Seeing America by Train, under the brim of the Mischief Hat (2018)

Background: America

Our current system of electing Presidents is designed to exaggerate consensus by geography, and majority. I don’t want to get too much into the depths of our political system, other than to mention that even in the most overwhelming Presidential victory, somewhere upwards of 39% of people making up the popular vote have been disappointed. I actually think this speaks to the brilliance of the founders of our political system, in that we always leave an active, vocal, political minority to serve as a check on the temporary majority.

While we exist in this current political ‘crisis’, I thought I’d share this experience which harkens back to an earlier time, still politically divided but before social distancing. This shares my observation that the things that bind us as a culture are outweigh our so-called differences.

This is from a train trip I took in 2018.

Background: Hats

So, I have this thing about hats. I have trouble finding a hat that fits me. When my dad died at (my age) 15, I inherited his which fit me but just barely. I wore it incessantly. In 1982, it was not a popular fashion choice but I kept it up. In the late 1980’s when I became a news reporter, I had a pair of hats I sported professionally. I don’t know what people thought of me, but I thought it was ‘distinguishing’, and frankly, I thought I was the ‘shit’.

Sometime in the 1990’s I abandoned the practice as the hats I had on hand basically had worn out. Later, I had trouble finding hats my head-size. I remember walking into a hat shop in Saginaw, Michigan once looking for a hat for one of my fathers’ in-law, and the man greeted me at the door with a whistle, saying ‘wow, we’re going to have trouble with you’. He accurately guessed my hat size, which gave me infinite confidence on buying my father in-law’s hat there.

Flash forward to 2017. I was in Man(hat)tan. Among the random wanderings, my wife I came across a place that claimed to be the world’s best hattery or some such brag. We walked in, and I asked for a pork-pie hat. The purveyor sized me up and, after accurately guessing my hat size (a big credibility marker in my mind) told me I needed some other kind of hat. I ended up with some kind of versatile, wide brimmed hat. He showed me how I could make it into a fedora (which I rarely do), how I could make it into a pork-pie (also, rarely), or just wear it up. My wife has dubbed it the ‘mischief hat’ as I generally wear it on vacations, or weekends when I’m away from home.

And, generally, mischief ensues.

Hopping the Train:

My wife Mary was hosting a girls’ weekend in, in January of 2018. I’ve had a fascination with train travel since a trip I took from Detroit to Toronto in the mid-1970’s, so I thought I’d look at a train trip to see some friends who’d recently moved to northeastern Florida.

The Amtrak schedule wasn’t all that forgiving, but I did find a 2 train combination that would get me from home to Jacksonville, Florida, in a promised 11 hour, overnight trip. I booked a one-way, return flight as I didn’t really want to exhaust all my ‘fun’ on two train trips in one weekend!

The first train (shocker) was late arriving in Durham, North Carolina. The ticket agent assured us that we’d make our connection in Cary (18 minutes away) without incident, so my wife and I had a drink at a nearby establishment, and then I hopped my train, to take me to my other train.

Things came off the rails (to coin a phrase) when I arrived at the tiny train station in Cary, though. Upon arrival, there was an announcement that the train would be delayed two hours. No wonder my gate agent in Durham wasn’t worried! Fortunately, downtown Cary was within walking distance, so I considered my next steps as an opportunity.

Amidst the general grumbling about the delay, a couple of people within ear shot started up a conversation about also making their way downtown to have a drink. I joined them and we plotted our escape. While an eager young woman with a baby in arms offered to watch everyone’s luggage, I decided that the gate-check was the better option. So once depositing my valuables, I made off with our newly formed trio to see what the suburban enclave of Raleigh had to offer.

I’ll call my companions Baby Bear (for reasons which will become obvious) and the Fly Girl.

Fly Girl was a 30-something young woman who had gothic-letter tattoos flanking her midriff, vertically. I couldn’t really make out what it said on either side, as the word or phrase disappeared, alternately, in a very distressed looking tube top to the north and some very overworked yoga pants to the south. I came to learn that she was from a big family; that her mom was watching her kids while she visited relatives in Florida and that she voraciously consumed potential dates via the dating app, Tinder.

Baby Bear was a slightly pudgy, somewhat balding late 20s guy with dark hair and a pornstache. (Side note: this was before calling someone “pornstache” could make you a target in a mass shooting.) Mr. Bear shared that he was working in a series of dead-end jobs in small-town North Carolina, but yearned for a life in a bigger town to match his ”lifestyle”. I took this as an opening to find out more about him, once we settled in to a table at one of Cary’s boozy establishments.

