Postcards From The Edge – Indy to Chicago, 1st Leg of Train Trip to El Paso

10:11 PM 7/20/2012

I was surprised I could sleep at all before I headed for the train station — only about 4 hours, truth be told.  It was hot on the west side of Indianapolis last night. It had rained in some areas, but not enough to write home about. I’m sure the grass and trees were thankful for the drink even though it wasn’t top shelf. The humidity was making sleep difficult already, then I thought, ‘There’s a sour pickle we will all deal with eventually. When there is no AC? No fan?’ I supposed that life might move a lot slower, including people. I was immediately reminded of everyone I had ever met from New Orleans and couldn’t feel too bad about it — at least not today.

I arrived at the train station at 5:30 a.m. with time to spare and realized after looking at my tickets, I had a 3+ hour layover at Chicago’s Union Station. In my mind I heard a smarmy “Outfuckingstanding.”  To say I’m not a morning person is misleading. I love mornings — I am just not a ‘waking person’ — especially at 4 a.m with no coffee.

I penned this while sitting in Union Station — after a 4+ hour ride from Indianapolis. Napping, reading, chatting with fellow travelers or geeking without wifi were the options on that short trip. Though, at that early hour, not much chatting was going on. Except for a giggling gaggle of first grade teachers that sat across the aisle (they were headed to a conference in Chicago) and a young mother behind me.  She announced how excited she was at the prospect of turning 21 this year.

Her daughter was adorable and more quiet than mom, who insisted on listening to music so loud on her headphones that everyone within four seats could hear (including the teachers). With the added bonus of singing poorly and missing lyrics in sections.  It was a bit like listening to someone trying to perform karaoke to a skipping record.

One of the teachers chimed in to sing one of the songs. I realized if I wanted to nap, I’d better put on my own headphones. I’m a fan of music and singing; don’t get me wrong — but I’m a fan of non-corporate, non-commercial music. Hard to call most anything alternative anymore since that’s been mangled by the music/radio industry. Nothing on Clear Channel is alternative. It’s Radio Ga Ga — the alternative to Radio Goo Goo.

As Charlie Parker was constructing my musical bubble, I noticed an odd young man sitting on the left ahead of me — nervously reading aloud in whispers from his bible.  This at one point included hand flourishes which exposed a note and cash in his hand. He hadn’t bought his ticket but got on board anyway. Amtrak security really isn’t thorough if it exists at all; which is fine by me. The last vestige of travel without removing clothing in the U.S.? The ticket taker was annoyed with the young man for a moment or two.  He then asked him to move to the back of the car to figure out his ticket at the next stop.  I never saw him get back on again.

The last stop on the way to Chicago was a town called Dyer, Indiana, which when heard over the train intercom and viewed from the windows, may as well have been spelled Dire. I was surprised no one got on but that someone got off at that stop.  Dyer was the end of the line for someone. I wanted to hug the poor bastard.

There was only one other time I can report feeling that urge since I arrived in Chicago. Those few magical, passing moments with kids traveling with their parents.  The adventure and wonder in their eyes, all at once made me smile and inwardly melancholy. I know most of the country has no earthly idea what is coming.  And that is the strangest feeling I can name; to feel like a stranger no matter where I am.  To have started a conversation about peak oil or economic collapse would have yielded the same reaction the young man and his whispering sermon a seat over received.

I packed too much for me to handle comfortably. I’m sure it appeared visibly awkward hauling it through Union Station. Mental note : don’t travel solo with heavy luggage in mule sandals. With some time to find sustenance without dragging what felt like steam trunks around a giant mall, I tried to rent a locker. These are new-fangled, without keys and where you scan your fingerprint, pay, then the lockers open/closed based on your print. In theory…

After devouring my five dollars and scanning my fingerprint it wouldn’t open. There was no kiosk, no nice man with an official-looking hat, just a receipt with a number and website, with the instructions: “Pick up the blue phone for assistance.”  I scanned the immediate area and there was no blue phone. I felt like I was in the middle of a classic Candid Camera set up.  I just sighed and gave up. It was the first and least expensive lesson I had learned early on this trip about infrastructure and the technological failure of attempting to replace human contact with automation. Seeking another option, I found luggage carts which were also five dollars.  Automatic, enter money, push button, and ‘supposedly’ release the cart. I decided I didn’t need to go there. I’d lost at least one beer in that goddamned locker. I wasn’t about to give away my two drink minimum for visiting Union Station.

I thanked St. Christopher for the wheels on my luggage and good straps to keep it all secure.  Once I negotiated my donkey’s load, the first thing I set out to do was go outside for a smoke and mentally prepare for the crowd battle to find a good cup of coffee. At least before happy hour started to sound good before noon.

As luck would have it, I chose the right escalator.  The south side of Union Station on Jackson Street opened up to a canal view with the skyline right in front of me.  The Sears Tower monolith stretching toward the sky with its pointy devil spires, in all its phallic and ludicrous glory.  Several boats were making their way down the canal with tourists occupying the open decks.  There had been some rain earlier in the morning which cleared the haze away — a gorgeous breeze, bright blue sky and gulls floating by motionless as if on a mobile.

I secretly thanked Gaia for her postcard from the edge.

The coffee was less important.  I had been awake since 3:30 a.m. and was ready for lunch at that point. The food court was within distance of my boarding platform — the unhealthy choices reminded me of The Dead Kennedy’s album title, ‘Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death’.  In this food court, that was a two-fer.  Cheese bread was the least offensive in that roulette game.  It was too early for the bar and lugging that baggage around wasn’t going to get any easier with booze added.  As I waited for my order to come up, I saw two women begging for money at nearby tables — and I’m happy to report another two women got up and bought them something to eat instead.  All four were gracious about the exchange and smiling at each other.  After witnessing that, so was I.  Mental hugs.

Making my exodus back to the boarding gates, I found an open chair to observe a room full of travelers waiting on their trains.  It is packed.  Kids everywhere, the smell of engine exhaust lingers weirdly like a fireworks display just occurred underground.  And they worry about smokers?  Everyone waiting — well off folks and large families on budgets, even a large group of Mennonites feasting on McDonald’s, which I found almost surreal enough to photograph but I refrained.

This second train doesn’t have a smoking car and I’m unaware if any of them do now.  Seems a shame to me to marginalize more customers when you can simply add a car.  It would be guaranteed full in the midwest and south.  Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met traveling were smokers, especially on the train where the night owls and misfits showed up — the story tellers.

Not that I am skeptical about meeting interesting people in the next 48 hours — but it isn’t a big train and two days in this universe is like the blink of an eye.  Here’s hoping it will be a wink instead. ~ Gabrielle

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