(THIS IS A REPRINT FROM THE FILE 23 MAGAZINE ARCHIVES)
THURSDAY OCTOBER 27 3:30 PM- My Samoan attorney drops me off at the Fort Worth Amtrak depot; the tickets say be there a 1/2 hour early, and like a good commuter, I comply. The train? It’s not here yet.
No matter; I’m on time, right?
My destination: Austin Texas; a mere 200 miles away. Estimated time of arrival 4 1/2 hours,according to the tickets. I’ve come prepared with a book, a magazine and a 20 oz. bottle of Coke. Had a burger for lunch, and wolf down a vendors’ hot dog while waiting for the train. There, that’ll hold me. My plan is to meet my friend Baird Blanton at the Austin train station, and then we’ll do dinner. What could possibly go wrong?
4:10 PM- The train slowly rumbles up, ten minutes late. Unfamiliar with the train, I attempt to enter the sleeper car and am quickly pointed to the correct car by the conductor, although this is something I’ll later wish I had gotten away with.
Like all good Americans I drive a gas-guzzling vehicle, but recent gas prices have forced me to consider the train. Baird and I once took Amtrak from LA to San Diego for the big Comic Con there, and without a hitch I might add. The train was there on time, left on time, and dropped us off on time.
In other words, like it was supposed to. Uneventful, but that was one factor in my decision to take the train this time. I-35 north of Austin is a construction nightmare, due to the building of new toll roads. What I’ve been told is that it’s a 3-hour drive, and then you spend an hour in stop-and-go traffic just to get in to Austin. So taking the train seemed like a good idea. The train begins to move slowly; here we go!
We move about 30 yards and stop.
A voice cackles over the PA to inform us in a soon to be frequently repeated disclaimer sort of way, that the passenger trains share the rails with Union Pacific or Burlington Northern ( I forget ) and that there will be a brief delay.
A freight engine lumbers by attached to a long succession of look-alike boxcars. Tuning this out seemed like a plan; I bury myself in a magazine. We begin to move again.
Drunk-like, we bob from side to side and move slowly South. Again, we come to a screeching halt over the East Lancaster trestle. Looking out the window I see rush hour traffic moving ever-so-slowly, but dammit, it’s moving and we’re not.
5:15 PM- It’s been over an hour now; we haven’t left Fort Worth. We haven’t even left downtown. I can still see the train station behind us. Down below on East Lancaster, I can see homeless people walking by. And THEY’RE going faster than we are.
What sort of insidiously fiendish God would allow such a joke to be played?
By this point alone, the only thing keeping me from prying the emergency windows open is my inability to remember where they moved the Greyhound station that used to be just a few blocks away…
Suddenly we begin to move again. What’s this? Can it be? We’re moving, we’re actually moving!
We crawl through South Fort Worth past building after building covered with spray-painted graffitti proclaiming this the turf of the Latin Kings, South Central and a million other Latino gangs. We get as far as 820-South and come to another stop.
A voice crackles over the PA and repeats the “we have to share the tracks with these bastards” mantra. We have to wait for another freight train.
We sit and sit and sit as another freight train slowly chugs by. An hour and forty-five minutes and we haven’t even crossed the city line. Panic begins to creep in slowly.
“Trapped like rats” as Larry Fine would say.
But it’s not funny now. This is repeated for hours past our alleged arrival time.
7-10 PM- ( I’m guesstimating here; I don’t know, this all kind of turned into a blur at some point after 8 ) Hours later we’re finally rumbling through Appalachia, Texas past every abandoned refrigerator and rusty car fender between Fort Worth and the middle of nowhere.
My blood chills as the announcer on the PA tells us we’re going past Crawford, and Rancho Del Weasel.
Going through various crossings, I see car/truck bumpers, driveshafts, and other car/truck pieces left over from dumb-asses who tried to beat the train and didn’t make it.
If there’s a Hell, it looks just like Taylor, Texas. The classic middle of nowhere if ever such a place exists. No one at the station. No pay phone. No vending machines. Behind the station was a junkyard with a kitschy 40’s-50’s era sheet metal sign shaped like a Rosie the Riveter-type girl holding up one of the old 10, 2 and 4 Dr. Pepper bottles.
This was the single solitary interesting thing in town. There was no sign of life whatsoever. A boarded-up hotel. A bar with no one out front. A barbeque joint with no one out front. The dark streets are completely empty, and foreboding in a low-budget horror movie sort of way.
10:00 PM- Temple, Texas was even more of the same, except worse if you can imagine such an atrocity. Although no one gets off (except to stand around and smoke) and no one’s getting on, we sit idling for over an hour in Temple.
Years of watching I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver episodes have taught me never to get off the train, but in an act of desperation, I get off looking unsuccessfully for a pay phone. A sympathetic train conductor allows me to use his cell-phone and I get Bairds’ voice mail and leave a message telling him the f***ing train is running late.
