Making Amtraks

Posted by Cila Warncke

Union Station, LA

Union Station in downtown LA feels deliberately anachronistic, an amalgam of art deco and country-house library. It is cool, dim, discreetly curved; big tan leather chairs march squarely along the polished floor. All it needs is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s chattering undergraduates clutching long green tickets, or Lane Coutell with his cigarette and unadjusted muffler.

Trains operate on different timescales. Twenty-nine hours from LA to Portland is a languid reproof to modernity. All aboard. Get comfortable. The urgent coping mechanisms of rapid transport (inflight movies, car stereos, PSPs, magazines) are only partially applicable here. An 11-year-old wraps her little sister up, telling her to pretend to be asleep. They both leap up, balancing on the edge of their seats, watching the passing Pacific waves intently, after mum hands them disposable cameras. A much younger mother chats to her parents in English, breaking off to call her wandering toddler back: “Mami! Aqui!” Lengthy complaints from another parent when they discover the change machine in the “arcade room” downstairs (four worn-looking video game consoles) only gives tokens: “I don’t want $20 worth!”

The lounge car is a refuge for beer-drinking veterans and emo kids umbilically attached to their iPods. “They started being nice to us. That’s how we knew it was real. They weren’t yelling at us for once” — an ex-serviceman tells his drinking buddy, recalling the World Trade Center attack.

Downstairs, a middle-aged woman is scanning the drinks menu at the snackbar. “It’s hard to get high on a train, on beer. Something about the motion.” She orders a Jack Daniels, then adds, apologetically. “People think because I’m little I don’t have problems. But after five kids your little old body gets all kind of aches.”

Plump, glossy, brown-eyed Aly is on her way to Chico to sign up for a dental hygienist course. “I told him, ‘get out!'” she chuckles. “Then he came back the next day and said he was sorry, that he’d never had a serious relationship before. That was three years ago.” She is 19; her boyfriend, 22, is shy but a promising baseball player. Aly wants to move to Chico because it’ll give her mom time to miss her, but she’s worried about giving up her walk-in closet. “I don’t want them doing anything to my room while I’m gone.”

The dining car fails to nourish Casino Royale fantasies, but there are flowers on the table and a choice of cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Scott orders scampi and Diet Pepsi. He’s on his way from San Luis Opisbo where he was helping a friend with some building. Getting laid off from his job repairing heavy machinery in steel-processing plants has compensations, like the freedom to take off for a little fishing in Ensenada, Mexico. Someday, he’d like to go to Europe.

Jack wouldn’t. He has vowed to never again leave “the sovereign United States.” His Navy baseball cap shades sharp, Irish-blue eyes: “Americans are targets.” He also won’t return to his home state, Louisiana, because (lowers voice) “The white man is under attack.” Don’t rush to conclusions. Jack has been with his Chinese-American wife for 50 years and three children; has two masters degrees; his manners are impeccable. America — land of contradictions.

Amtrak Coast Starlight

Snow-dusted lakes. Rolling miles of dry, golden grass with the occasional oversized ranch house. Ferns curl wetly on the edge of evergreen woods. Surfers bob sleekly in spumy Pacific breakers. Darkness erases hours as kids pad stocking-footed along the aisles, a mother curls around her sleeping infant, couples sprawl intimate-awkward across their seats and sleepy slumped heads crick necks.

Twenty-nine hours is not half long enough to hear or guess at all the stories. Andrea trots up and down the dining car with trays of food, 13 years on the rails, four days on, six days off. Another waitress, much younger, flirts with the supervisor: “I brought my teddy bear.” He shifts heavily, tells her to go get her things. She’s changing at Salem. Sometime in the night a drunk passenger was met at a station by the police. “Be careful cleaning that room,” the supervisor tells someone. “Someone thought they saw a needle on the bed.”

The Coast Starlight arrives punctually: 15.37 (scheduled, 15.40). Passengers roll off onto the rain-slick platform. Sea-legged. All that’s missing is a man in an overcoat to scoop up my suitcase and offer his umbrella.

2 thoughts on “Making Amtraks

  1. Good stuff! I’ve not had the joy of going on an Amtrak yet, but sure I will one of these days. Are you out here in the States for work?

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