Get on the Train (to Iowa)

Sunday, May 11, 2003

I just finished my breakfast down in the dining car — oatmeal, fruit salad, yogurt, cranberry juice, a biscuit, and two cups of coffee for the not-unreasonable prince of $5.25 (plus $1.00 tip). Joe seemed mostly asleep and Juli has a mango cut on a styrofoam plate that she was working on. (“It’ll wake you up,” she claimed.) So I went to the dining car on my own, following the expliciting instructions from Mr. Martin, the leader of the dining car, to come in and “pleeeeeeeeeease… wait!” to be seated.

“Pleeeeeeeeease… wait!” seems to be Mr. Martin’s catch phrase. We hear it each time he makes mention of the dining car being open for business.

So I went alone and ended up seated across the aisle from a guy from Chicago returning from a business trip to Fort Worth and a teacher from just south of Dallas riding up to St. Louis to interview for another teacher position (one that she didn’t seem very enthusiastic about). I ate my food and watched Missouri roll by — the Missouri river (I believe) leading to light industrial areas with mostly open spaces, brick buildings, and old factories. Looks like my grandparent’s part of eastern Pennsylvania, but probably mostly because both parts of the US look so different from Austin.

Right now the train sits still right in the area which is, I gather, just south of St. Louis. We look to be in an overgrown trainyard, of sorts. A long train pulling nothing but school-bus orange and tan bucket-cars full of coal (I guess — black rocky stuff) seems to be pulling in front of our train. And another similar coal train sits on the track next to that one, stationary. Off in the distance I see a highway busy with moderate traffic and a smattering of taller brick buildings — a greyish factory-looking place, a few office buildings, maybe a red apartment, and something with a bluish dome on it far away. I must be facing northwest, sitting here in the lounge car.

Anyway. The dining car looks like a classic train dining car. Long (of course) with booths with cushy vinyl seats, coarse tablecloths, real flowers in little vases (which look like those personal coffee-brewers), folded napkins, and a small plate of jellies and butter. The middle of the car has the “attendant’s area” (my term) and about ten tables line the sides of the train on the halves that the attendant’s area makes. Service has been good — and the food not outrageously expensive considering how pricing normally works when captive audiences are involved.

Now I’m in the lounge car. The “sun room” of the train. The windows are huge. And they go up all the way to the ceiling, sort of wrapping onto the ceiling so you can look up and see sky. This part of the train sort of feels like it’s outside because if you stand at one end, most of what you see is window. Which makes it a much more comfortable place to hang out than the seats in the back of the train (where Joe, Juli, and I have our stuff). The lounge car has the same space-age styling of the dining car: angular, NASA-1960s tan-and-brown vinyl seats, orange-orange ceiling and panelling around the beverage station, and brown plastic molding everywhere else (around the windows, at the ends of the cabin, etc. And a pair of TVs, one at each end of the cabin. Yesterday evening while walking to and from dinner we noticed that they had (some movie I have now forgotten) and “Die Another Day” showing. We didn’t stay to watch.

So about a dozen people are in the lounge car with me. And a fair cross-section of the sort of people who have been on the train with us. So the train crowd seems to be somewhere between the bus and plane crowds, not surprisingly. Most of the passengers seem to be middle-to-low income sorts, like myself, for whom the train offers slightly cheaper transport. The age and race mix seems fairly even. A few passengers seem to be on board because they needed to go somewhere last-minute, like the guy I sat across the aisle from in the dining car. (But he did have one of the $500-round-trip personal cabins with a fold-out be and sink — not cheap at all.)

And the ride isn’t bad at all. In fact, unlike traveling by bus, plane, or car, I feel very relaxed and comfortable. The thing about trains is that they’re big. And not many people are on this one (seems about half full), so there’s plenty of room in the dining car and in the lounge — and in the regular passenger cabins. And the train is two-stories tall, so there are smoking rooms below (which I haven’t been much inclined to visit) as well as nice big bathrooms. Since getting on the train, I haven’t had to wait for a bathroom once. That’s saying something.

The ride is long, though. I’d estimate we’re covering at most 45 miles per hour. Maybe 50. But it’s comfortable and work can be done, so it doesn’t feel so bad. The only thing they need is — you guessed it — internet access. But that might be difficult on a moving train.

Now we’re stopped at a train station — the St. Louis station, believe. Not much here but a bunch of people waiting around with luggage. And a bunch of highways right in front of my, in front of a few grungy looking city buildings. St. Louis looks grungy. Sooty. So far, at least, from the vantage of the train. Behind me are some more old red brick buildings and another coal train — a different one from before, though, because this one’s all brown.

