The Last Hoorah
The photos shown below were created by Dave Niblack of imagebase.net. These photos are not related to the story. Dave's photos are here to add some much needed color to my gray text: Thanks for your support, Dave!
Saturday, Dec. 15, 2001
I wake up at seven a.m. and Martha joins me for breakfast, saying she’ll just have some coffee.
We make our way to the dining car, cheerfully decorated with Christmas lights. She wants to sit across from me, but the maitre d’ insists that she sits beside me, a dining car tradition. She resists, but comes around after I glare at her.
A gruff Italian gambler sits across from us. He has been on the train for days and looks like hell, with a stubbly beard and bloodshot eyes. He swears he will never ride Amtrak again, and I shudder.
The food arrives, and Martha is pleased to discover that our attentive waiter, who assumes we are a couple, delivers my generous meal on two plates. I smile painfully. The Santa Fe Omelet is a delicious combination of well-sauteed vegetables and bits of chicken. Fresh orange juice and a cup of coffee bring the final tab to $10 including tip.
I drink three cups of coffee before I bail and make my way to the dressing room where I wash my face, brush my teeth, and powder my sweaty balls with Gold Bond (getting a lift from that tangy menthyl kick).
I put on a pair of fresh but torn underwear. Following a suggestion in my packing book, I bring along old underwear and worn out T-shirts that I throw out after a day’s use. My luggage slowly grows less bulky.
We are meandering through small towns in Missouri, past lovely old barns, silos, and acres of flat cornfields. The startling white contrails of passing jet airplanes divide the heavens. Old Route 66 parallels our route, and an occasional car will try to keep up with us, but that can be difficult because we average 90 mph on the straightaways.
Martha and I have been sitting side-by-side for over 20 hours now, and we’re still getting along great. She is reading “The Lipstick Proviso, Women, Sex and Power in the Real World” by Karen Lehrman.
I ask Martha, “If you were on a sinking ship and the Captain shouted, ‘Women and Children First!’ would you consider that a politically incorrect remark or would you board the lifeboat before the guys.”
She says, “I would do exactly what the Captain told me to do.”
Martha tells me that I have got to read “Secrets of the Talking Jaguar,” by Martin Prechtel as she makes her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth with my toothpaste. The roadbed is in awful shape, and she staggers down the aisle of the coach car like a drunken sailor. Martha doesn’t understand that the best time to use the bathroom is when the train comes to a full stop.
Noon. Somewhere in Missouri, passing rolling fields on a jumpy track that is buffeting people from side to side.
Martha is downstairs smoking a cigarette. She gave me a great massage on my right arm earlier — the one that has tennis elbow, and it did wonders. She has her style and combines it with some moves known as Lomi Lomis that she learned in Hawaii.
I’m not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I did manage to catch six hours of sleep last night thanks to my black eye masque, ear plugs, and sleeping pill. The skies are overcast, and the sun is peeking through the winter haze revealing acres of fallow farmland broken up by small rivers and wild forests.
We’re leaving Missouri, the “Show-Me” state, and entering Iowa, the “Hawkeye” state, dipping into a valley and crossing the Missouri River. I cannot keep up with all the ancient battlefields, trestles, bridges and landmarks that pass me.
* * *
I eat a roast beef hoagie in the dining car with a side of home fries, pickle, and coffee. The conductor directs a Catholic priest and a black couple to sit at my table. They have been traveling by Amtrak for decades. They assure me that passenger train service will somehow survive despite the likes of John McCain and the Amtrak Reform Council, its two biggest enemies.
I tell them I have written my senators and my congressmen. I have letters published in local papers, and I have called in on talk shows. I am totally obsessed with trains and drive my friends and family crazy: I am an Amtrak activist.
Entering Illinois, flat and overcast, is a dreary affair. The people are grim, but Martha makes up for it with all her cheerful chit chat. She is on vacation but very much focused on her occupation, reading trade journals and chirping about Aryvedic approaches to massage.
The Southwest Chief is hauling ass, and we should arrive in Chicago on time.
We approach Chicago and the conductor cries, “Next stop Union Station!” After 28 long, painful hours in coach, I reassemble my carry-on with its tangled array of bungee cords and slowly make my way down to the lower level.
The conductor chases me down. “I made an announcement that passengers were not to bring their bags to the vestibule, and yet you did. Why?”
I ask him to find it in his heart to forgive me. He growls, “Nobody has patience these days,” and I hang my head in shame.
I leave the train and encounter delays retrieving my bag in the cavernous halls of Union Station. It takes half an hour before my bag magically appears from the depths of the carousel.
Another ten minutes go by, and I have my bags strapped to the luggage cart. Two bags topped with a cracked Styrofoam cooler are precariously perched on the wheeled device.
I am wearing a super warm blue synthetic sweater under a down jacket and my wool cap. Soon I am drenched in sweat and feel like passing out.
I glance at my watch and figure that if I push it, I can make it to the Chicago and Northwestern Station and the commuter trains four painful blocks away.
I walk around the building on the sidewalk with my wheeled cart and 10 tons of stuff. The subzero temperatures help revive my spirits. I am wearing my pathetic purple tennis elbow splints that evoke sympathy from pedestrians who give me directions to the Old Chicago NorthWestern Station.
My cart makes transit a breeze, and I manage to cover the four blocks quickly. I enter the station, roll up to the ticket counter, and purchase my ticket to Glencoe, Illinois for $3.50. I am delighted to learn the train is leaving in a half hour. I buy the ticket and walk to the pay phones and call my childhood friend.
Blaze says he thought I was arriving tomorrow but said he would meet me at the Highwood train station in about an hour.
I wheel up to the #10 track and unsuccessfully try to hoist my bags on board the commuter train, the Metra. Lots of burly sailor types en route to the Great Lakes Naval Base walk around me as I struggle to get my bags on board. Nobody will help me. Even my splints don’t arouse sympathy.
An old man passes by the train, sees my plight and asks if I need help. I smile painfully. He hoists my bags up the steps to the main floor of the commuter train easily. From there, I spread out in three seats opposite the lavatory.
Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001 12:01 a.m.
Blaze wasn’t joking; he most definitely was not expecting me to arrive until tomorrow. So when I called from the station, he was surprised.
In the end, we laugh it off and have an enjoyable evening drinking beer, munching pistachios and watching Shrek until we all called it a night.
I slip into the basement and get ready for bed. But first I take a long, hot shower.
Now I’m lying snug in bed, freshly showered and feeling very safe and secure in my hometown of Glencoe, Illinois.
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