white guy and some gal, for a while. There were also these hoodlums from Stockton and they were like trying to conduct some kind of drug deal. And I don't know if they thought they could deal something out of their car... Anyway they're running. And there's like this father figure, I mean an adult male, and these kids were running across the tracks, just kids right? So the guy says, "You know, it's a felony to be running on the tracks...and there's like chaos going on. And he turned around and they're still running. So I think wait a minute, you just told them not to do that and I guess, they have no fear--and all these guys they just live out there dealing drugs... But then these four guys were all standing right there with this one woman, and they're all leaning in and I'm thinking I'd be so scared of this..."
At this point the frazzled lady begins a near hysterical giggle.
Oh, Stockton! You never cease to fulfill my expectations for mindless brutality, aimless violence, and absolute anarchy.
Finally Penny, Ken's wife and ever the one to console and be calm in face of insanity says, "Ahhh, a lot was going on out there..."
And Penny has a way of saying "ahhh" drawing it out sweetly so that we all relaxed and enjoyed several minutes of relative quiet, sitting (not quite back) but soothed by the rails that went "clickety-clack, clickety-clack".
I suppose if someone wanted to get anal about onomatopoeia it was more of a "thumpity-WHUMP, thumpity-WHUMP" interspersed with an occasional "Lurchity-JERK, Lurchity-JERK". But however one might scan the poetry of that moment, it was soon interrupted by a dire intercom announcement--from the engineer, master conductor--or maybe God himself!
Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, someone is smoking on this train. If you are caught smoking, your ride will end abruptly."
I looked forward and--what a surprise--the prison-perps were nowhere to be seen! Meanwhile I considered the various implications of an abrupt ending--divine bolts of lightening, forced ejection from a moving train, or quick suffocation under the weight of an enormous conductor. But before long the jail weasels popped back up and right before sitting back down managed to throw everyone in the car a shit-eating grin.
After which we worked our way south through the "M" towns--Modesto, Merced, Madera during which the graduates of correctional universities actually demonstrated a learning curve: they got off the train and smoked furiously at every bean town between Sacramento and Hanford. The conductor/god's voice came on again to caution us all that we had only two minutes to smoke and were not allowed to be more than 25 feet away from the train. I turned to Ken and winked, hoping our friends hadn't spent enough time in public school time to understand the difference between feet and yards. He acknowledged my wink with yet another wise shrug of his shoulders.
And in between these stops our felonious fellows continued their back and forth movements expending their hard earned jail money to purchase more beers. Then something happened. The one attired in prison orange plopped himself down next to a woman just a few seats ahead of me. I couldn't hear what he said to her but she suddenly went rigid as if touched by a cattle prod. And I continued my observation of this situation until Mr. Orange returned to his own seat, next to the man with the marvelous tattoos. Some vague prompting caused me to get up at this point, time to stretch my legs and relieve my bladder.
I found the nearby restroom occupied and the food station beyond it unmanned. Descending steps to the lower level, I came upon crew quarters, apparently deserted. Books and magazines were open, a dinner left to cool. Remembering my original objective, I found the large door of a restroom with a hastily scribbled note on the handle: "Out of Order". What had happened to the crew? Were they inside? Unlike the restrooms topside, four or five people or, uh, corpses, could easily fit in this ominous large enclosure.
And so with a definite tightness in my throat, I pulled up on the latch, hoping to God that I was not about to see something that would flash upon my mind every time I tried to piss in the future. But the latch didn't move, tight as can be.
Then I pulled down. No give.
Locked, that's all, our of order. No need to go Stephen King on myself. Still, killers have been known to jamb locks--first lesson in Prison 101 right?
I moved through the empty cabin until I reached the juncture of the next car all the while wishing I'd remembered to bring the machete my wife keeps under her bed. Beyond a glass window, I could see two conductor type persons engaged in heated conversation. After a bit of hesitation, I hit the "Push" button and they both stopped talking, turning to look directly at me. Seriously, why do all these guys look like walruses? And so there we were in an open space, at a precarious joint between two moving boxes of steel hurtling God knows where at 70 miles per hour. A huge crack opened and occasionally presented itself beneath us. I considered how this might be an easy target for urination. But I might miss and wet the shoes of the walrus, or an eggplant, coo-coo-kuh-choo?
This flashback reverie was violently interrupted by the whiplash voice of the food-walrus.
"If you need something, sir, I'll see you upstairs!"
I turned to the other walrus-conductor and said, calmly as I could with a bladder about to go coo-coo-kuh-choo, "Uh, a couple of guys in the car above are getting a little out of control. They haven't done anything serious yet, but--"
"Listen, we're all over the situation. It's already taken care of, okay?"
I ignored this statement from the rude food dude and instead nodded to the superior walrus while proceeding to make my way upstairs where I was pleased to find an unoccupied restroom. Ahhhh.
Afterwards, I returned to my seat and tried to forget the drama below.
Then the "F" word happened.
The Folsom Twosome had gotten off for their usual smokefest..
I felt my wife tapping my shoulder, "Look, there's a couple of railroad officials talking to the cons..."
Both bad boys returned to retrieve their belongings. They had been forced to leave earlier than expected. And so the train moved forward leaving us with a parting image of the tattooed man shedding his wife beater, revealing dramatic skin art and, I suppose, showing us his disrespect.
Hanford arrived. We found our parked car.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the rails turn the minutes to hours?
All could be avoided as everyone knows
Had we driven from Sac like the Maurer's.