Goodbyes were always difficult between Mom and I whenever we saw each other in the living years. And this time was no exception. I had just spent a full week, visiting places in and around Arizona with Uncle Mickey, who had also been invited by Mom to come and visit with her. Prior to that, the two of them had been corresponding by postal letter. Mom never owned a computer, though late in life she did express some interest in getting one.
It was sometime in mid-summer, 2016 or perhaps earlier when I planned this trip to see Mom (and Dad). Never got along so well with Dad, as I did with Mom. That was fairly obvious. I was supposed to go to San Antonio, Texas to go spend time with a girl. Of course, that never panned out.
But then, I was always a will of the wisp, so to speak. An adventurer’s adventurer. Although, it never looks like it to more adventurous types, like say, Uncle Mickey, who is a true world traveler. 64 countries in 68 years; but he’s another tale for another time. I traveled at my expense always, locally, nationally or internationally.
Locally, it’s always been an adventure, riding the Chicago Transit Authority or CTA transit system. PACE, the suburban regional transit system fairs better, not as dicey as the CTA or adventurous, quieter, but my preferred method of travel is Metra. Faster. Comfortable. Sleek. And always or nearly always on time. Expensive though, verses the CTA or PACE. But worth it just the same.
When it comes to real traveling though, I prefer train to planes and bus and even cars, except if it’s a regional tour. Although I’ve had numerous crazy adventures on the bus-some I’ve written about previously, it’s not my favorite mode, despite the cheapness of the travel mode. It’s the dregs of society that always take the bus. And it’s something I’m just not interested in. Regionally, perhaps, but not just regularly. Planes, I disdain immensely unless I have to fly overseas.
Amtrak on the other hand, is my favorite mode of travel. Any way, anytime anyhow, however I could, however I can, however I would, I would do. And I have. Many many times.
So after the failed trip to Texas, a state I truly disdain, I retooled the trip to go to Arizona instead. My destination, Tucson to meet Uncle Mickey, so we could both together, go by car, to visit my parents, who at that time were still living in Scottsdale (since Mom’s death in June, 2017, Dad has since moved to a living situation in Tempe).
Months passed, until late December, just after my 55th birthday, when things began to get real. Less than a month away, when I’d get to see Mom in person-in person after almost five, no six years. I had wanted to visit her, but she told me to save my money, especially after being in grad school for three years and that traveling might be difficult financially. I almost now in hindsight, wish I didn’t listen to her and gone to see Mom and Dad on my own intuition, but you can’t change time, despite personal historical revisionism abound.
Came January 24, 2017. I was so excited to get out of my studio. I still felt as if I was out “house arrest.” Meaning, that I was living under a sort of an iron fist from my landlord. The year before had been exceedingly difficult. Canceling shows so I could get my life in order, cleaning up or rather decluttering my studio. That in itself has been a long long project, that I will finish up one day, but I will always I think, be working on.
But the landlord. Oh the fucking landlord-briefly explaining, had me under an unwritten illegal move-he wanted to know for months when I was heading out, where I was going to, how long I would be gone and when I was returning. All none of his fucking business. I remember canceling two major shows and having to worry constantly if I still had a home or not.
And everyone else went along with it. On board with the executive board, so to speak. I was the only one who complained about not being able to freely travel. Come and go as I please. An invisible ball and chain carried with me, every place I went, texting him back and forth with my plans. None of his fucking concern. Nazi Germany pre-world war two, in my eyes.
But I suppose in a way, it was good to have someone that cares about you, even under those conditions. But it wore me down. Tired of being under lock and key. Tired of being an invisible slave who couldn’t move or go anywhere without having to tell someone. I absolutely hated it. To get around it, I invented excuses in the event he did see me leaving.
Escapism was a new action verb in my vocabulary, so when it did come time to leave in cases like this, I always had a back-up plan. Mom always told me, “He doesn’t really care, all he cares about is the rent.” I believe here and now she was right. Correct, rather.
