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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Amtrak and Letting Go
For many of us who attended AWP in Seattle, the biggest obstacle in returning home was a wicked hangover and/or an overpacked suitcase full of books. For Jen Fitzgerald, the odyssey was a bit more complicated.
The bus driver’s palm was bloodied where the screwdriver had slid across it. He pried the panel off to check the wipers’ wiring. I slid past him and joined the smokers out on the side of Route 90 East, elevation over 3,000 feet. The blizzard had subsided but hung in the air as a threat to our three bus convoy en route from Spokane, Washington to Shelby, Montana.
I can push against this thing or let it take me where it will.
“Hey, do you want to take the train home?”
Flights were getting delayed and cancelled every few minutes. My inner control freak and nervous flyer knew I wouldn’t make it from Seattle to NYC on time. Uncertainty was chipping away at my sanity. A cross-country train trip, by myself, through states I had never seen and terrain I had no frame of reference for? It could be a “winding down” after the cacophony of AWP (a writers and writing professionals conference) and the seven months of work leading up to the successful release of the VIDA Count with its flurry of interviews and inquiries. Three days entirely to myself, my writing, and my thoughts sounded like divine intervention.
My husband bought me a ticket on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s scenic route through the northernmost portion of the United States. I was to connect a few days later, in Chicago, to the Lakeshore Limited route ending at New York City’s Penn Station. Now, this was how to get home from a writing conference. The next day I boarded Train 8 from the magnificent King Street Station in Seattle, Washington.
We did not make it very far before coming to a stop and staying put. At 2AM, an assistant conductor called out,
There has been an avalanche at Whitefish and this train isn’t going anywhere. They are sending buses in the morning. I don’t know what time, and I don’t know where to. Try to get some good sleep while the train isn’t moving.
We don’t have avalanches in Staten Island so this word carries with it a pretty heavy connotation of destruction and death by suffocation. I asked if everyone was okay and received confused looks, as though why would she think anyone was in the wilderness? We’ve come up in two very different population densities; in NYC, someone was always there. The falling tree limb always crushed a jogger. I searched online with whatever signal my phone could offer, I tweeted @Amtrak, I checked Google maps to place myself geographically, to somehow control the situation enough to be comforted again. I resigned myself to gratitude that I wasn’t gasping for air under 20 feet of snow and fell back to sleep in my partially reclined position.
We sat in a holding pattern for much of the morning. The Amtrak and bus staff had reached a point where they pre-emptively didn’t take anyone’s shit, even if you had no intention of giving them any. My suitcase was packed for air travel and weighed over 50 lbs, besides my two “carry on” items. I bore them on and off the train, through the station. Around 9:30 A.M., we boarded buses for Shelby, Montana safely past the derailment and avalanche.
Washington and Idaho boast mountains that bound upwards from every possible angle. On the White Pine Scenic Byway, the distant pine trees are like stubble on the peaks. At an elevation of 4,800 feet we crossed over to Montana, into a blizzard where our wipers quit working.
After a brief stop and futile attempt to fix them, our driver had to navigate down the mountain as conditions worsened with one wiper flopping like a dead fish every few moments, and the other completely vertical in the driver’s line of sight, moving only two inches to the left or right. The convoy found a wide side-street in Missoula to merge my bus with the other two buses. The cramped passengers were not happy to see us, refugees again.
We were offered only a brief reprieve at truck stop where “Sleeper Car” passengers huffed through pursed lips and made statements like, “surely Amtrak will be reimbursing for all of this…”
Montana is a constantly unraveling carpet of snow and frost and peaks. The sky actually is bigger there, embracing the country-side, stretching arms out just over the next hill, further and further. I let myself be mystified by place and, in that, lost time.
The ease of losing time is a rare experience for me. I’ve thought of my adult life as 90% preparation and 10% action. If I could research, plan out a dozen probabilities and their greatest possible outcomes, I would be in enough control to know that if anything went wrong, I had only myself to blame. When others were given control over my life, they left me broken. There must be a formula one can follow: safest distance to keep others at while still balancing the possibilities for love and suffering.
I refreshed Google Maps regularly, as the sun went down. There were no distant lights to offer a glow to the terrain, an idea of peak and plummet. When the bus finally arrived in Shelby, minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, I dragged my giant suitcase from the luggage compartment and up the steps to the platform without a winter coat. Whether it be a survival mechanism or staunch individuality, not a single person offered to help me with my ungainly bag and I wouldn’t have dared ask them.
I was self-sufficient, a doer, a woman of action and task. I didn’t need help with a 55 lb. bag of my own doing. I warn you: this particular mantra fades out like an 80’s cassette tape after days of human touch being reduced to a light brush of the body in passing.
