Saturday, July 28, 2007

Railroad lady, a little bit shady – the sequel

I knew one craven moment when I wanted to call my friend and tell her to leave her meeting, walk to the station and hand me into the train. Fortunately, there was a lot of distraction to get me through the lapse.

Union Station in Chicago is delightfully studded with oddballs and colourful layabouts. Big black woman fighting out loud with imaginary “bitches and hos”. Scrawny white man singing very badly, only pausing to abuse someone for dropping too little change in his tin. Indian IT boys talking Telugu in a scrum. Excitable Jordanians refraining from talking Arabic, even among themselves, even in their excitement. Unmistakable New Yorker looking like she just stepped off the sets of a sitcom. All things wise and wonderful, in short.

As I had a sleeper ticket, I had the privilege of checking in my luggage. I discovered I could have done it in the morning, instead of using the gold-plated, diamond-studded left-luggage locker that took all my lifesavings. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed using a locker that I could just stick my credit card into and operate on my own. I’m also glad I didn’t miss the interesting chat there with someone who opened the conversation by saying “You must be the last person in America to finish it.” Harry Potter. Of course.

My paranoia brought me to the gate half an hour before I needed to be there. As I stood there waiting for the doors to the platform to open, I was thinking to myself that this was all very organised and much like boarding a plane. But once you’re out on the platform, the smart queue degenerates to frantic passengers at a railway station. Actually, there isn’t the slightest need for this general going to pieces – car attendants stand outside the doors to guide you. They should try Kurla Station, where I was directed to the wrong train, found that out only when someone else came to claim the seat and then had to get off and take a running leap on to the right one. With a suitcase. Well, four suitcases – there were four of us trying to get in the same door of the same moving train. It was all very traumatic.

My car happened to be the very first one I came to, since it was the last one on the train. I stowed my stuff and returned to the platform (my bravery is always restored once I’m in the situation). I presented my railway antecedents to Rene, the keeper of my car. From then on, he took it upon himself to point out railway-related objects for me to photograph. And asked deep questions about Indian Railways – some of my replies were definitely of the shooting-on-moonless-night variety, but often I surprised myself by actually knowing things.

I also got a list of the “smoking stops” (the real reason I was out there being uncharacteristically forthcoming), which turned out to be a good thing because the PA system was not working in my car. These are just stations where they stop for longer than five minutes, and they can let you out, and now I knew which ones to watch for.

American railway stations are a bit coy about putting their name where you can see it, but I didn’t mind much. I knew that every train contains at least one passenger per car who can glance at a pair of orphan rails in the night and tell you which station it is. Or look keenly at a clump of trees (identical to all those you’ve passed so far) and deduce that you are 15 minutes from the next stop. Or wake from a deep sleep and know instantly where we’ve stopped, why, where the coming freight train is bound and at what speed. All you have to do to unlock this mystic knowledge is wonder out loud if this might be Fort Madison.

We left exactly on time – I was a little surprised by this because everyone I met or overheard or posted on the net had said that Amtrak was always late. But in fact, I found it was almost German the way their schedule tallied with the one printed on the leaflet in my room. Ette. My “roomette” was a cosy two-berth one that I had all to myself, complete with door, curtains, shelves and large windows.

It was exciting being on a double-decker train. I enjoyed being able to run up and down stairs. Also, the vestibule is on the upper level, where the swaying of the train is quite dramatically felt. So walking was fraught with adventure.

Almost as soon as we started moving, I took a little stroll and found that I could go all the way into the luggage car – I said hello to my checked-in bags, spent a few delighted moments in the half-empty, non-air-conditioned space, pretending to be a hobo and then returned to the observation car. I heard later that I got in only because it was so soon after we’d moved, the door was locked thereafter. I did a lot of wandering up and down – there’s an elementary thrill in walking through the rattling cages that hold the train together.

Showering on the train was a surreal experience. Strangely, though the toilet was just as unstable, scary and inadvisable as other train I’ve been in, the shower is fine. Perhaps it was just the novelty.

I also did a lot of private leaping up and down at the sight of orange locomotives, yellow locomotives, coal trains, tanker trains, railway lines running parallel to roads, railway gates, tunnels and other non-events. Also, a single steam engine puffing luxuriously in a yard – quite definitely not a non-event.


Anonymous said...

Long time since I stopped by. When were you in this un-familiar territory?

I thought I gave you my numbah?

Nice! Looks like U had a pleasant summer here.... How is life in Dubya Land?


Gargoyle said...

I know. But due to acts of God and myself (see post titled "Left of centre"), my time in Chicago was cut to a few miserable hours before boarding the train. I had no capacity for happy phone calls. Next time for sure (there will be one)!

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