Chicago

Published in the Britton Journal on November 28, 2018

For the past two years I’ve taken Amtrak home for Thanksgiving.

Train travel is something I never believed I would ever actually do in my lifetime. My image of trains has always been constructed out of movies and television—bums hiding behind cargo as stowaways, a hero’s great escape as he chases down an open door at full speed, Thomas the Tank Engine and manifest destiny. I didn’t even really know that passenger trains were something that still existed in America beyond places like New York City.

The train cars are two levels—the upper level holds the majority of the coach seating and dining areas, and the lower level stows luggage, the lavatories, and a small area of seats that passengers must specifically reserve when purchasing their tickets. Lower level frequenters are the elderly, people with wheelchairs, passengers who need extra quiet, like parents with a brand-new baby.

And then me. A person who, by this point in the semester, hates being around people and just wants to sequester herself for the 24-hour ride and take an abhorrent number of naps.

The lower level is like a secret. The window on its entry door is blackened so other passengers can’t see in. And because of its secrecy, not many people often fill it, so I’ve come to be quite fond of studying the people I share my long journey with. It’s kind of like being stuck for a day in a shaking, doublewide elevator with a handful of strangers, all left with nothing better to do than to imagine each other’s stories as we wait. Which floor they’re destined for, what has brought them here? What layering of circumstances have pooled together to make our lives meet for a while in this metal container?

I focused on one particular person on my way home this year. I called him “Chicago” because “CHI” was written on the scrap of paper above his seat that alerts train staff to our final destinations. Chicago was tall and thin, built almost like a tree. He moved like one too—old and slow and careful. What interested me most about him, though, was that he appeared to have with him only a single plastic grocery bag. The bag was filled with what looked very much like Monopoly money from the outside—tiny colorful scraps of paper.

Chicago had trouble figuring out the mechanics of the train. I watched him for hours as he bent over trying to lift the seat’s footrest, as he tried to find the reading light, as he gave up and tried to sleep. I never said anything to help him. Because talking would be against the unspoken lower level code of conduct, but also because I didn’t want him to know I was watching him. He looked like a person who could become easily embarrassed by someone showing him how to recline.

I wondered who was waiting at Chicago for Chicago. A son, a daughter? Maybe even no one. And then I began to wonder if Chicago was even his true final destination—the city an Amtrak hub that catapults a number of other trains into the east and south. Is Chicago actually Pittsburgh or Memphis or Orlando? Part of me felt that he may still be at the same seat when I board the train back to Idaho after the holiday, riding the tracks until the tracks ran out almost like a ghost.

But as I write this on my way back, sitting in the seat directly behind the one that was his seven days ago, that seat sits empty. I moved up there for a moment to bring the seat back up from the fully reclined state it was left in, and I smiled a little, imagining that perhaps Chicago had figuring it out.