I left my studio early, just as I always did on this morning. Meaning, I’d stay up all-night, packing and repacking. Rethinking what would fit, what I was going to bring for Mom and Dad, and for that matter, Uncle Mickey and what I would be taking back-more trinkets and clothing, that I most likely didn’t truly need, but I would always pick up from Mexican Imports in Old Town Scottsdale-a place where Mom and I would often travel to sometime during my trip to see them.
Arriving at the station, I waited. Waited for what seemed like hours, talking to people, talking to friends and Mom on the phone. Thinking about random things until came time to board, find a seat and enjoy the ride. I had my regular supply of sandwiches and bottles of water to last me until I at least reached Tucson, my appointed round of landing.
The train ride was uneventful. At least until we arrived in San Antonio, Texas for a four-hour layover, as the train waited for another train, the Sunset Limited to arrive and hook themselves up with our train, thereby making it a much bigger train, something like 11 train coaches long.
In San Antonio, I made some new friends, we hung out at the Alamo, drank ourselves silly at Pat O’Brien’s and eventually staggered back to the train and had fitful sleeps in our coach seats, until each of our final destinations had arrived. The guy, who sat in back of me, was terribly hungry and so, I forked over one of my two-day old turkey and cheese sandwiches. It was all right, as far as I was concerned. I love sharing and giving back is tenfold as far as I was concerned. The guy was very grateful and offered to get me strip club girls real cheap and “good bud” in return for the meal.
I told him I’d think about it and went on my way. Uncle Mickey and Tucson wasn’t all that far away now. Once I got off the train, I didn’t know how I was going to get to the airport. After all I was flat broke and trying to figure things out was difficult. I was still getting used to Uber and depending less on taxicabs, which were far more expensive than anything.
Somehow, I managed to slip into an Uber with a Japanese couple, who unknowingly paid for my ride all the way out to the Tucson airport. I didn’t say too much, as the driver seemed suspicious of me. It was better that way. Mostly we talked about the gem show that was in town and the train ride, which was a two-day trip. He didn’t seem to want to talk about much else and that was fine to me. It was a long ride to the airport and I was hungry anyhow. My sandwiches all gone just left with Kind nutritional bars and bottles of purified water.
Got there and waited for Uncle Mickey to arrive. It seemed like forever, but he finally did show up and off we went in search of our host for the night, who fed us kindly in the moment at the hotel he worked at with coffee, tea, oranges and a Snickers bar for me (Uncle Mickey doesn’t eat candy bars-at least not in front of me), which I saved for later.
He took us for food sometime after he got off work and we drove in this virtually empty car, with our luggage in the trunk, which he told us not to lock the doors. It was a small four door that he said he’d bought used, since it was a drug-runners car. At first I didn’t believe him, but then later I did. Of course that possibility never dawned on me, as we drove on down the highway toward Nogales, the city he lived in and I gazed up at the stars and fell asleep briefly.
Eventually, we got there and were put up in another home not far from him with a couple of crazy cats. I slept in one bed on a relatively quiet space, while Uncle Mickey slept in another bed, somewhere in the home. Outside and a little further away, we could see a portion of a steel wall, separating the towns of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. I’d never been to Mexico before and hoped I would have the chance when we returned from Scottsdale.
The week we have with my parents is pretty wonderful, though Dad is pretty cranky the first night I am there and that’s very upsetting, so Mom fixes it. I am already used to the mere fact, at this point in my life, that Dad and I will never be friends (that would change of course within less than five months).
We spend some nights together at dinner, talking. Sometimes we are late in coming in, sometimes we aren’t. Mostly because we, meaning Uncle Mickey and me are exploring the surrounding area between Scottsdale and elsewhere.
We go lots of places, including Surprise, Arizona, where we explore the mountains. Uncle Mickey thankfully can guide the car, but not always in the right fashion, because he joyrides half the time, scaring me, thinking we will go over the side of the mountains, which happens to be at times, between a 4,000 to 8,000-foot drop.
He tells me to guide us using the map-while I just want to get the fuck down from the mountains. I am afraid of heights, but it’s a little hard to explain this to him, especially when we are already elevated 25,000 feet already. I can see how frozen I was, looking back on it, as we are coming down and I notice at some point, one of the roads is washed out from a previous flood. He drives through anyway, since we can’t really go back the way we came and besides, sunset is beginning.
