You don't have to be an enlightened sensualist to realize that railroad trains are romantic. The train is a streamlined fist of American steel and spirit that has punched its way across this nation in movies, paintings, photographs, songs, stories and real life. Trains brought the coasts together. Trains begat industry. Without trains, this paper would not exist, as nobody would be living here to read it.
When other vehicles are in action, it's really no big deal. What do buses do? They crawl along. And planes? Maybe roar a bit. But trains--trains do things, by God: Their whistles give a mournful cry, they rumble through the night, their brakes squeal, they belch smoke, they clickety-clack into the distance, they have engineers who actually wave at you as they pass and they have a guy who's leaned out of a side door and yelled all aboard!! for about 150 years.
With planes and buses, it's all letters and numbers. Flight number 1221 leaving gate C5 at 1:40. It's hard to feel you're about to be carried off into a world of adventurous travel as you brush the crumbs off seat 13B on flight 1221 and make sure you have $2.75 for a vodka 7.
But the trains--the Coast Starlight, the Texas Eagle, the Southwest Chief, the Desert Wind, the California Zephyr, the Pioneer, the Empire Builder--these are names that pull their weight in poetry alone.
And let us not forget the Sunset Limited. Though Phoenicians might as well, for Amtrak can no longer afford to keep the track linking Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma in operation ($25.7 million for necessary improvements, $2.5 million a year to keep it up).
Determined Los Angeles-bound souls can still take a bus to Tucson on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:25 p.m., wait half an hour, then get on the Limited and get off in L.A. 12 hours later. The price is still the same, $94, but for $30 you can get on the Greyhound and get to L.A. in half the time. Or for $69, the friendly, two-packets-of-peanuts skies of Southwest will have you there in an hour.
But as of 9:05 p.m., Sunday, June 2, there was still a reason to walk under the arches of Union Station in downtown Phoenix, cross the tile floor by the blocklong oak benches that have held a million en route rear ends and hand over $94 to the man behind the ticket window who, according to his coffee cup, was named Frank.
All of this I did, and Frank handed me a ticket on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, a ticket to experience the rich batch of whatever that nine hours on the last train out of Phoenix had to offer. Romance, excitement, nostalgia, clickety-clack. It was a one-way ticket, of course. The thing wasn't coming back.
The heat just hangs there under the yellow lights on the platform at the station. The sun has set, and we wait for the Limited. Who are we? Media people scuttle around, perky, yuppie-looking newscastresses followed by professionally bored cameramen. Pentax-wielding train fanatics are here to record the historic moment. Old-timers. Young families. Very few, it seems, actually have tickets to ride.
Then, down the tracks a piece, you can hear that mournful cry. Everybody gets his camera ready, and the mighty silver beast pulls in! The brakes squeal. This is the last time this'll ever happen--it's the last time for everything. The train stops, passengers get off while other people take pictures of each other pretending to get off.
One lady says "This is soooo stupid!" as her husband videotapes her faking an arrival. Families run up and pose in front of the engine, snap shots. A little girl hands a teddy bear in a Casey Jones outfit to a conductor for him to autograph. The place is dripping with a weird, cinematic sentiment as I grab an Amtrak employee to find out where I can board. I take the opportunity to ask her if this has been an emotion-packed trip for her.
With the brisk walk of the professional who is not packed with emotion, she leads me toward the rear of the train.
"It's crowded in front, but go down here and look for Ruth. She'll find you a seat. She used to be a flight attendant."
With that in mind, I take one last glance at the platform before I step on board. Then I step on board.
But I don't find Ruth, so I head upstairs to the second level of this car. Nearly all the seats are taken. There is one next to a fat man hoiking up phlegm, but I move on. There is another next to a couple of old guys who are talking train travel, saying, "Buses. All they think about nowadays is buses." I take this seat, and behind me a baby starts crying. I decide to move and go back downstairs thinking about the nine hours left until Los Angeles appears.
And there is a tiny, middle-aged Asian woman in an Amtrak uniform. This is Ruth, ex-flight attendant. She leads me to a seat in a section where there is only a sleeping elderly lady. I sit down and look out at the platform and the yellow lights and the people milling about; here inside everything is still and dark and very quiet.
There is nothing to do but wait for the train to move; I feel like I'm waiting for an execution. I'm getting wistful, reflective, I start to miss my wife, wonder what I'm doing here on the Sunset Limited.
Then a lurch. A bump. And, without anyone shouting all aboard!!, the train silently begins to ease west for the final time. The station goes by, the yards of Cyclone fence, the scraps of garbage, a line of palm trees in the dark. For a little while, cameras flash from people positioned next to the tracks beyond the station, and in the blinks of light you can see them standing there waving goodbye.
Well, so much for sentiment. It's time to make the most of this historic joy ride to the City of Angels. The elderly lady wakes up, and begins complaining to poor Ruth about the noise she's had to endure from rambunctious passengers since she got on in Chicago.
"This has really been a picnic for me, I can tell you!" she's saying. "And I'm handicapped!" Believe me, I know this sounds sad, but it just went on and on and on.
I'm thinking all kinds of evil stuff that I would never say in print--like "what a crabby old hag"--and then she finishes with Ruth and all is silent. With nothing else to do, I stand up in the dark aisle of this compartment, my head under the tiny blue ceiling light, and introduce myself.
Now you, too, can meet Peggy.
"I drove a Yellow cab in Los Angeles during the war when my husband was in the service," she tells me, not crabby at all. "Once I picked up Herbert Hoover on Hollywood Boulevard, and, boy, was he fat! He was with another guy who was fat, too. It was raining, and when I had to make a turn, the cab started skidding, so I says, 'LEAN TO THE LEFT!!'
