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On the Midnight Meat Train: April 30 thru May 1: 2022
© 2022 James LaFond
Written from memory 5/10/2022
The thunderheads were ripping overhead far above the concrete and steel bowels of the massive Chicago Amtrak station, with 22 gates. As we roll out eastward with the storm literally chasing us, a storm we would outrun just before hitting Ohio, a tall fit man next to me across the aisle, with a cute masked little wife by his side next to the window, tapped me on the shoulder, “Retired or vacationing? I'm doing both.”
“Retired and living out of this rucksack, visiting folks I never had time to meet.”
“Did you drive local or long haul? I was teamster all my life—treated me good, retired last year at 62.”
“Oh, I never was a teamster. I was a grocery clerk. Now I coach boxing a little bit. A young fella I live with in Oregon gave me these clothes to travel in, so I wouldn't seem like too much of a hobo. Security at stations and transit cops are suspicious of bums living out of backpacks.”
“Good man, your friend. We need to help each other out in this world. That's what a union is about—or supposed to be, although some get corrupt. I drove from Pittsburgh to Philly mostly, a regular route. Retired in Toledo—home town has seen better days. But its home and I'm on the outskirts next to farmlands and woods. My granddaughters call that acre of woods 'The Forest.' We hunt mushrooms back there—the Morrels should be out soon.”
“Kids are great.”
“They sure are. Love being a grandpa. So you travel a lot on the trains?”
“Since 2018 I general go across the country four times per year and up the Northeast and Pacific Northwest a couple times. I do hunt mushrooms for a man in Utah—don't know what I'm looking at but he separates them into dinner, diareah and death.”
“Love being out in nature after driving all those years. We were on the California Zephyr, in the sleepers. What a beautiful ride, but lots of delays. I'm wondering if we will make it into Toledo at 3:30. This stretch is the busiest freight corridor in the nation.”
“For the past two years the Chicago to Pittsburgh run has been two hours behind, hopefully not this time.” [1]
“Name is Dave,” extends hand and we shake, “James, nice to meet you, Dave.”
“So you now these trains well?”
“Now, by comparison, I do. Most of the wealthy folks that used to take them for vacation have been replaced by young folks moving for work or back to mom's house.”
“The planes are for the birds. They just don't treat you right. These Amtrak people do right by you and its nice.”
“These were imagined as rolling hotels, so it's regarded as a hospitality industry.”
“Is it really government subsidized?”
“Yes. The freight carriers are tasked with repairs and Amtrak with new construction and with shuttling freight engineers and, as you experienced, must always give right of way to freight.”
“Well this is America and stuff is always more important than people—you learn that in trucking.”
“Yes, and interestingly, Amtrak subsidizes the freight carriers more than the freight carriers subsidize Amtrak. For instance, they were supposed to have wifi on these things ten years ago and still don't. The freight carriers have managed to get most repairs reclassified as 'new construction' which soaks up Amtrak's budget...”
“And you know those freight cars really beat up the rail beds compared to these things—and these are old, Pullman cars, these things might be older than half the people on them.”
“It really is the best way to travel and prices have not increased as much as bus and airline travel. I've gone from the Pacific to the Atlantic for $200.”
Points finger at floor and bends it three times, “If I was a young man, this would be my job. I'd be working the trains. This is so much less hectic than driving a truck—you just deal with other trains. Driving a truck in Pittsburgh, Philly even on the Turnpike, the cars really complicate the job. Besides, there is something about moving people, rather than stuff...that just seems less grinding.”
“Sure, we're freight instead of zippy little motorists cutting in front of you...”
“And you don't need a pallet jack or a forklift for when the guys at the warehouse pinwheel the pallets! You just tell the freight to get off. Hey, you drink?”
“Only when I drink.”
“She doesn't. Here, we had the sleeper car attendant bring us each one of these with lunch and dinner so I've got six left. Let''s drink.”
Dave and I drank Makers Mark from three miniatures each while we talked about trains and destinations and driving truck and grandchildren. I wanted to get us some beer and Dave liked the idea, but the cafe car was having problems feeding the sleeper car passengers dinner and stowing the supplies brought on at Chicago. The fellow making the announcements and manning that car was mildly retarded and very nice. No one complained as he promised to open up after his normal closing time to serve the coach passengers.
After 10 and quiet time, I went forward and waited in a half car packed with 30 passengers and 4 crew as the cafe attendant laboriously prepared food and used the cash register. Even the Gawdly Kangs and caramel Queans did not cut in our unformed line, as we kept track of who was behind us and who ahead and observed a courtesy I have never seen at a retail venue. Even the Gawds among us observed civility despite moaning, and whining and crying and rubbing their ever-hungry bellies in distress over spending three entire hours without food.
They were out of Bud Light so I got Corona and brought it back for Dave and I. We saluted, sipped and toasted to trains and grandchildren and spoke on into the wee hours about common things. Finally, as we were on time and it came time for he and his wife to get ready to offload in Toledo, Dave said:
“It's been nice, but it will be great to drive home and see my dog. He's a good dog, loyal as can be and protective of my granddaughters. A good dog is better then eight out of ten people you'll meet in this world. I treasure him. I hope to meet you again, James. You might want to curl up over here in these seats after we leave—you've got two more hours to Pittsburgh.”
-1. Against the odds and the warning by the conductor, we were on time.
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