Los Angeles Union Station is the closest you can get to a Grand Central of the “other” coast. The majestic old structure boasts Spanish stucco and missionary mosaics that perfectly typify the Westerns I used to re-enact as a kid. This is the kind of place that can intoxicate the imagination and resurrect latent daydreams as dusty as the West in which it was built. Dragging suitcase and self along the aisles, I could very well have been a runaway, plotting my escape to Albuquerque (a place that was, to my 10-year-old self, the closest to “exotic” an American city could sound).
It was August 2012, and in a stroke of bleeding romanticism and nostalgia for times I never lived in, I took a train from LA to New York.
I managed to shush the critics (realists) by telling them it was cheaper than a cross-country flight, but if time is money, then I bankrupted myself at least five times over on the very first day. Including the stop in Chicago and the delays in Michigan (the train in front of us ran over 200 cows planted by a luckless farmer desperate for government reimbursement), the trip took more than 70 hours. Somehow, I managed to sucker my cousin Julian into coming with me and, as an act of “Aw, shucks, you kids have fun!” generosity, my aunt and uncle gave us a sleeper car for the journey’s first leg. The car alone fulfilled every Agatha Christie fantasy I’d ever had—complete with seats that transformed into bunk beds and picturesque views of the American frontier.
Long-distance trains are roughly divided into four sections: sleeper cars like ours, Greyhound bus-style seats that we curled up in during the second half of our trek, a dining car complete with booths in the style of ’80s diners (apparently a testament to the number of shits the government gives about upgrading its infrastructure), and the gloriously windowed viewing decks that drown their occupants in golden light during that one perfect hour before the sun falls beneath the sky.
Meals were by far my favorite time of day, not necessarily because the food was far better than the Tom’s Restaurant chow I’d been expecting (though no doubt this helped my state of mind and stomach immensely), but because of the people we sat with. Because of space, lonely pairs are asked (read: commanded) to sit with each other, forcing interactions that begin awkwardly, but end in a beautiful unraveling that I don’t think I’ll find anywhere else for a long time. Unlike college students during a hurricane, people traveling by train don’t get belligerently drunk when stuck in one place with the same people for over a day. They get nostalgic, vulnerable, and candid in a way that only the freedom of finality can bring. Why not bare it all? Hell, you wanted to talk about it anyway, and it’s easier to confide in a stranger than in people who actually care.
Case in point: The day we hit Albuquerque was the day we met Lucas. He’d joined the army out of high school, allowing him to cross over the Mississippi for the first time in his life. We sat with him in the observation car for hours; he told us about how he’d found his best friend, how sonic booms make his heart shiver, and how he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan on his 21st birthday.
“I’m one of the few guys that doesn’t really drink ... But I promised my mates that I’d take one shot, then get on the plane,” he’d said, a bit ruefully. His birthday was in January. By now, he should be overseas.
I remember finding it being difficult to fall asleep on the second night of the trip when, unexpectedly, he handed me a copy of what he professed was his favorite movie: Good Morning, Vietnam. “I think it’s a comedy. It’ll make you laugh,” he said, “you’ll fall asleep.” Something tells me, though, that he knew he would never get it back, because when I woke up (with the circular DVD–unwatched–imprinted on my cheek), we had passed Oklahoma City and Lucas was gone.
He was but one of so many that I encountered on the Southwest Chief and Lake Shore Limited, that quixotic dream of an adventure that left me a little bleary-eyed and overwhelmed as we stepped into Penn Station, ever-teeming and chaotic, even at midnight on a Tuesday. Riding the 1 train to campus, I found my eyes wandering from face to face, unconsciously searching for the same vulnerability that I’d been privy to in the days past. I hardly expected to find it in their hardened subway scowls—but surprisingly, I did: in the young man giving up his seat to an elderly woman, in the smile you can’t help but aim at the kid in a stroller, in the dollar begrudgingly handed to the man in the mariachi band, both parties all too aware of the fact that the melody has been replayed hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It’s there. I saw it, and smiled.
Kerouac was right when he said that taking a train in the States is in no way like going on a road trip. There’s no room for whimsicality: you can’t open the windows of your car just to feel the wind pummel your tear ducts, or pause to enjoy a particularly stunning view. It’s passive and almost cinematic, like a theater you can’t escape. But as you lumber along in the iron giant, subject to the whims of a machine you can’t control, the people you’re with eventually blend into the scenery. You begin to associate the hail of New Mexico with the almost-soldier, the mountains of Colorado with the retired shoemaker. As you watch the movie of America pass you by, you’re living a movie right there on the train, caught between the dream of a blank slate and the tick of a clock that counts down the seconds until your return to reality. Until you are again with people that already know you, and will continue to know you, until the pull of the road takes you away again.
Good Morning, Vietnam still sits on my desk. I’m hesitant to watch it, just in case it sucks.