Strangers on a Train

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This is an absolutely true musician story

I guess I understand why they do it. I suppose, deep down, I even understood it then. But they wouldn’t have done it to Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant. And isn’t that why you take the train, to get that ‘40s feeling? I mean, it’s not much cheaper than flying.

In the twenty-seven years it’s been since my sister Mary loaded up her red Volkswagen Beetle convertible and moved west to San Diego in 1979, I believe I’ve made nine trips out to see her. Of those, six have been by air and one by automobile. The remaining two, in 1980 and 1987, have been on the Amtrak. Having always been one of those people who feels that getting there is half the fun of the trip, the Amtrak is a wonderful mode of travel.

I love the drive – the freedom to stop wherever my interest is piqued. But the train goes places the highway doesn’t. (After sharing this observation with my classmate Dennis Faber, he responded, "Yeah, on the track.") The train ventures into the mountain wilderness, passes through back yards and explores towns long vacated after the Interstate veered forty miles to the north, siphoning away all the industry and tourism. Unlike the Interstate, where one’s view of the countryside is often obscured by rows of trees planted along side it for the sake of "beautification", one can sit back in the observation deck of an Amtrak car, sip on a beer and gaze ten miles into the distance. The train runs twenty-four hours a day, stopping only to pick up and drop off passengers. It is possible, therefore, in the day and a half journey to Southern California, to view two sunrises and one breathtaking sunset. And, if they wish, passengers are entirely free to sit up through the night counting the stars over the Arizona desert.

There are, of course, the obvious drawbacks. To enjoy a long-distance train ride, there must be no pressing urgency to reach your destination. And unless the passenger possesses the resources to afford a sleeper car, two nights in a reclining Amtrak seat can wear a person down. But a train ride to California is an experience everyone should have at least once in a lifetime. One of the highlights of an Amtrak excursion is the dining car. By every measure except the one giving rise to my complaint, dining on the train is just as it is in the movies. The passenger makes a time reservation early in the day, cleans up in the little bathrooms downstairs, then presents himself or herself at the appointed time. A porter leads the passenger to his or her table, where the passenger orders from a selection of perhaps four meals. The food is extraordinary, and service impeccable. Definitely five-star dining.

This is my complaint.

I was traveling alone, on my way back to Iowa from another fantastic week in the mountains, in the city, in the desert and down the Baja peninsula. Just ahead of me in line was a gorgeous, young, well-dressed blonde, also alone. If this was a 1940s romantic comedy, and if I were Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, there is no question as to what would have happened next. The porter would have seated me with the blonde and we would have engaged in clever banter. After dinner we would have retired to a table in the club car, and romance would have flourished. Something to that effect.

As I say, I know why they don’t do it that way. I know they figure, "This blonde may come back some day. We’re not going to throw her business away by sticking her at a table with some loser like that guy".

So they didn’t.

The porter led the blonde to a secluded table at the far end of the dining car, where she enjoyed her dinner alone. Then he seated me and, moments later, escorted a couple of chatty whiteheads (I know this is a rotten label for our Senior Citizens -- but since I am now a card carrying member of AARP I think I'm entitled) into the booth directly across from me.

Great, I thought. It’s okay for them to protect the fashion model from my harassment, but I’ve got to put up with Roy and Dale. These folks were bound and determined to share with me their life stories, and then to drag mine out of me. My strategy was to play it a little cold. Maybe they’d get the message and back off. But I guess I’m just too damned nice. It didn’t work.

Blah, bla-blah, bla-blahhhh, they droned on and on.

"What were you doing in California?" the old lady asked.

"I have a sister in San Diego."

"Has she been there long?"

"Eight years."

"We were in Los Angeles, visiting our son," the old man chimed in. "He’s a musician, in a rock band."

"Really. I was in a band," I boasted, "about ten years ago."

"Is that right? What was the name of your band?"

"It was a nightclub act out of Omaha, called Baby Lester and the Buggybumpers."

"I don’t think we’ve heard of that one."

"Most people haven’t. There’s a million bands out there. What’s the name of your son’s group?"



Suddenly, the whiteheads weren’t so boring, and I completely forgot about the blonde at the far table.

I couldn't find a photo of Walter Parazaider's (from Chicago) parents, so here's a picture of mine.