As we are driving down, it is beginning to lightly rain and then something I see, and I thankfully breathe a long sigh of relief, a regular road! And then I laugh because I see three paramedic trucks flying up the same rugged wet mountain road we just came down from, in single file. I shake my head and smile broadly.
February 1st is one of the most difficult days of my life; I have to say goodbye to Mom-thinking I will see her again. I tell her that I will come back in the fall, when the desert is cooler. Mom has never liked goodbyes. Though we have spoken on the phone several times throughout the course of the 16 years she has lived out here, in person goodbyes are a lot worse.
Of all the in-person goodbyes I have had with Mom, this was the worst of them. In fact, they don’t or never got any easier. We both are crying. Uncle Mickey and Dad must be kindred spirits, because they are both rushing our goodbye ceremony rather rapidly. “C’mon! We have to get going!” “I love you, Mom,” I call to her, as we head out the door.
It would be the last time I would ever see her alive.
We drove back to Nogales. That night, our host and a friend of his, take me across the border to Nogales, Mexico, where we get some great fresh tacos! After that, we stop into an open mic, where a few Mexican musicians back me, as I launch into a punk rock version of GG Allin’s, Bite It You Scum. I also throat sang Mykel Board Weasel Squeezer, an homage to Uncle Mickey. The musicians are thunderstruck and have me throat sing a few more tunes into their IPhone, which serves as their field recorder.
Then it’s onto a darkened street for a little more “fun.” Then back to the border, where I produce my passport, to the border patrol agent, whose smiles seems to get bigger and broader when I tell him where I am from. And just like that, he lets me back into America.
A restless night of sleep, early morning call up and I am dropped off at the Tucson Amtrak train station And sadly, I say my goodbye to my new friend Ivan and Uncle Mickey.
As I wait in line for the train to arrive and begin boarding, an older woman breaks bread with me and offers me half of the breakfast burrito she failed to eat. This seems like a good start to what I hope will be an uneventful trip with no difficulties.
And then it begins.
The Texas Eagle pulls into the station early-a rarity, and I am assigned my seat, struggle with my heavy, bulky black-wheeled bag and make my way to my seat. Being first in line does have its advantages, as I take the same set of seats I rode in on the way up. It’s not always like that, but when it does happen, I take full advantage. They are my favorite kind of seats too; the middle of the train. Makes it easier to run downstairs to grab sandwiches and water from my bag. Go to the lounge and brush my teeth. Stuff like that. Also, there’s a decent window seat view.
We pull out of Tucson and chug through the whole of Arizona, New Mexico-there’s a small state for you and finally we reach Texas. I hate Texas-most likely because I have had so many bad experiences in that state and also, like Montana, it takes forever to get though, virtually 10-12 hours by train in order to get to the next transfer point of San Antonio and then it’s additionally it’s another 6-12 in order to get through that, just to get to Arkansas. And that’s no exaggeration.
Like most train rides home, I just want to sleep-it’s a long ride I have ahead of me and having only slept a few hours back in the guest house in Arizona, I just want to get as much rest as possible before we hit San Antonio and then Chicago.
The train rolls along. I have dinner, consisting of turkey and cheese sandwiches, bottled water, yellow crackers and a protein bar, my augmented full-scale meal for the next few days. I read a little, look out the window, call friends, call Mom, tell her where we are and go to sleep.
It’s 1:10am when we arrive in Del Rio, Texas, Friday, February 2nd. Groundhog’s Day, to be exact. The train is supposed to make a 2-minute stop and then puff on ahead to San Antonio within a matter of a couple of hours to wait for the Sunset Limited, hook those passenger cars up to our train and then fly home, getting us back to Chicago the next day.
That doesn’t happen. I peek out the window and I notice people are standing on the platform, smoking. Smoking? This isn’t a smoke stop as I whip out my paper Amtrak schedule and scan the times. We’re supposed to be gone, I think.
And then I look at the window again; more people are piling out of the train. Lots of cigarette butts decorating the platform. I wait and scratch my unwashed hair, as a conductor is rambling through the train and tells every fourth passenger that the apparent trouble as to why the train can’t move, is because a wooden train trestle has been burned to a crisp 20 miles out, leaving us and several freight trains virtually stranded.