So yesterday we had to take the bus from Austin to Fort Worth, which I found annoying. The train didn’t make it down to San Antonio, so it couldn’t come back up through Austin to pick us up. The bus left at 10:30, the same time the train would’ve, and got us up to Fort Worth by about 2:30. After a half-hour of confusion we ended up in our seats and the train left Fort Worth at about 3:00.

To back up, I slept through my alarm —

Now Juli and Joe have come to the lounge car from where they were. We’re stopped and apparently they tried to get out for some air but were denied. Now they’re to my right, talking to some hispanic woman who is traveling to New York. I think I heard earlier that we’ll be stopped here for an hour.

So I slept through my alarm and Joe woke me with about fifteen minute to go, at about 9:45 (fifteen minutes before Lyndon was scheduled to arrive to drive us to the train station), so I had to rush shower and pack all of the my stuff up. I had been up until about 5:30 in the morning sending off the AMODA newsletter, wrapping up some work stuff, doing laundry, and just generally getting ready.

Okay. Now back to my seat. Looks like lots of people are getting on and we need to make sure we don’t have our places taken!

Now I’m back at my seat. Looks like they’ve added another car behind us. Our car used to be the last in line. The train from Fort Worth to St. Louis was: engines, sleeper, sleeper, dining car, lounge car, coach car, and our coach car at the end. Some black guy with corn-rows, a red headband, and red t-shirt is talking about a fifteen hour delay he recently experienced.

So we rode the bus to Fort Worth. I slept most of the way. And read some of the book I bought last week, “Nutrition in a Nutshell.” Once on the train, after some unpleasantness with the female attendant who kept trying to get us to move to the crappier car from the nicer car we had decided we wanted to stay in (she won in the end), I read some more, fiddled with Reaktor, and then we went and got some dinner down at the dining car. Joe made a 7:30 reservation. I had some half-ass pasta primavera and biscuits. I forget what Joe and Juli had we shared some cabernet and something called the “chocolate pyramid.”

After coming back to my seat I zoned for a few hours playing SimCity 2000. Joe and Juli came over about an hour-and-a-half into my playing and seemed sort fo fascinated by it. Joe, especially. I’ve been playing it for years (though not in the past couple of years so much), but they never had really seen it. Randy Smith at the lecture on Monday made reference to it several times, calling it a “toy” rather than a “game” due to the lack of explicit goals, so Joe was curious to see what it was. I showed him. I zoned a couple residential areas, showed him how the budget in the game works, created an earthquake, tornado, and had the city invaded by a giant robot spider. It’s a cool game, still. If I thought I had time for it, I would grab the latest installment. But that’s besides the point.

After about four hours of SimCity (way too long), I picked Reaktor back up and made some interesting squiggle sounds. Jared Tarbell let me know last night that the reason he called over the weekend was that he was putting together a little Flash thingy and needed some sounds — sixteen sounds grouped in similar sets of four (so each four sounds are related or complimentary in some way). so I’ve been using that as an excuse to play with Reaktor, learning how to use modules that I didn’t really know what to do with before. I feel like my grasp of Reaktor is becoming complete. Play is good, though. Soon I hope to get the software more involved in my normal musical production line. After a couple hours of Reaktor I read “Nutrition in a Nutshell” some more.

What this is is a demonstration of the usefulness of trains. Hours and hours of time to just sit and work on stuff. But without having to feel confined or nervous like one would in a bus or plane.

I told Juli last night that I thought a train might work well if I started playing more shows out of town. It’s relaxing. I can work. They don’t seem to have luggage restrictions (so I could take my gear). And they’re relatively cheap. Not perfect. But something work keeping in mind.

So now I sit in my seat. All of the seats in this car have pale purple covers with little rounded swastika-patterns (yeah) on them. And lots of stains. The coach car really does look more-or-less like the inside of a small airplane — except the space between the seats in, like, three feet so I have all the leg-room in the world. Each passenger has a slip of paper attached to his or her seat number indicating his or her destination: “CHI,” some people have. We have “SPI” — Springfield, Illinois.

Which is where we get off. And get our rental car to drive three hours to the Quad Cities where Joe’s family lives. Where we will stay until Monday or Tuesday before heading to Iowa City to stay until Wednesday, when we drive back to Springfield, Illinois to catch the train back down to Austin. And that will be the end of the Summer 2003 Midwest Tour…