"One time I was sitting in front of Union Station [in L.A.] and this lady comes running out with a baby. She says, 'Follow the Glendale train!' She'd been in the rest room with her baby, and someone else had set another baby down next to hers and they both had the same blue blankets over 'em. She got out of the bathroom and when she looked in the basket, she had a colored baby! They were switched by mistake, and the colored lady had got on the train!
"So we chased the train, I was honking like the devil and finally they realized something was up and stopped. She got on there and guess what--the colored lady hadn't even looked at her baby! They switched back, ha ha ha ha . . ."
Peggy told me many other stories, and you know what the train did? It rumbled through the night.
The Bar Car.
You can drink there, you can smoke there. On the Sunset Limited at 10:30 p.m., there is nothing else to do. Oh, but what fun is to be had here! People are getting to know one another, buying each other cocktails, filling the air with smoke as the desert rolls by on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows that might as well be painted black for all there is to see.
A guy notices me scribbling into a Reporters Notebook (these things actually say this on the cover) and sits down.
"You're a journalist, right?"
I'm never quite sure how to answer this question, but I say yes.
"Hey, are you writing about the last train from Phoenix thing?" he asks in a thick Jersey accent.
"It's a crime, man, no rail service to Phoenix." He's real conspiratorial, and tells me I should be writing about some obscure governmental issue of which he is aware. This goes on for a while. He looks over his shoulder, moves in closer. Sums it all up:
"Politics. It's all about politics." Then he winked, I swear to God.
I go get another beer.
On the way, I stop in the bathroom, which is like peeing in a fun house. Worse than a plane in terms of motion, but for me more enjoyable as I am scared to death of dying in a plane crash and even more so of dying in a plane bathroom crash. Finishing up, I attempt to flush the toilet by pressing a black button above it. That successfully releases the Infant Changing Table.
Back to the Bar Car.
And back to another new train buddy of mine who we shall call Ed. Ed lives in a little town in California with his lady and his Harley with the suicide clutch. Ed is gloriously drunk, and is making fun of everybody in the car, and everybody who walks by. He has great stories and hilarious jokes he relates in a thick Texas slur. Nearly all are accented with an elaborate and final Goddammmnnn!!! that makes its way, just barely, out of a lengthy belly laugh.
Ed is unstoppable, he has us all going--a college kid, a couple of old guys in feed caps, a woman from South Africa, a hippie lady, the guy who winks and knows that it's all politics.
Somewhere in there, the train stops at a crossing, and we watch as an ambulance pulls up. They take somebody off the train. Ed gets serious as we peer out the windows, sucking our drinks and chain-smoking.
"Maybe someone had a heart attack," he says, lighting up. "Or maybe it's just emphysema!!"
The last train out of Phoenix slowly starts up again, minus one passenger.
I scratch my head, and Ed says, "Keep that scratching back there, don't come near me!! HAW HAW HAW Goddammmnnn!!!" Everybody cracks up. The lady from South Africa makes a drink run. Time means nothing.
Around three in the morning, time began to mean something again.
The bar has long closed; Ed bid me, college and South Africa goodnight; I, too, felt it was bedtime. It's a strange thing, wending your way down aisle after aisle, carload after carload of sleeping humans traveling at 75 miles per hour. Everybody is in every position a body can manage in an Amtrak seat, those little pillows they give you wedged in all sorts of crevices. Feet stick out, little kids are curled up with their thumbs in their mouths and their butts in the air, parents cradle babies and boyfriends cradle girlfriends, everybody is innocent.
And here's me thinking all this, trying not to fall over and still count the right amount of cars I walk through 'til I should go downstairs to my own nest. I make it, and there is Peggy, wide awake with a portable video game glaring orange light into her face. Even though she's got an earplug in, you can still hear a needling little synthesized melody play every time she scores.
And this is quite often.
And this is quite annoying.
"Hey, Peggy, what're ya playing?"
She just looks at me, face kind of glazed over, wicked little grin.
But we are not alone; there is a couple across from me fully covered by blankets, dead asleep. My little pillow is on the floor, so I join it down there, pop a couple melatonins, and insulate myself with a blanket that I normally use as a tee shirt.
I know I slept, because I woke up.
About an hour later, in fact, when the male half of the allegedly sleeping couple said:
"Hey, lady--how about turning that thing off?"
Peggy, still gilding the coach with her video sounds, ignored him.
"Look, lady, I asked you nice," came the voice. In a thick Jersey accent. "Now shut that fuckin' thing off before I come over there and stuff it down yer fuckin' throat!"
I lay there looking straight ahead at some trash on the floor in front of my face.
"You just try it!" screamed Peggy. "You weren't considerate of me when you got on this afternoon! I'll do whatever I want!"
Now the girlfriend joined in, equally Jersey.
"Listen, you old bitch! Turn that thing off so we can get some goddamn sleep!"
Then Peggy, undaunted, went off with a round of '40s slang of the "You and what army!!?" "Sez who!" variety.
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I closed my eyes again as L.A. rushed at us, drifting back to sleep by the needling, synthesized sounds of a video serenade.
I came to as the sun began to rise into the smog of Los Angeles. The last drink-soaked, cigarette-smoked, floor-sleeping, nine-hour-screaming-match voyage of the Sunset Limited out of Phoenix, Arizona, was gliding to a halt at Union Station. End of the line, as they say. The Jersey couple were getting up, still whispering and grumbling about the lady who once drove Herbert Hoover in her Yellow cab. I rose, glanced down at Peggy, who was sitting there with her video game. She smiled at me like a righteous warrior and nodded almost imperceptibly.
I got off the train and began to wander down the platform among the other zombies preparing to disappear into Los Angeles. This would never happen again.