The color temporarily drains from my face and I think shit. I think I’m not going to get home on time. I can’t get to Dallas on time and meet Cousin Bones. And then that stops and I think of it as one great adventure. Be positive in light of the situation.
It’s now, 1:30, as I dial an 800 number back home in Chicago. “Hello, WBBM news room” the male voice says. I tell them, I have a news tip for them. I explain to them, I am on an Amtrak train bound for Chicago and why we are stranded. The guy on the phone doesn’t flinch his voice when he tells me,
“Sir, we only cover Chicago-related stories. That’s a train in Texas.”
I retort back, “Yeah, we are in Texas, but we’re bound for Chicago and there are at least 150 rail passengers on this train heading to Chicago. “ We make the connection in San Antonio and from there it’s homeward bound to Chicago’s Union Station.”
“Fine,” says the reporter, as he takes my name and my phone number. I’ll do some checking. Thanks.” He hangs up.
Won’t be daylight for at least another few hours, so I roll over and go back to sleep. At about 6 am, the sun comes streaming in my window. I go downstairs, grab a sandwich and a bottle of water and chew on it for what seems like hours. I fall back asleep and wake up at 8:15.
I Google the local newspaper, which is called the Del Rio Herald, find the name of the localized newspaper reporter, who covers the important news and call the cell phone listed. “Hello, “ I say. My name is Sid Yiddish and…” “Sid Yiddish? Yes? I’m in the middle of an interview right now, can you call me back?” I laugh, exhaustedly, “uh well, I wanted to tell you I have a tip for you, you might want to follow up on. I’m a passenger on a stranded Amtrak train that is sitting in the middle of town that is headed for San Antonio, and eventually to back to Chicago. We’ve been sitting here since 1 in the morning because of a burned out bridge fire. “
She tells me she’ll call me back as soon as she’s done. I thank her and hang up. In the meantime, I slip on my gym shoes, head down the steps and outside and much to my surprise, I see several county sheriff personnel, cars, several policemen, border patrol people, a buzzing helicopter above and a paramedics truck, in a parking lot adjacent to the Amtrak passenger rail station. It is reminiscent of a similar situation I witnessed on election night 2008, directly outside the parking lot of my former work place with all sorts of local and state police, United States Army personnel, Illinois National Guard, “on standby” the eve of the presidential election, in the event, Barrack Obama lost the election, thereby inciting a riot in the streets of Chicago and elsewhere.
Two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) ask me what’s going on, as if I had all the answers and or look the part. I tell them, “Heck, I don’t know.”
Then, the female EMT steps forward, leans in toward me and says, “We were told to expect some casualties here.” Casualties? What kind of casualties. A crew of 11 Amtrak train personnel consisting of conductors and cooks, afraid of 150 people trying to get home?
What were they expecting, a riot? I think on it for a sec and then answer them with, “Oh, I don’t know.” I mean, we’re all wanting the same thing. We all want to get home.” They shake their heads in agreement, but tell me they’ve heard other passengers complaining and stuff.
As I discover, a particular bunch of people on the train are often referred to as crackheads. Dope fiends. Weedsters. Methheads. Trailer trash-Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo-Boo types. They’re the ones complaining the loudest, saying stuff like, “the toilet stinks. I smell like piss. I ain’t got enough money to pay for the shit in the café that tastes like shit” I ain’t got no money. “
I find out that they were the ones who called into to a local radio talk show and complained about how bad service is on Amtrak, just because of this one little mishap that they’ve magnified several hundred times. They’re not like the rest of the passengers on the train. Like retired people. The Amish. Regular people with jobs or on vacation or coming back from vacation. People who have to get to meetings.
Well, I think, they had a choice. They could have taken Greyhound, Trailways, Megabus or any number of regional buses. Or they could have even flown, but no, they chose Amtrak and when Amtrak gets in trouble, they’re the first ones to complain. And they only are able to hear themselves. No noise interfering.
Eventually, the reporter stops out and talks to me. I tell her what’s going on, in a nutshell. One of the crackheads, who’s now become an instant expert on being stranded, decides to listen in on my interview and draws closer. After all, the temperamental media star, knows all about stranded and believes she knows everything about everything.
