Planes always seem like time-travel to me. Those aluminum-skinned time machines make me feel weird, strangely dislocated, as if I were ripped from the world and then plopped down in some bizarre and unfamiliar environment like the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Terminals are unnatural places for humans. I used to love them back when people were allowed to wait for loved ones at the arrivals gate. Watching teary-eyed reunions always gave my heart wings.
But nowadays, it’s just anxious and impatient travelers, irritated adults, uncomfortable teens and bored children staring at screens. Everyone is looking out for themselves instead of scanning the crowd for the first sight of a loved one. Most folks don’t look very happy in airports. When it was time for me to make plans to travel across country from California to Florida for the holidays, I said fuck that and gave my money to Amtrak. Trains still possess a sense of romance.
I bought a ticket for The California Zephyr. The tourist-friendly train would take me east from California, across the snowy Sierra Mountains and desolate northern Nevada, after that we’d make a run past the Great Salt Lake Basin, wend our way through the Rockies, and rumble across the Heartland, until we reached the Windy City. From there I’d switch trains, and take The City of New Orleans south, roughly following the meandering path of the mighty Mississippi river down to where it meets the gulf at that infamous point of termination, New Orleans. The majority of my family was gathering in Pensacola, Florida for the holidays. It’s a few hours drive from New Orleans in the far western end of the panhandle. Someone would meet me at the station.
As I dragged my baggage onto the train, I felt like Neil Armstrong. Only I wasn’t taking one giant leap for mankind, I was stepping into my own personal adventure. I was seizing hold of my American birthright; I was grasping for the chance to enjoy freedom, to embrace the rumbling sway of constant motion. My selfish goal was to lay eyes on the American landscape, but I didn’t want to drive by myself cross-country in the winter. That’s a fool’s errand. On the road, you’re at the mercy of weather patterns, which are both unpredictable and dangerous. Plus, the highways are swollen with holiday travelers unfamiliar with driving in snow and on ice. Mostly, I wanted to relax for a few days, melt into my books and my music as America blurred past.
Obviously, a window seat was paramount. Luck was on my side. I easily found one, settled in and did my best impression of comfort as I waited to see who’d be my seatmate. I prayed they wouldn’t be some old killjoy. But I wasn’t too worried about that. I’m usually the last person strangers choose to sit next to on public transportation. In buildings, often people tell me they’ll wait for the next elevator rather than be alone in that box with me. And I’m not even scary looking. I’m just an American black. And that seems to be all it takes to sway their opinion.
However, I should admit that, living up to common stereotypes, for this trip I was carrying drugs and planned to use them all the way across the country. Nothing hard. Just some pot. I’d left the ‘shrooms behind because I thought it was a bad idea to take psychedelics on Amtrak. I never know what I’ll do when I bend my world with hallucinogens. With pot, I knew what to expect. I crossed fingers and hoped for a seatmate who’d be cool with my lifestyle choices.
After it lurched to life, the two-ton steel wheels rolled the train away from my college hometown. The next stop was the capital of California. There, the train filled with passengers. Most every empty seat in coach was taken, which meant I knew someone would be forced to sit next to me. The dude who took the seat, apparently, wasn’t scared of black men. He would’ve made Martin Luther King Jr. proud.
He was a white guy who appeared to be in his later forties. He looked like the sort of dude whose hard luck defined every minute of his life. Just after the train pulled out of the station he got comfortable by peeling off his shoes. I don’t think words can properly describe the malodorous aroma emanating from his socks. Dirty baby diapers filled with the rotting trash from a sushi restaurant might be the only analog comparable. Then he turned to me and started talking. If I thought his socks were bad — Jesus! — his breath smelled like a pack of wild dogs had crapped in his mouth.
From the stories he inundated me with I guessed him to be in his mid-thirties. He’d walked a rough road since he’d been pulled from his mother’s womb. And she was a woman he never got to know. Instead he’d been left to be brutalized by foster care. After the first few hours, I knew enough of his life story I could ghostwrite his autobiography. And I didn’t need to ask any questions. He just really wanted to talk and be heard. Lucky me!
He was going back to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and left him homeless. It’d been a year and some months and he’d been staying in Oregon. He had distant family out there; but he didn’t like them and clearly they felt the same. He reported the food in Oregon sucked donkey dick. That was his idea of a metaphor. He told me how he longed to return home to New Orleans so he could finally eat some real food.
I liked what mattered to the guy — food, family and the culture of New Orleans. On those points we agreed. But the rest of his words comprised a running diatribe of sexist, racist, angry bitterness that circled around the drainpipe of life. His tales were heartbreaking. He wore his short-tempered anger like a Medal of Honor. His kindness only extended to a few people. He loved and respected a couple of his foster brothers, ones he grew up with. He revered the old woman who housed him. She cared for all of them as best she could, right up until the day she passed away. He regretted many of his decisions in life. He felt hemmed in by economics; he argued that people, like the ones sitting around us, were always judging him, disrespecting him, treating him like a junkyard dog. He felt he was a cautionary tale to scare other bad men. He spat invective about all the “decent” people seated near us on the train, the same way some people troll others in online forums and comments sections. He was a one-man, one-note symphony of anger.
