Second Continental Crossing to Vote on November 7: Mi Tierra

LA to Richmond via San Antonio and Chicago.
Armed with some vittles from a second trip to LA's China Town, only a few blocks from the train station, I settled in for some eating and work. Having learned to measure my words when interacting with Amtrak personnel, I began to note certain signs indicating how we`ll a train and its crew will treat the passengers. If you don't see the conductor, you will have poor service. If you see the conductor moving through the cars on a regular basis, you will have better service. Also, if you see that the crew has taped over the 110 volt outlets so passengers cannot charge their cellphones, DVD players or laptops, you are have an anti-passenger crew.

Riding into the night on the Sunset Limited, one of the quirkiest passengers was observed who spelled difficulties. Sitting at a table, he was talking to himself with anguished expressions and was repeatedly pounding a fist into the palm of his other hand. As a passenger who looks more hobo and homeless than middle-class traveler, I always give others the benefit of the doubt letting the literary basis of respect to determine on-going respect, that is, re-inspect the person.

For myself, a person who wears a custom-designed work vest, that is, a fishing vest that has been re-engineered to hold all of my electronic necessities to work anywhere including the laptop in the fish pouch, I religiously observed that nutshell of egalitarian, civil democracy: judge an individual by the "content of his character", not his cover. For myself, I remember one conductor saying to me halfway through a trip during which we had more than one good laugh at my bad jokes, "When I first saw you, I thought you might be trouble. But after five minutes, I realized you were just eccentric as hell!"

Putting two and two together, using liberal rather than conservative math, I have henceforth always approach the coach attendants and cafe attendants describing my use of rail passes to work. From them I ask what they don't want me to do, e.g., work at the tables. I always buy stuff and tip well, a dollar minimum, 25% to 30% if I run a tab. Also, if the tables get more than 50% full, I return to my seat. Importantly, I always ask for or seek the coach seat that has the one 110-volt outlet.

Being a good soul--or so trying--I carry extra electrical cords and outlets. At the outlet in the lounge observatory, I plug in a six-outlet so that six, not one, person can charge their electrial devices. Only one time has someone stolen my outlet. Better a victim of such theft than being the thief. To advertise this service, I put up a little sign which brings either laughter or removal: Sign.

As the Sunset Limited tracked on its eastward course, conversation was developed with some of the Amtrak personnel. While half of the personnel need to find jobs not working with people, the other half are the kind of people you would be glad to work with or have as neighbors. (This sound harsh? Go to your local Amtrak station and poll the deboarding passengers.) While initially hesitant to express opinions or conclusions about their work environment, like most people they will open up if they realize that you are on the up-and-up with a good heart.

Two things are common complaints about Amtrak. One is that it would be a great job if the trains ran on time--Where is Mussolini when we need him? They say they cannot plan personal life because the trains are often late. Amtrak improved its long-distant arrival times by some Enron book cooking: Amtrak added two or more hours between the last stop and the final stop on most long-distant trains. Thus a fifteen-minute trip is listed as hours. This allows Amtrak to say the train arrived on time more often to its final destination. However, all the intermediate stops are always late by minutes that lengthen into hours!

The second common complaint is the cause of the delays: freight trains. While there is a law that gives passenger trains the right of way over freight trains, there is a exception clause if there is an emergency. Amazing, most freight trains that an Amtrak passenger train encounters is having an emergency!

Part and parcel to the second complaint is why the situation will probably not improve. The summary joke isthat the worst offending freight line is UP, aka, Union Pacific, which is humorously accented by the observation that the middle two letters of "stupid" is "UP." Will Amtrak service improve? Probably not. It is no secret that the Bush administration wants to eliminate long-distant Amtrak service. An indication of this policy was the firing of an Amtrak president--Mr. Gunn--who was widely regarded as committed to improving Amtrak, e.g., fixing cars that had been sidelined for need of repair. In his place, a Union Pacific vice-president was appointed as the new Amtrak CEO, a man who must be UP to the core for his wife is a legal counsel for Union Pacific. Of course, it doesn't help Amtrak that the Vice-President of the United States, was a director of Union Pacific.

The Sunset Limited which used to run from LA to Orlando, Florida, now stops at New Orleans. It questionable whether service will be restored given the attitude of the Bush administration, Amtrak's board, and its president. One realized the commonality of anger toward UP when other passengers started citing how the middle of the word "stupid" is "UP."

One passenger on the Limited was not in a humorous mood as he sat talking to himself, pounding his fist into his palm. His odd behavior was not as funny as the later "spinning dervish of Saskatoon." Keeping my distant and letting the crew make its judgement, I went to my seat to sleep. I woke up aware that the train had stopped in the middle of nowhere with unusual noise. Two cars were on a road at a crossing with lights shining on the train.

An agitated girl was going by from whom I asked what was happening. She said the distraught fist-pounder had suddenly said he was going to commit suicide by jumping out of the train, ripping off the binding on an emergency window on the observatory level of the lounge car. She said she had yelled for help to which crew members responded, pulling the man away. I watched as the figures in the lights of the car led someone away from the train. A conversation with a crew member revealed that on another train two guys had successfully jumped to their deaths in a similar manner. Trains are no place for hallucinogens as was the case with the "spinning dervish" of Saskatoon who apparently had taken peyote.

If one considers suicide a viable option to the problems of one's life, one should not inconvenience others by one's mode of suicide. Leapers from trains cause trains to stop and wait until police and coroners have done their job. It's bad enough when freight trains make passengers late. Worse than the suicide leapers are the suicide standers who stand in front of the train. Like a balloon bursting when slammed against a wall, the human body explodes all over the front of the train. The poor, hapless and innocent engineer has to stay in the locomotive cab with a world vision obscured by splattered blood, guts and brain until the blood and urine tests have been completed to preclude incompetence on his part for failing to stop the train in time.

As the train resumed its travel, I wondered what would happen to the man, for it was in the middle of nowhere from which records could disappear. Told myself that I would keep my fist-pounding and safety concerns to myself. I have seen smokers put off the train in the middle of nowhere but never had concern for them surviving till the next train came in a day or two. Cigarette smokers can be silly and uncivil which is why I smoke cigars--see Smoking Follies.

With morning, the crew announced that the train had not only become very late but was expected to be even later as it encountered freight cars at a main UP switching yard. It was at this time that Sunset Limited travels near--just yards awasy--from the US-Mexico border. One sees fences with holes. One sees numerous border patrol vehicles. One sees a lot of dollars being spent on questionable fixes to a major problem.

The Limited arrived late, really late, into San Antonio. Because it was questionable whether it would get to New Orleans so as to make my personal "Get out the Vote" pilgrimage, I switched to the Texas Eagle for a return home via Chicago. On a later 30-day pass, I decided to sleep in the New Orleans terminal rather than get a room. Sort of a personal solidarity with those in the past that had slept on the floors of the terminal and elsewhere during and after Hurricane Katrina.

I arrived in Richmond, at 5pm on November 7, with my wife and I scurrying to our polling place to cast our votes. One cannot complain about anything if one does no vote. And, regardless of one approval of the election outcome, we must take pride in our having had a political earthquake without blood in the street. A nice dinner, bath and bed with my wife prepared me for the 6am departure the next morning for cross-country trip #3.
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