A very young couple with an infant (who had gone through the entire ordeal with me) searched for a place to sit together and had no choice but one of the many empty rows “Reserved for Crew.” When confronted by the conductor, other coach passengers muttered audibly about their infant and the empty seats until the conductor relented. I approached the couple and said,
“If he comes back and gives you a hard time, I promise to make such a scene in this car that he won’t know what to do with himself.”
They smiled, thanked me, and then tried to care for me the rest of the trip, asking if I needed anything from the lounge car and how was I doing? It seemed like they were unaccustomed to strangers risking an appearance of insanity. Where I’m from, we hold doors for strollers, we offer money to the single mother coming up short at the register, and we all have an eye on the infant in the room. Money can provide comfort, but solidarity offers protection. While the Sleeper Car passengers sat, backs pressed to thin dividing walls, having individual experiences of the night prairie, we were shoulder-to-shoulder, mitigating the group experience with the individual and surviving. I won’t push against this.
I feel the need to bring my New York with me wherever I go. I double-check taxi meters, I appear to always know where I am, and I look skeptically at people as a general rule. The fear of “being taken advantage of” is in the forefront because that’s something that should only happen to newbies; natives know better. But on this trek, there was so much I didn’t know. I spent two days looking for the car with showers. I had no idea that the train would make stops throughout the night or divide passengers by destinations in cars that would detach and reattach to new engines. I had no idea how many people depend on Amtrak for day-to-day life; it is the only form of reliable transportation for many of the states I went through. Men with wedding bands heading to the pipeline, talking about 6 on and 6 off. Drill, dig and carve; lay, join, and fill. The single fathers picking up children and grandmothers visiting Chicago family.
I also could not have conceived of the drastic class divisions created by the physicality of the trains and supported by the passengers themselves. It wasn’t difficult to determine who was in a Sleeper Car and who was in Coach. I looked over to my seatmate at one point and asked,
“Are we on the Titanic? I feel like this is steerage and keep looking for the rats.” He laughed because it was true and because even though we knew we shouldn’t be treated this way, it was the hierarchy in place and we needed to get home.
The trip through North Dakota was peaceful. The frozen ground sparkled as the quickly moving train passed frost motes reflecting brief sunlight. I came into my own a little, joining people in the dining car for lunch, having a few drinks. I took my camera out when I noticed the way the light bounced off the flat, snow-covered ground, through thick train car windows, and onto passengers. It changed the contours of their faces in a way I believe only that mixture of light and movement can produce. Almost all were affable, letting me take their pictures and, with each picture, telling me a little of their stories. The interesting thing about Amtrak, is that there is always a reason to be on the train; mainly socio-economic and geographic. It almost always involved family— the infinite, moving force.
After gathering a good group of pictures, I sat in the Observation Car to upload, sort and edit. Within three minutes of sitting I heard, “SHERRIF’S DEPARTMENT, DON’T MOVE!”
I turned to see two plain-clothes officers, hands on guns, removing a couple sitting at the table behind me and tearing apart their booth. Everyone but the unconscious man lounged on the chairs in front of me seemed alarmed, but then quickly returned to what they were doing. I watched a new saga unfold in front of me as we sat in the Staples, Minnesota Amtrak station.
On the backdrop of a sleepy mid-western town, faded advertisements painted on brick, marked and unmarked cars pulled in, and people were questioned until officers zeroed in on a burgundy SUV. Guns out of holsters but at their sides, they removed the driver, searched, and cuffed him.
After 10 minutes, the couple returned, telling of Mountain Dew bottles full of methamphetamine and a seedy man trying to trade drugs for sex in this infamous meth corridor. The couple had merely played a hand of cards with the man and ended up getting searched. All of their personal and non-personal surfaces were tested for drug residue. I still had the audacity to be chipper and laugh at the absurdity of my trip so far. Let it take me where it will.
4:30 AM, Chicago, Illinois
Our train pulled in to Union Station and left us. I dragged my enormous bag down the long platform in below freezing temperatures, still no coat. I was confused, didn’t know where to go. I had tried to plan for this moment, calling the 1-800 number, speaking to the conductor, discerning what train to board next, when to do it, what to do in the interim. No one could help me.
Station staff told me the ticket counter doesn’t open till 6:30.
I wandered around, a little dazed; navigated yet another train station bathroom.
Saw a line forming around an information desk, instinctively stood there.
I was told my train to NYC wouldn’t leave until 9:30 PM but I would be put up at a Hyatt for the day, offered taxi fare, and some money for breakfast. I felt grounded and exited to hail a cab in the early Chicago morning.
It was snowing. No, it was near blizzard conditions. I bundled up as best I could in my sweatshirt and pulled my suitcase through the slush.