When we walked in, the place had a definitely ‘town-y’ feel. It wasn’t quite like the needle-scratch stop reminiscent of when the frat boys go see Otis Day and the Knights in Animal House, but we definitely got that ‘you ain’t from around here’ vibe. Fly Girl, Baby Bear and me, Mr. Hat, found an open high top table and hard looking, world weary barkeep came by to take our drink order. I explained that we were three refugees from the train station waiting on a delayed train to Florida. She said we’d have to pay in advance.

Fly Girl liked shots. Baby Bear was picking sugary mixed drinks. I had a PBR. As soon as we sat down, Fly Girl popped out her phone and started swiping through photos on Tinder. Pretty soon, she and Baby Bear were comparing notes.

Baby Bear was looking at a dating app too, but from the WAY they were comparing notes, I could tell they were both looking at the fellows. So, to be friendly, I asked Baby Bear to talk a little bit more about why he wanted to get out of small town North Carolina. He returned to his euphemism about wanting a place that would support his ‘lifestyle’ better. I asked him to elaborate. He then showed me a picture of him, in what must have been his weekend clothes. Remember the Village People? There was that guy who wore a leather hat, leather pants and the crisscross leather suspenders and no shirt? Imagine that, except with a dog collar and leash thrown in for good measure. Also, both of those were in leather. OH, and his pornstache was waxed into a Rollie Fingers/ Snidely Whiplash style curl. Presumably this was not leather.

“Ah,” I noted. “And… you can’t do that in (insert small town name) on the weekends?” “Or anytime,” he retorted. He and Fly Girl then went back to comparing notes on their swipe-y dating apps.

Around the 2nd drink, Fly Girl started laughing. “This guy sent me a dick pick,” she blurted out after tossing back a shot. “Lemme see,” Baby Bear said while grabbing for the phone. Chuckles ensued. “You want to take a look,” Sir Bear asked me. “No thanks,” I declined politely. “I don’t even like looking at my own, much less someone else’s.”

As time passed, it turned out this paunchy, ‘I-Don’t-Care-Bear’ had been busy on what I later learned to be was Grindr. How did I know? Because a young guy drifted up to our table and after making a quick scan of the three of us, turned to Baby Bear and asked “Are you (name)?” I surmised that Yogi here was hard to recognize out of his dog-walking uniform.

This guy was a young 20-something, and was sporting a tighty-whitey tee shirt, and, I swear to God, what looked like denim Capri pants. He and Teddy Ruxpin exchanged a few comments of confirmation (Baby Bear had invited him to the bar via the aforementioned app), and then, inexplicably, B-Bear went back to chatting with Fly Girl. Didn’t even invite his invitee to have a seat.

So, to be sociable (I’ve spent 11 years in the ‘south’, after all), I offered him a seat. He looked a bit puzzled and declined but continued to stand there, expecting something (conversation, glance, bathroom sex) from Baby Bear. Instead, there was awkward silence. I tried a few more pleasantries to no avail, so the young man wandered off.

I felt sorry for him. I was ‘ghosted’ in person once myself during my ‘in-between marriage years’. I never quite figured out the experience other than some kind of bizarre power-move in inter-personal relationships. Having empathetic flashbacks, I decided to abandon our impromptu triumvirate, and make my way back to the train station. It was a fortunate move as the two-hours-delayed train apparently made up some time and was waiting at the station.

I hustled over to the baggage check, grabbed my things and made it onboard. I looked out the door and saw by colleagues hustling into the station and making their way onboard as well, ready for our ultimate destination in F-L-A.

The 300 Passenger Bus:

The ticket I purchased for my Cary-to-Jacksonville trip came with assigned seating. There were two seats per side of the train, and the attendant walked me down to my row and placed a paper marker above my row, where I could throw my bag.

Occupying both of the seats in my assigned area was a woman who must have come from the same production company that gave us Momma June and Honey Boo Boo. Her ample torso was shrouded with a loud, floral patterned and fluffy blouse pulled down over polyester slacks. She was sprawled across both seats in the row and snoring, although I swear, when I went by once later, that she would peek out of one eye, and then snore louder when I approached. I looked at the train attendant who kind of shrugged his shoulders and moved on to bigger problems.

