The Train to Chicago and Denver


An ad in Denver


F***ing Amtrak “We have to eat better,” sez Wifey, “I have barely seen a vegetable in a week.” So, we went to a supermarket in Nashville and bought fruit, nuts, tuna, bread, and this massive bag of baby carrots. By the time we’d got back into downtown Memphis we had nothing left except bloody carrots and they had started to dry out. Turns out they are an excellent scrounger deterrent; “Can you give me a quarter buddy, I’m hungry?” “Do you want a carrot?” “What? I don’t want a carrot. I don’t even like carrots” – Not that f***ing hungry then are you?

Word must have got round the Memphis crack-scene because we were never bothered again. “Stay away from them crazy English guys, they packin’ carrots.” We made two cups of coffee last over 5 hours as we abused Starbucks’ free Wi-Fi before we once again found ourselves at the mercy of f***ing Amtrak. Even though it was after 10 p.m. and the sky was clear enough to see the full moon, we were sweltering on a Memphis platform as the Chicago train dragged its lazy ass into town half an hour late.

We had been warned; Wifey rang up to complain about the New Orleans train and was told, “contact us at the end of your journey because you will probably have more problems in the meantime.” There’s confidence in your service.

The air con on the train and the big plush reclinable seats make you almost instantly forgive Amtrak all their sins. Except they left it on all night and we were rifling through our rucksacks in search of extra layers of clothes to stand any chance of sleep. I ended up curled into a foetal ball with a Motorhead T-shirt on my head and a travel towel shaped into a blanket. Or “Mr Blankie” as it became known and I clung to it against complete mental breakdown as our wheeled chest-freezer of a carriage was jerked fitfully through Kentucky and Illinois.

We had five hours in Chicago. Not a cool five hours where we could cruise dive bars and listen to live blues music. No, early morning Chicago dragging itself to life. With much of the US under attack from a blistering summer sun, every night for the last week the weather girl on CNN had commented on how nice it must be to be in 65 degree Chicago. And she was right.


Crown Fountains in Chicago


Also we had checked our bags in so we were cool and unencumbered as we paddled in the Crown Fountains and went to the Institute of Art. I wouldn’t bore you with tales of art galleries at all normally but they have got one of the most haunting paintings I have ever seen there:

Ivan Albright painted the “Picture of Dorian Gray” that was used in the black and white film of Oscar Wilde’s self-indulgent fantasy novel. Wherein Dorian lives a debauched and evil life and the painting becomes twisted and frightful as he remains youthful. You only see the picture at the end of the film and it is shocking. So Albright has got form – the picture that has haunted me since I first saw it is “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door).” And it is of a door. But the door is old and garlanded with a wreath. Although it is obviously rusted into place and forever locked a withered hand reaches for it from the bottom left corner in a last pitiful and hopeless attempt to gain entry. It bothers me that painting, sometimes daily. Which might explain why I’m in America when I should be at work.

Chicago is so musically cool as well (Alkaline Trio, Big Black, Ministry) that they have a record shop smack in the middle of the financial district. We are on a strictly “no new stuff” budget but that didn’t prevent me seriously clutching at Rise Against 7” singles and gleefully plucking CDs out the racks. As ever with Chicago you leave wishing you had been there longer, in fact you could imagine living there if it wasn’t for the brutal winters.

Another bloody Amtrak waiting room with orders to queue up on the left unless you are old, infirm, have kids, know an old person or a kid or can be bothered to think of an excuse to push in. We couldn’t, so waited impatiently behind a group of girls from some cult or other. Ankle length smock dresses, little white bonnets, with the same high foreheads and the missing fingers one associates with generations of inbreeding. Chattering away in some Scando-Germanic trill and hugging each other goodbye. For what felt like two hours. What’s Scando-inbreed speak for “shut the f*** up!”?

We took our seats on the train while the bonnet-girls clucked and faffed about, they got on our carriage so we glared at them like we were murderers. They sat elsewhere and we settled into our now traditional Amtrak nest. Seats back, leg rests up, MP3 players, books, stuff to charge off the electric point. Motorhead hat and Mr Blankie at the ready.

Less than a mile outside Chicago we stopped. We went a bit further, then stopped. The breaks were faulty we could smell the burning rubber. We waited an hour before they decided to push on anyway. The problem seemed to solve itself so the wait was pointless. We started to make up time. Right up to the point where the train hit a deer. This dislodged a pipe on the train (and presumably dislodged the living right out of the deer) so we stopped for another hour while we waited for a man with the right size spanner.

Perhaps a beer would help except the man behind the bar in the snack wagon seemed to want to make endless remarks about the Boston Tea Party as soon as he found out I was English. “The Queen of England doesn’t have a big enough tea cup for the Boston harbour”- such a shining wit and it only took you from 1773 to come up with it. And you still can’t make a decent cup of tea, you smug tw*t. And your train is shit. I couldn’t be bothered to say.

Right Song at the Right Moment – “Rescue” – Echo & the Bunnymen.

Friday 17th I wake up cold – Wifey has kidnapped Mr Blankie and no amount of tugging will release him from her grip. What time is it? Nearly 7a.m. – we should be nearly in Denver. Yes we bloody, sodding well should be. The worst thing is the lies. They tell you they are running late and give you a revised time and you kind of think, “that’s not so bad” – then the train stops again.We had a timetable and reached the point where our greatest pleasure was barking “Bollocks” at the announcements.

We were due to be picked up at the station before our contact in Denver went to work. We rolled in at 10.30 nearly three hours late. By this time Wifey had rang him four times and I was completely besotted by the retired old boys sitting next to us. They were the most practical minded men I have ever encountered, they talked of dismantling engines, shooting prairie dogs, building their own tractor parts, modifying snow blowers in minus 20 degree winters and they were going mountain biking in Moab. And they had deep heroic gnarly old Yank voices, “You know with the 47 model, it has those bolts above the cam shaft? Well if you loosen ‘em off the whole thing slides right outta there.” God knows what they were on about but it sounded brilliant.

In Denver our train pulled away while we waited for our rucksacks. We waited twenty minutes but at least we got them. Right Song at the Right Moment: – “Blood is Thicker” – The Computers, raging, raging, raging guitars and screaming vocals. If the chorus was “I don’t even like carrots and Amtrak can f*** right off!” it couldn’t have been more perfect. They are playing The Cluny in Newcastle in July – with the best will in the world… I hopefully won’t see you there.

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