The taxi driver told me they would be in a winter storm advisory until at least noon. Nothing had been plowed. Chicago couldn’t afford this storm, worst winter in decades. He will have to turn in the cab and pay out-of-pocket for the day. The car slid all over the street.
I checked into the Hyatt, much less chipper than 12 hours earlier.
The shower was glorious. Spacious and grand, hot water, sundries, towels. I curled my hair, applied make-up, I still felt tattered, but new. I finally elevated my feet and some of the foot, ankle, and calf swelling from days of sleeping upright, subsided. I was fortunate enough to have an acquaintance in Chicago who took time from his day to take me to lunch, get some gifts for my little one who was now battling a cold back at home (a cold I should have been there to nurse her through), and drive me back to the train.
And then I was back; at the train and the uncertainty. I had thought of giving up on this whole thing and flying home from Chicago, but didn’t want to risk missing the train and having a flight cancelled due to weather. And something was telling me I needed to see this trip through, needed to stay on the rails until Penn Station.
The station was crowded and it became apparent very quickly that it was all for my train. My gut twisted, blood rushed to my face, and a queasiness settled under my skin. As pain centralized in my right abdomen, my heart began to race. After another desperate trip to a train station bathroom, I knew I was screwed.
The train should have boarded an hour ago. Something was brewing inside of me that was going to be disastrous. I took Gas-X, Xanax, and Tums. They closed the women’s restroom for cleaning. I didn’t know if I could make it upstairs with my luggage and not miss the train. After lingering between the waiting area and the restroom, I saw another young woman use the bathroom in the Sleeper Car lounge. I finagled my way in.
The electronic doors opened up into a marble and mahogany dream with flat screen T.V.s, the stinging smell of disinfectant, and passengers being ushered out a back door to enter the train from an entirely different gate, well before coach. I happily befouled their granite bathroom.
I was sure it was my appendix. This trip would end with an appendectomy performed in a rural Ohio hospital by the overnight surgeon. I sat on the crowded train, doubling over with cramps, babying my right side, rushing to the bathroom. I checked Web MD which my sister, the nurse, forbade me to do, then texted her. She responded, “It’s your gallbladder. Probably because of train food.”
This freed me up to navigate my symptoms and not worry about calling an ambulance. She has saved many Emergency Rooms from me. I took medicine for cramps, drank chamomile tea, frequented the on-board bathroom and, finally, I fell asleep.
Pitch black beyond the windows, only overhead lights on in the car. I was freezing; legitimately freezing. Only covered with flimsy jackets, dressing in layers, nose and fingers iced over; I pushed myself back to near-sleep.
Morning, I was miserable. Why was this is happening to me? Bathrooms acting up, I panic. The Conductor came in, I asked about freezing car and he apologized, explained it had to be adjusted from outside. Now, because of how long the car was without heat, our toilets froze. No longer operational, good luck, try another train car.
I sipped water, took stomach medicine. I checked my phone every few minutes to see how close I was to home. I am never going home, I just know it. I live on trains now. I sleep in three hour clips now. I only communicate via text and social media. I am vapor.
For 12 hours I existed in an in-between space that affords no comfort. I made a last-ditch effort to try to secure a rental car in Albany, New York. When that failed, I finally, after four days, resigned myself to this train trip home. Fully present, no longer simply in transit, I began to cry. The young man next to me pretended to sleep as I wept in the seat. When I felt a wail coming on, I retreated to the restroom and let it out. I couldn’t control the tears, I couldn’t control my body, I couldn’t control anything.
I eased into that semi-comfortable emptiness that comes with illness and crying, when your body is numb and emotions have run their course. Maybe this was about process, not success— not measureable by achievements, but by milestones of growth. Trauma can make one seek absolute control over their being to ensure it can never happen again. Now, in order to be healthy, I need to relinquish some of that control; let people in. It is in the relinquishing that I accept I had control to give over in the first place.
The sun was setting over the Catskills and I began to recognize the train stations of upstate New York. I had been defeated, exorcized and purged of a defunct survival mechanism, my strangle-hold on the world, but I was almost home. As I dragged my suitcase off of the train for the final time, the conductor grabbed an end and helped me.
Penn Station was alive and alight. I ambled around the middle walk way, looking for the street, making people trip, shuffling like a slow-witted transplant. I could feel the energy of incoming passengers, ready to embark on their travels. Maybe, like me, this would be their first time on a train.
Jen Fitzgerald is a poet and a native New Yorker who received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. She is a community activist and freelance writer with experience in both the creative and professional spectrum. She is the Count Director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and oversees the collection, interpretation, and dissemination of count data. Her work has been featured on PBS Newshour, and in Open City, Under Water New York, and Azuria.
A slideshow of Jen’s adventure.