How Train Travel Explains the Decline of American Culture

Traveling by train used to be a romantic experience. Now, it's exactly the opposite. Like the country it traverses, the train system is utilitarian, plastic, beige, and devoid of greater meaning.

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Jul 29 2014, 3:34pm

To most, the idea of traveling by rail is as quaintly nostalgic as the image of a Great Depression–era hobo carrying a bindle, contemplating the theft of a pie from a windowsill. To most, the idea of paying just as much, often times more, to spend ten times as long in transit as it would take to hop on an airplane seems insane. I, however, am not most. I am a moron, which is why I recently spent 22 tedious hours traveling between Chicago and New York via Amtrak. Let me paint you, dear reader, a portrait of my mistake.

Things did not begin well. As I waited in line to board, a man began screaming obscenities, irate because an elderly woman had fallen down and had to be scooped off the platform, thus delaying our departure. "He's been doing that all day, yelling at people," the man behind me, wearing a travel pillow, sighed. After getting on his knees and putting his hands behind his head in a very lackadaisical, "been there, done that" manner, the screaming man was escorted away by Amtrak police.

An autistic kid with filthy nails and cloudy glasses approached and immediately began quoting an egregiously long passage from The Great Gatsby. I asked why he chose to take a train to his destination instead of a plane. He explained that he could carry more things on a train. He said this while wearing three overstuffed bags and holding two tattered others, one of which he informed me had milk in it. "How much milk?" I asked. "Two cartons." "Why not just travel with fewer items?" I asked. The look of abject confusion he gave me in response wordlessly answered my query.

The train, I quickly realized, is for misfits. There was a reason why the people surrounding me didn't want the TSA to touch them. This mode of transportation's main appeal is the fact that one does not need to be searched in order to obtain entry onto it; hell, one doesn't even need to show a ticket until one boards. Budget-conscious terrorists could, if they so desired, not purchase a ticket and save a few bucks before getting all those virgins they were promised. Autistic kids could, and apparently do, transport dairy across state lines.

I could have purchased a sleeper suite, and therefore extricated myself from the absurdity that surrounded me, but that would have cost hundreds of additional dollars. The sleeper cars are separated from the plebes in coach class; you can't even enter them without paying the fee. I envied whoever was blessed enough to afford one.

The romanticism of the rails is dead. There is no beauty, no ceremony, in it. White, brown, and beige plastic covered every surface. Water sloshed in the sink of the filthy bathroom. The cutlery was plastic; the plates—holding flavorless, overpriced turkey sandwiches—were made of paper. Artless photos of hot dogs and Pepsi products hung askew in the snack car.

I'm sure there was at least one romantic on the train, a Beat Generation enthusiast in love with riding the rails, but I did not encounter them. I encountered an aggressive little person who cut in line at the snack car and ordered one of the aforementioned artless hot dogs. An aggressive mother/daughter duo who cut in line as we boarded and spent the trip rubbing their hands with sanitizer, softly snoring and scrolling through their Android phones. A man who, every time I passed him on the way to the restroom, lasciviously informed me that I "[looked] really nice."

The woman sitting in front of me, who I viewed with a combination of contempt and awe, was on her telephone for the entire 22-hour train ride. At 4 AM, she loudly barked, "Fuck you. FUCK YOU!" to whatever unfortunate soul was on the other end of the line. She lambasted the employees for not telling her she could go outside at a stop to smoke a cigarette, even though she was sitting, talking on her phone, the entire time we were stopped. Had she any brains, her excessive cell phone usage would have given her brain cancer.

At one point, she turned to the long-suffering college girl sitting next to her. "You got a Facebook?" she asked. The girl said she didn't, an obvious lie. "You don't have one?!?" Telephone incredulously responded. "Why not? You can use it on your phone!" She then asked for the girl's full name, presumably to investigate the matter further. My pity for the girl was absolute.

After a couple hours of fitful sleep, I woke up in Cleveland at 7 AM. We pulled in alongside the highway I used to take to my job at the wallpaper factory, next to the football stadium I once sat in front of while willing myself into wanting to kiss a guy I knew I didn't really want to kiss. Next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I went to with my ex, before we knew of the horrors that would arise from our courtship, where we marveled over the size of the cover of More Songs About Buildings and Food.

I smoked a cigarette, still drunk from the Jim Beam I smuggled onto the train the night before, which was appropriate, because I was back in Cleveland, and stared into the early morning clouds punctuated with light. We motored away, past graffiti-covered abandoned factories and graffiti-covered un-abandoned factories and my former life; assuming you could call what I was doing at the time living. Telephone chattered away all the while.

As I smoked on the Syracuse platform, he approached. A middle-aged English teacher who normally lives in China, he comes to Los Angeles sometimes. Could he give me his card, and next time he's in town, I could show him around? His friend there can't, because he's working all the time. "I'm not a very good tour guide," I told him, as I stared at a billboard for a fly-by-night law firm. "Well, at least you're honest," he said with a painful smile. He looked tired. I looked tired. I don't always look tired, though. I got the impression he did.

"So... have you traveled overseas before?" he asked, ignoring my lack of enthusiasm for engaging him in conversation. "I lived in Australia once," I told him, "but that's it." "Australia! Is it as chill there as I would imagine? Beautiful scenery?" "Well, I lived in Sydney, so it was pretty metropolitan. I didn't really leave the city much, so I can't say." He gave me another pained smile. "Why were you living in Sydney? School? Work? Did you get a job out there?" "I was in a relationship with someone who was Australian," I replied, staring now at the Dunkin' Donuts below us. To this, he wordlessly nodded and walked away. We did not speak for the rest of the train ride. He got off at Schenectady with his 12-year-old son.

Mennonite people, with their bonnets and non-rolling luggage, were the only ones on the train who had to be there. They demurely avoided eye contact whenever anyone walked by them. They carried their things with them whenever they left their seats. They did not trust the rest of us, and rightfully so.

I leaned back, listened to George Gershwin, and felt the vibration of the rails, wondering how my experience would have differed in years past. As soon as I opened my eyes, I saw the mother and daughter endlessly scroll through their newsfeeds. As soon as I took my headphones off, I heard Telephone's chatter. "Can I follow you on Instagram?" one passenger asked another. Gershwin is dead, as is his world. And I was taking an antiquated mode of transportation through an antiquated version of America—forests unsullied by strip malls, abandoned factories, dilapidated shacks, muddy water. Even as I did, I was surrounded by the garish light of modernity.

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