If we had known the train from New York to New Orleans was going to leave six hours late it might not have been so bad. Hell this is the most exciting city on the planet, within two blocks of Penn Station we could walk to half a dozen bars we love to spend six hours in. Straight up on 34th Street they are showing the new X-men film. Six hours in New York is long enough to start a band, write a short novel, form a cult and ride a flamingo up Madison Avenue singing like Speedy Gonzales. Dressed as Hitler. Should you feel the inclination.
But no, our train was delayed and we were instructed to wait for further announcements. Except all the announcements were telling us to report suspicious packages and not try to pet thek9 response teams responsible for sniffing out explosives. Oh and please don’t sit on the floor.
We sat on the floor, argued about eating the contents of a suspicious package somebody had left,(Mexican chicken wraps) and looked at the departures board in the forlorn hope that we would suddenly be given a platform to queue up for. After four hours we were summoned to a waiting room where they gave us bottled water, broken crackers and biscuits that failed the exams for Jammy Dodger school. We also got a packet of dried fruit and something pretending to be cheese spread.
An outbreak of Wifey’s swearing attracted the attention of Madeleine who was trying to charge her phone, “Waiting for the New Orleans train?” she asked with an understanding smile. “The train is usually an excellent way to see America.” That’s what we thought. So far it had been an excellent way to go mad like a caged cat in a fish farm. Madeleine, a New Yorker with a passion for history, can trace her family back through the pilgrim fathers, to Holland and onto Yorkshire. She had traced her blood to Plantation owners who supported the Union in the Civil War and “Copperheads”, people in the North who supported the Confederacy and had recently completed research into a Civil War sea battle that took place in European waters. She had also done trauma counselling for people involved in 9/11. She was travelling south to visit a civil rights museum in Birmingham Alabama. We had been on the train about an hour when she had politely demanded a free dinner for the whole train. Oh you have to admire the nerve we thought as we sat down to our free dinner. It was a horrible reconstituted chicken and rice gloop that you would cause you to throw it at the wall and kidnap the warden if they served it to you in prison but we ate it out of principle. Madeleine didn’t even want any but negotiated herself a breakfast.
It was dusk before we got to Philli and pitch dark before Washington so we didn’t see an inch of Baltimore (let alone Omar out of The Wire).
Right Song at the Right Moment: The Black Keys “So He Won’t Break”
Wrong Song: A Muzac version of “Misty” played over the Penn Station Tannoy
We woke up in North Carolina. Amtrak provide seats for the most ample of American rumps so sleep would be easy if the train didn’t occasionally bounce about like it was proceeding along a cobbled f***ing street. And people kept bashing through the doors. At least we were not near the toilets, one of which was already blocked. A free breakfast; a roll with seven slices of meat in it and a can of pop saw us as far as South Carolina.
We thought 30 hours on a train would provide ample time to write, except the train seemed to take umbridge at our production of the lap top and reacted with even more violent bouncing and shaking.
In the queue for the remaining nettie a man asked me if we had six hour train delays in the UK. I told him you can’t really do a six hour train journey in the UK, because the country isn’t long enough. The bog door opened and a dead-eyed psycho, 13 year old, exited and I discovered a mountain of paper in the bowl. “I’ll get the blame for this if it doesn’t flush away.” It did – but the boy, we’ll call him Charles after the head of The Manson family, would feature again in our journey.
Charles’ actual family seemed to consist of a jolly mother, an aunt and a younger brother. By Atlanta the little brother was sobbing uncontrollably and the mother was screaming, “I don’t want any more of your apologies or your crappy food, I want my six hours back.” I clocked Charles as I helped a fat elderly woman off the train with her bag and he was sitting amidst the maelstrom with utter disinterest. Wifey went to the toilet much later and he was again coming out leaving a paper mountain. Then he took to going through the bins.
In search of a, clearly fictional, lost toy he engaged the help of three separate Amtrak employees.
By this time we had added Becca to our own company. Becca was on the way to see her sick grandpa and had left her husband and two kids in Virginia. She composed a film scenario for our carriage and read it out whilst giggling infectiously. We thought it would be fun to buy her beer, so we did and she giggled some more then tried to buy us both a decent dinner from the dining car. Our hunger had already been killed by consuming a second portion of chickenesque rice n’ gloop (that seemed to be in inexhaustible supply) so we reluctantly declined.
Our train would stand motionless for long periods of time then crawl along. When we eventually picked up speed I asked the lady guard to tell the driver to slow down because I felt sick. She said “If you think you’re so funny, say that to these people who have been complaining to me” – I might have felt sheepish but Becca, waving a bottle of Heineken, was laughing too much.
One by one our companions got off as we drifted in and out of sleep. We got to New Orleans at 4.30am on Friday, 10 hours late and 40 since we got to the station in New York.
Right Song Right Moment – Silversun Pickups “Melatonin” on a hazy North Carolina morning with our train actually moving. There were no bad songs, just bad food.