I took leave of my seat. I had to. I needed to get away from him. He was dragging me down into a quagmire of acidic thoughts about others. I couldn’t argue. I knew people often acted really shitty toward folks like him. I knew this because strangers often did the same to me. But I didn’t want to dwell in that well of negativity with him. I went to the observation car and let my eyes be pleased by the world outside the glass, all those rocks and trees blanketed in snow and ice. It cooled my overheated mind.
When I went downstairs to the bar/café section of the observation car, I saw my seatmate getting drunk with two other guys, playing bones. I had a vain hope he might choose to change seats and join them. That dream was short-lived. I nodded at him and then joked with the retirement-age black man working the bar, selling beer, liquor and snacks.
An hour later, my seatmate returned, stinking of Budweiser and pretzels and cigarettes. He proceeded to fall asleep, basically on me, and as if this shit-cake needed any decoration, for the icing and cherry on top, he began to snore. We hadn’t even made it past Reno yet. And he was going all the way to Chicago just like me, which meant we had two more days together. My reckless wintertime adventure aboard The California Zephyr quickly devolved into a challenge of what I could tolerate. And I had no idea at the time, but things were about to get much, much worse.
That first night, as the train grew dark and sleepy, I lounged in the observation car and read and people-watched. Mostly, it was to avoid my seatmate. The train was booked full and I couldn’t change seats. It was unlikely a seat would open up until we reached Salt Lake City in the small hours of the morning. I returned to my seat and tried to sleep, but that proved rather impossible since my seatmate snored like an army of chainsaws battling a forest of redwoods. When the train arrived in Salt Lake City, I’d finally fallen asleep. Thus, I missed my chance to change seats.
When I woke up the next day, sore and puffy-faced, I washed up, changed clothes and walked to the dining car. I decided to pay for a terribly expensive breakfast. I treated myself. It was a reward for dealing with my shitty night. The folks seated with me at breakfast were almost the exact opposite of my seatmate. They were a middle-aged white couple headed home to the Midwest after visiting California. We had almost nothing in common yet we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation. Also seated with us was an attractive young woman from Nevada; she was going back east to visit college friends for the holidays. She was afraid to fly and didn’t want to drive by herself. She and I both agreed the slow pace of the train was refreshing. As the train followed the Colorado River we all finished breakfast chatting about our recent favorite books.
When I returned to my seat I found my seatmate had eaten his breakfast in the bar/café car. From what he smelled like I guessed he’d eaten Fritos, nacho cheese, some salted meat product like jerky or Slim Jims, and downed a few beers. The guy smelled like an old dishrag from a bar at the end of the night. It was 10:30 in the morning. I could tell it was gonna be a long day. I tried not to pity myself, but that fight I was losing.
For lunch, I stayed in my seat and ate some tuna fish salad that I’d left in my backpack, which was on top of a floor heater that was keeping the train warm, almost balmy. The tuna fish had spent the first night on the heater. It never occurred to me the mayo might turn bad. I was super hungry so I devoured it all like a prisoner of war.
We spent the entire day in the Rockies. Before we got to Denver, the train followed the Colorado River for a long stretch. It was banked with snow and the rushing water was lit by the sun and looked silvery, a necklace running between the mountains. For the next few hours we slowly wended our way through the Rockies, that proud backbone of America. Around two or three o’clock I felt the first twist of pain accompanied by a gurgle in my gut. I ignored it as we passed through mile-long darkened dynamite-blasted tunnels, chugging along with the promise that by nightfall we’d reach the city seated at the edge of the prairie.
Still high above, slowly descending from the mountains, when it finally came into view, Denver looked like the Emerald City of Oz. When the train stopped in the Mile High city, I stepped off and tried to alleviate the fast-growing pain in my belly. Hoping to calm my gut, I took a few puffs from my pipe, covered up by the smoke of a cigarette. When the train left Denver, my seatmate was off getting drunk and playing bones with his new drinking friends in the bar/café car. I pacified my stomach, listening to some music as the train chugged back to life. But the pain in my gut grumbled with threatening intensity. It felt like a knife-fight erupted in my intestines. Soon the pain became intolerable and turned into more of a gang war.
In the dark of night, I finally relented to my aching gut and went downstairs to the lower level and locked myself in a tiny bathroom that was just bigger than an airplane bathroom. Vomit surged out of me with alarming speed. Puking will sometimes lead you to places you never wanted to be; like face-first in a public toilet with your cheeks pressed against where others put their ass. But I couldn’t stop vomiting. I was purging with such force it was like my throat was a fire hose of sickness. To distract myself, I sat on the floor conjugating the Spanish verb for vomit.
Vomito, vomitas, vomita, vomitamos, vomitan. And then I puked again. And again. I threw up until nothing came out but black bile topped off by white foamy spit. I tried to suck down handfuls of water from the tap but I just vomited that all right back up. A fever burned inside me. I was sweaty-faced, yet I was shaking from cold. I was miserable and stank of a mix of foul bodily fluids.