When the reporter asks me a direct question about the situation, I tell her simply, “In light of the situation, it’s really just a big adventure,” to which the crackhead angrily responds, “It’s not a fucking adventure! We’re stranded! Stuck in the middle of nowhere! You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Adventure! Boy, you’re on drugs,” the crackhead snaps at me, while intensely stomping away like a little girl who isn’t getting the attention she wants so desperately.
But to be frank, Del Rio, Texas, isn’t in the middle of “nowhere.” Per Wikipedia, it’s the county seat of Val Verde County, has a population of 40, 549, has two colleges and is home to Laughlin Air Force Base, the busiest United States pilot training facilities ever. No, we’re not in the middle of “nowhere.” We’re somewhere, a city that you don’t care to get to know, just you don’t care to get to know any other place other than the trailer park you most likely live in.
“See what I have to deal with here? But I am thinking to myself, they’re going through withdrawal without their precious medication that they need to comfort themselves with every 10 minutes and instead need cigarettes to calm themselves down. I turn back to the reporter and tell her I’m heading home after seeing my parents, not even sure of when I will get there, but at this point, will make due with what I have in front of me and make the best of it.”
We finish up the interview, as the reporter takes her photos and heads back to her car. She wishes me well and tells me that if no assistance comes out by 5pm, she will come back and take me home herself-I ask her, “You’ll take me all the way back to Chicago? That’s awfully nice of you!” “Yeah,” she says. My husband’s family is from there and I wouldn’t mind at all.”
I can’t believe the offer. A woman I’ve never met offers to take me home if Amtrak doesn’t oblige. In the meantime, 40 passengers have abandoned ship, finding friends to pick them up or to finding rental cars to take them all places Texas. The trouble is, for those of us who can’t afford to do that have to stay with the sinking ship. Once we leave, our ticket and/or ride home becomes null and void and we have to buy a brand new ticket, so it’s with the ship I reluctantly decided to stay with.
In the meantime, I wander back and forth. Another reporter from the Del Rio Herald wants to interview me. I oblige. We take more photos. And he, like the other reporter, asks me the same or similar questions. And like before I give the same or similar answers. But unlike the female reporter, the male reporter doesn’t offer to give me a ride home.
When we finish, we shake hands. I wander around, and see that Tele Mundo has arrived, the only locally national-based news organization here. I watch for a short time and then walk over to the passenger station, where I find inside, they are serving stranded passengers, cookies, popcorn and lemonade. It’s the least they can do, to accommodate us, I suppose.
I get my share and walk outside to the front of the station and sit down on one of the benches in front of the station. I make a little small talk with some of the other passengers, who think like me, that there’s not a whole lot we can do and enjoy the moments while we can. They, unlike me, are headed to New Orleans and want to get home. Soon.
They are also extremely wary and sick and tired of the crackheads, dope fiends, weedsters, methheads, trailer trash-Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo-Boo types. They, like me, want nothing to do with them. Thankfully, most of them stay away from us, except for a couple of them, whom I think want the attention of the rather heavyset man approaching me, while I am sitting on the bench at this very moment, who just happens to be the Del Rio sheriff and a few of his posse.
“Hello,” they say to me in a very friendly voice. “I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.” “Sure, I have a few hours to kill here, why not?” They all laugh.
“Have those people (the crackheads, dope fiends, weedsters, methheads, trailer trash-Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo-Boo types) been bothering you? They seem to be bothering everyone.” I look at back at him and say, not really. They’re not harming anybody; they’re all frustrated like the rest of us. They just want to get home. No one really wants to be here in Del Rio. I’m certain you don’t want us here either, is that correct?”
The sheriff just nods and says “Yep. We’re just doing our job to keep everyone happy.” “That’s the main goal, I’d say. Keeping us all happy and they sooner we’re all out of here, the happier everyone will be.”
The sheriff looks disappointed, but thanks me for me taking time out to answer his questions and leaves with his men. I have to say, that most likely they were looking for some action.