“Welp”, I decided, “Let’s find the bar car.” Having seen numerous films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, my expectations of the bar/ dining car on a train were, shall we say, unrealistic. Or, perhaps, hallucinogenic.

I walked in to what looked like the cafeteria of a failing small manufacturing plant, except without the charm and optimism. A row of hard, posture-mocking plastic benches bracketed small, unevenly formica-d tables. A gangling young man in a ragged Amtrak vest and cap was hurriedly packing things up behind an undersized counter that served as his work area.

“What time do y’all close?”, I inquired. “Half-an-hour”, he responded with a sigh and an eye roll. Consulting my phone to check the time, that meant they buttoned up shop at 11 pm. “Kind of early, huh?” I pried. “Man,” he explained sleepily,” We were 2 hours late coming out of New York. I’ve been working 10 hours straight. Eleven’s plenty late for me.”

I couldn’t argue with his logic, but made note of the two hour delay coming out of New York. All the way along my journey to the train, the Amtrak on-line scheduler and in-station officials had told me no such thing. They held off until nearly arrival time to spill the beans about the delay. I reasoned this must be like in Asian societies, where it is considered improper to tell a dying patient the real extent of their condition. It only frightens them.

Getting back to the matter at hand, I asked the world’s weariest bartender what their beer selection looked like. It turns out they had both regular and light beer; one of each. So I ordered two, given the impending last call.

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here:

I wandered further back into Café amTRAK and grabbed a seat with my 2 beers. Just to my left was a 40-something, bespectacled man with a tan suede jacket reading a magazine and sipping on a beer. We nodded to each other. Ahead of me, sat a 60-something man in an open collared short-sleeve shirt and pleather windbreaker. He had a tussle of greying hair atop his severely receding hairline, and stared impassively out the window into the darkness rushing by.

I took a moment to run a wet-wipe around the rim of beer #1 and as I went to crack it, I heard laughter and a ‘hey, there he is’ coming from behind me. Baby Bear and the Fly Girl found me. We had a happy little reunion, and picked up our activities where they left off at the bar in downtown Cary.

They laughed about nearly missing the train, and then proceeded to open their phones and start looking at dating apps again. Boo Boo bear wondered openly how long the train stopped at various stations along the way (not long enough to have a meet-up, I imagined). Fly Girl would swipe, swipe, swipe, then crack up and pass the phone around to share the source of her amusement.

Eventually, after a couple of exchanged comments across the aisle, I beckoned for the 40-something guy to come across and join our happy little group. We’ll call him the Baltimore Kid.

After introductions and pleasantries, I learned that he was on the train from the DC area heading to Tampa. To help you hear his voice, I want you think of (or if you don’t know the reference, go to YouTube and search for) the character of Cleveland from the Family Guy. He had a mellow, mid-southern accent with an occasional flutter/ break in his voice.

It turns out the Baltimore Kid had lived in Detroit in the 1990’s, roughly the same time I was doing some work in my hometown as a reporter. It gave us a chance to talk about Detroit politics, the sorry state of the city, and also visit some bright spots which, then, were beginning to emerge.

He had been peripherally involved in the administration of Dennis Archer, former Detroit mayor. I told him that I had been a street reporter for a few months during that time, and one of my favorite moments was covering a news conference at Detroit Police Headquarters, where my late father had

worked in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Mr. Baltimore came from a large family, and shared that in his generation, very few of the men made it to a successful adulthood, either because of death or incarceration. He was on his way to Tampa to celebrate the college graduation of a nephew. “I feel a special obligation to be there for my sisters’ kids,” he elaborated. “I feel like they need to PERSONALLY know a man who’s made it successfully to adulthood.”

About this time, Baby Bear piped up. Seemed he was going to Tampa too. “Know any good clubs to hang out at?”, he asked Mr. Baltimore. “Define ‘good’,” the kid asked back, skeptically. “Well, do you know a place called” (insert any thinly-veiled word play for a gay bar here; The Manhole, Little Orphan Tranny’s, Ghe Chevara’s; I forget the actual name).

Baltimore’s eyes widened. He pushed back a bit on the immovable table, and said “Ooooh, I know what YOU’RE looking for,” through a knowing smile. “Yea, that’s a good place to catch a disease,” he shared, and then offered a few other places which were, presumably, somewhat more hygienic.

Small talk continued in between the right-swiping of the dating apps from Baby Bear and the Fly Girl. As a table, we decided to get last call before they rolled up the sidewalks on our moveable feast of culture-sharing. Someone produced a deck of cards, and we decided to play a cashless game of blackjack.