(Unbeknownst to me, Baird’s battery in his cellphone is dead as downtown Temple.)
After we finally start moving again, it’s difficult to tell the train is really moving. It’s dark now, and there are no lights, buildings or anything at all to use as a gauge to tell if we’re moving, the rocking car behind me providing the only real clue.
By this stage I’m mentally transported into one of my favorite movies, ITS A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. Remember the scene where Sid Ceaser and Edie Adams charter the plane to beat everyone else to the big “W”?
There’s a shot where you can see the shadow of their plane on the highway below and the cars are passing the shadow. I’m channeling this HARD as I look out the window and see an old Sanford And Son-type pickup truck pulling a travel trailer pass the train on an adjacent access road next to the tracks.
I press my face to the glass and mouth the words: HELP ME!
11:00-12:00 PM- …Now I’m really regretting not getting on the sleeper car. Everyone in my car is curled into a fetal position across the uncomfortable seats. Attempting this is painful and I sit up and try to sleep sitting up. I drift in and out of consciousness; my eyelids are heavy, but I just can’t let go and drift off to sleep.
Looking out the window, I hear the Iggy Pop song “The Passenger” in my head. “I am the passenger…and I ride and I ride..”
Outside the window is pitch black. There is no other sound but the train going over the tracks. It’s almost hypnotic enough to put me under, but sleep eludes me. Looking out the window later, I see city lights. A few buildings come into view; I see a sign that says Round Rock National Bank.
That’s where they filmed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre!
(The good one; not that new piece of shit.)
It also means we’re finally inching closer to Austin. Let’s see.. we’re over four hours late now. I formulate a plan of action. I have no cell phone, so I go through my pockets for pay-phone change and find 74 cents. There’s a pre-paid phone card in my wallet someone gave me, so if there’s a pay phone nearby, I’ll call a cab, check into a motel and phone everyone in the morning and let them know what’s going on.
1:00 AM-FRIDAY MORNING- We finally crawl into Austin; I can’t believe it!
Seeing Baird actually waiting for me on the platform is even more unbelievable.( Sorry, everyone else, but I think the Best Friend of 2005 Award goes to…)
Unashamedly I hug him; I’ve never been a sentimental guy, but I feel tears welling up in my eyes. I’ve never been so glad to see a friendly face in all my life. But I’m also very pissed.
I could have driven to the Gulf Coast. I could have driven to Austin, watched ITS A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and driven back to Fort Worth. I could have flown to LA, back to Dallas and then back to LA. If there’s a bright side, I probably saved about $150.00 in gas.
But nine hours of sit-down-and-shut-up-we’ll-get-there does more than try my patience.
Were I to perform my menial job in such a “sue-me” fashion, I have a feeling I’d be unemployed in a hurry.
Who can I sue for those nine hours of my life? OK, I’m a dumb-ass for not seeing the obvious; they just want us standing at the gas pumps, plain and simple. Otherwise, they’d spend a little money, build more rail-lines, create a few jobs, stimulate the economy etc. but no-o-o-o… Mussolini got elected by promising to make the trains run on time, and right now I’d vote for him, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin or anyone else who would do something, anything to lessen our dependance on Arab oil.
I also can’t help but wonder how much fuel we wasted sitting idling on those tracks waiting for those seemingly endless freight cars to go by us.
11:00 AM SUNDAY- With great trepidation I re-board the train, which is a half-hour late this time. Once boarding, I realize I’ve lost my bifocals and must wear my prescription shades all the way back. I PRAY the train can get back before dark; I can just see myself feeling my way around downtown Fort Worth after sundown.
Sunglasses After Dark, just like the old Cramps song. The return trip is closer to five hours; not so bad this time except I can’t read to pass the time and there’s some poor bastard two seats ahead of me who looks just like the Elephant Man.
The conductor on the train, Reggie, is one of the most likeable guys I’ve ever met; riding with him on board made the trip much less stressful. Earlier, a cab driver in Austin informed me that the day trains move faster than the night ones.
I wish someone had told me this earlier in the week when I bought my tickets.
So as a file 23 public service, I’ll share that and a few other helpful hints should you ever decide to try this.
- Bring lots of stuff to read
- Bring a pillow; you’ll thank yourself later.
- Bring a cell-phone. Yeah, I hate ’em too (“YOU STILL THERE?”) but you might keep a best friend from waiting for you five hours.
- If you have kids, a portable DVD player can be a Godsend for your fellow passengers. Or you, for that matter.
- Don’t give the conductors a hard time, it’s as pointless as arguing with a traffic cop over a ticket.
So there you have it, the file 23 Survival Guide to riding the rails.
And remember, friends don’t let friends take the night train!
This was originally published in file 23 Magazine November 2005