A few dozen arrests I’m certain. To be perfectly honest, I am certain those folks were toking up. I saw them myself doing it, but why bother them? They have habits like we do. A lot of them were fighting though, ridiculously fighting for absolutely no reason-but not fighting other passengers, just fighting amongst themselves. I can say as a group, they are rather aggressive, unusually aggressive, but under the circumstances, would you expect them not to be?
They want to get home or to wherever they are going to. Just like me and everyone else I have spoken to on the train. And speaking of which, I decide to hop back on the train to see what’s doing. Not much, save for a few passengers who are still sitting quietly in their seats, while one of the conductors is coming down the aisle, serving donuts to the passengers. A nice gesture, indeed. In a few minutes, I hear an on-board announcement that they will be serving up bowls of Amtrak chili. Can’t go wrong with that.
In conversations with conductors aboard the train, they tell us, they are doing their best to keep everyone happy and they’re doing a great job. What their bosses in Washington, D.C. are telling them to do with all of us, however, is a different story, meaning finding a fast solution hasn’t been all that easy. I mean, after all, we are 152 miles west of San Antonio.
Almost every conductor I speak with, tells me the same thing, it’s Washington’s policy. They’re the ones trying to solve the problem. And from the looks of it, from where I’m standing, at the moment, they simply can’t.
In the 13th hour of the 24th hour, barely 12 hours after we become stranded, word is spread amongst the passengers that we are finally going to be “rescued,” by way of chartered bus. However the wait is painfully long, due to the main factor being that the weekend the wooden train trestle just happens to be torched, is the same weekend that the football classic, the Superbowl is being held in Houston and that getting a chartered bus is next to impossible, because all buses have been chartered out in and around the states of Texas and Louisiana.
At last, in the beginning of the 18th hour of the 24th hour, chartered buses begin pulling into the adjacent parking lot that once was occupied by the now nearly deserted authorities personnel. There are buses going all directions, and eager passengers running toward them, as the destinations are announced.
Every destination except for San Antonio.
All of a sudden, the last three chartered buses pull into the lot and are earmarked for San Antonio. I grab my black backpack, push my arms through the shoulder pads, find my black oversized rolling bag and literally run to a bus. The bus driver takes my luggage and stores it underneath and packs the bus up with passengers!
We are finally on our way to San Antonio!
As the bus chugs along the highway it begins to drizzle and then it increasingly becomes a steady rain. I don’t remember much more, other than the bus being extremely tight with passengers, the air being dry and me gently drifting to sleep and waking up nearly an hour later, to discover, we are making excellent time.
As we pull into the station and deboard the chartered bus, I see two of the remaining crackheads get into an argument over money outside of the train station. I find my train car that I need to be on, show the new conductor my ticket, and place my bag in a baggage compartment. And head out into the night for a few hours. Denny’s for a good meal, a Tex-Mex bar to watch good free entertainment and walk back to the train, where the majority of passengers are sitting, just waiting for the train to leave the next morning at 7am.
And thankfully, the Texas Eagle does leave San Antonio on time. No more worries, no more wrinkles, no more nothings that is until we get to Longview, Texas. The last official stop in Texas and the last smoke break, I think, until we hit Chicago. I bound out of the train to get a little fresh air and notice the slight chill in the air.
I also notice the two policemen walking directly in my path and nearly walk into me, until a conductor shouts, “No! Not him! Him!” The conductor points to a younger, more buff man, wearing a hoodless solid blue jacket, smoking a cigarette. I am wearing a striped blue hemp coat with my red fish cap and hoodie. I guess policemen just can’t tell the difference and will grab anything that moves.
Evidently, the buffed man, indecently exposed himself to two under-aged Amish girls in the same car I was in, allegedly inside the bathroom lounge area, which is located on the lower half of the passenger car. They grab him, as he gives up without a struggle and is led away. I just shrug my shoulders and grumble about cops who behave like cops and nod my head to the conductor who spoke up before I was wrongly grabbed.
No more incidents, I hope. I just want to get home.
February 4, 2017. Three days later, dirtier and greasier than the greasiest diner in the city, I am last home. The greatest train adventure in my modern history of traveling becomes memory.
And that’s not so bad.