I beckoned to the only other passenger in the dining car, introducing myself, to invite him to join the game. “Hey, I’m Cameron, want to join us?” He said, “Mistah Lee,” pointing to his chest. “I’m Mistah Lee.” And then he shook his head no, and continued to look out the window at the passing nothingness sweeping by somewhere in South Carolina.

The After Party:

The four of us, Mr. Hat, The Baltimore Kid, Fly Girl and Baby Bear, passed cards around the table while finishing up our drinks. We asked each other questions about our lives; our backgrounds; our points of view; the kinds of honest questions and answers you ask people you may never see again. The Amtrak staff had gathered at the other end of the car and occasionally hushed us if the conversation or laughter got too loud.

I finished my ‘last call’ beverages early, and decided to wander off. I tipped my hat to my crew, and gave a wave to Mistah Lee down the car (who nodded), as I made my back into the slim grey cylinder which held the mass of humanity herking and jerking toward Florida.

When I got to my car, Momma June was still participating in ‘Occupy My Seat’, so I made my way forward and found a 2-seat bench which was open, and sat down. I unpacked a sandwich my wife had made for me, plugged in my phone to charge it for the rest of the night, and settled in to try to get some shut-eye.

Just as I was nestling in, I felt a half slap, half punch on my shoulder. Startled, I looked around to see that it was Mistah Lee. He looked at me, and raised a plastic cooler and kind of shook it in my direction. “Beer?”, he asked? “Certainly!” I said.

So, I offered him a seat next to me. He popped open the cooler and offered me my choice of a beer. He settled in and cracked one open himself, and we toasted and started to drink.

Mistah Lee, so far, was a man of few words. Looking him over, and making an educated guess based on the monosyllabic nature of our exchanges to date, I thought I’d try one of the few Chinese phrases I know. “Ni-hao?” I said tentatively. He laughed, and waived his hand while shaking his head. “Well”, I figured, “Either he doesn’t know that dialect, or my accent is so bad it’s amusing.”

So I started again. “Where are you going?” “Orlando,” he said. “Great town,” I said. “What are you going to do there?”

“Disney World!” was his reply. I sat back. “Is your family travelling with you?” I asked. He shook his head no, and took another sip of his beer.

“Are you meeting them there?”

“No.” Another sip.

“So,” I reasoned out, “you’re going by yourself?” Understand, I was talking to a 60-something man who just said he was going to Disney World by himself.

“Yes.”

“Why?” I asked, somewhat incredulously.

At this, he took another long sip of beer, and I guess, considered his answer for a while. Finally, he leaned over to me and said just one word.

“Freedom.”

At that, I toasted him again with my nearly empty can of beer. As I finished, he offered me another one, but I declined, wanting to try to get some sleep before the train pulled in to Jacksonville. He sat by me for a bit longer finishing his beer, and then gathered his belongings, put out a hand to shake mine, and wandered off into the train, presumable to find a 2 seat bench similarly open.

I dozed a bit but couldn’t really fall asleep, due in part to the Humpty-Dance motion of the train. Any illusions I had of peaceful slumber while the train rocked steadily along toward our destination were as unrealistic as my expectations of seeing tuxedo and nightgown bedecked patrons in the bar car.

We rolled into Jacksonville about 14 hours after we started, losing yet another two hours along the overnight journey.

I looked around for my companions but not unlike Steve Perry and Journey, most had gone their separate ways. I imagine Kid Baltimore’s family reunion went well; Mistah Lee may have drawn some odd looks, but God bless him, I hope he got a photo with Mickey Mouse; I considered whether Baby Bear found what he was looking for, and whether or not it would kill him. Fly Girl was scrambling around looking for her luggage, and seemed to otherwise occupied for a parting goodbye.

One of the failings of the American transit system is that we’ve scattered our transportation hubs randomly around communities. Jacksonville’s train station lets out in an industrial section with one, infrequently running bus to take you to other transportation options.

So, I grabbed a ride-share to get to my rental car to proceed with rest of my trip.

Once I’d caught up on my sleep, I took time to reflect on my experience. I appreciated the fact that I had the wherewithal and leisure to take this trip by train. And I marveled at the fact that five, completely random strangers from vastly different backgrounds, could find a way to entertain each other, find some common ground, and where we didn’t, found respect enough to be polite (at least in person) to the differences we expressed.

That’s my kind of America.