When I finally felt like I was done vomiting, I cleaned up and went back to my seat. Within ten minutes, I rushed down to the bathroom to shove my face back in the ass-space of the toilet. But it was locked. So, I threw up in a trashcan while an old couple watched me. They probably assumed I was drunk. I don’t know. I just knew I was cold and shaking and couldn’t stop puking. After a few dry heaves, I went back to my seat and grabbed my sleeping bag. Defeated, I locked myself in the bathroom after it finally opened up and an obese woman walked out. She’d filled the room with the smell of the inside of her, and I had to put my face where her ass had just been. But I did it because I was trying not to die.
By this point my body was puking out of habit. There was no food or fluid to expel. I was empty; so I just convulsed and dry-heaved. My sides were sore, my stomach was a knot of fire and my ribs felt like they might crack and break. I curled up on the floor of the train bathroom in the fetal position. I kept passing in and out of consciousness. Whenever someone knocked, I’d sorta moan or dry heave, so they’d know to go find another bathroom. At some point around midnight, someone knocked, and knocked, and knocked. The train conductor had found about me and my occupation of the bathroom.
He announced himself and demanded I open the door. I guess he thought I was some heroin junkie or drunk getting sick in the lavatory. I pressed the folding door open, pushed my feet out of the way with all of the strength and vigor of someone who’s been on bed-rest for weeks. It was one of the weakest moments of my life. I looked up at him, upside down from my perspective on the floor, he looked tall and imposing. One word fell from my dry lips, “Yeah…”
The conductor was an officious looking man, neatly pressed and dressed. He told me with a flat affect that sounded pitiless and dryly functional that I couldn’t sleep in the bathroom. I had to go back to my seat or he’d have to kick me off the train at the next stop. I looked up from where I lay in a puddle in my sleeping bag and wanted to laugh; but my throat was burning from my stomach acid. I thought: What the hell is wrong with this guy? Does he think I want to sleep on a fucking bathroom floor?
I uttered with all the efficiency a man like him would understand, “I was sleeping in my seat … I came down here to vomit … then went back to my seat … felt sick … I came right back … after I did that a few times … I decided to stay here … I’m not a junkie.”
Other than my mumbled prayers begging God to kill me in the middle of the American Heartland, those were the most words I’d said in one burst since I set foot in the bathroom. The conductor looked down at me. It didn’t appear that he believed me. I hoped the rank smell of the bathroom would convince him of the truth. No such luck. The conductor repeated I’d have to go back to my seat or he’d have to throw me off the train.
The older black man who ran the bar/café car stood behind him. He asked to speak with the conductor a second. The two men stepped away from the open door and argued about what to do. My best guess was the conductor was afraid I’d die on his train. Who needs that stain on their record? It’d be much better for Amtrak if I died in some no-name train station in Nebraska. But the near-retirement aged black man who ran the bar/café car argued for the conductor to leave me alone. I don’t know if it was because I reminded him of someone in his family, or if because he just thought it was the right thing to do, but for whatever reason, the dude argued for me. Eventually, the conductor sighed, turned away and went back to handling the business of a busy wintertime train packed with holiday travelers.
The older black man told me to go on and sleep as long as I needed to in the bathroom. He promised to come and check on me from time to time. It was one of the kinder things anyone’s done for me. Due to my eagerness to leave the company of my foul-smelling, foul-mouthed seatmate, the older black man who ran the bar/café car and I had shared a few jokes and some good laughs. He had a great rolling chuckle. I liked to hear it rumbling around between his ribs. I weakly thanked him for helping me out. He acted like it was no big deal.
He stayed up all night and every hour or so, he brought me 7-Ups and Cup O’Noodles. He always knocked softly. Whatever he brought me to eat or drink I’d throw right back up. Even though I looked like something Death had fucked and tossed on the trash heap of life, and the air around me smelled worse than a chicken rendering plant, he tended to me with all the loving attention of a dedicated night nurse. He stopped by that bathroom at least nine, maybe ten times, until we reached Chicago. He’s the only reason I made it. If he hadn’t dismissed the conductor’s wish to toss me out at some snowy stop in the middle of nowhere, I was half-convinced I would’ve died. He was like my own Christmas miracle.
He was also the perfect counterpoint to my seatmate, a man whose life taught him to despise others due to his hard experiences. But I’d bet the older black man, working a bar/café car well past the age of retirement could boast an equally difficult life. However, rather than hate on others, he was generous to the point of near-sainthood — at least, to me.
During the holidays, you’ll hear mention of acts of charity and goodwill. They’re in the lyrics of the holiday songs that fill the air where people shop for gifts. But for me, the holidays are defined by my memory of that Amtrak bathroom. Instead of luxuriating in some romantic rail-ride through snow-capped mountains and on across the American continent, I experienced the tender love of a stranger; a man I never got to thank because he got off the train one-stop before I was able to leave the bathroom. When we reached Chicago I looked for him and heard he was gone. That man taught me the real value of kindness toward strangers and what the spirit of the holidays is all about it. And for his lesson I will always remain thankful and do my part to return the favor to those in need.