I wake up with the skies lightening somewhere near Erie Pennsylvania, and head to the diner car. Not as glamorous as the Empire Builder, to say the least. The Lake Shore Limited means "Limited" in many ways, including perks. I sit down, and a dorky looking guy enters the room and promptly starts whining...
"Where's the Observation Car?"
"Right here!" I reply (holding my arms out to the cheap-looking diner car) "Observe!"
A second guy walks into the diner car wearing dread locks in his hair.
"Leo!" I say aloud to him, but I get no response. He's not Leo, but he looks like his twin. Turns out, his name is Artwon and looks like something out of Milli Vanilli. He's actually another very cool guy, and we have loads of conversation about music, art, culture. etc. Artwon had just gotten back from India, where he had been seeking spiritual enlightenment, but got his laptop stolen instead.
'Ghost Rida' (not his birth name) soon comes in, and now the house is rocking.
"Oh man! did you see the guy that got thrown off the train?"
"Ummm... No, I didn't", I reply in surprise.
He produces and iPhone picture of a U.S. Marshall escort a dark skinned man off.
"I was nervous man", Ghost Rida says.
"Why?" I ask him. "You sound like you are where you are from" (Brooklyn)
"When you is a ni**a like me, who dresses like this, shoots his mouth off, and smells like he ain't showered in six months... you gets nervous!"
This sends me off into uncontrollable laughter.
I like him.
He goes on to tell me that Hip Hop is not the only music he likes, and he is a big fan of Garth Brooks, Tim Mcgraw and Billy Ray Cyrus. He also notices something about my expression around this time.
"Why you makin' that face at me?" he asks.
I don't ask him why he likes any of those bands... but ask him if he has a website, and he says he can be reached at www.myspace.com/ghostrida and I tell him I will link him up with Orange Crush.
I also warn him "don't send me any viruses."
This puzzles him, and he asks"why would I do that?"
After I explain about corrupted hard drives from bad e-mails, he relaxes a little, and laughs.
"ohhhhhh! I thought you meant the other kind of virus."
Just when you thought things could not get any crazier, a bunch of prison guards come on the train, but they are from Canada, and are heading to Boston to play in a hockey tournament for fun. They sit across from me, and ask if they serve alcohol.
I direct them to the bar car.
This should provide me with enough material for another chapter, but so far... they are well-behaved. When I step back into the lounge car, I find out through peripheral conversation that all of the Budweiser is gone! They are soon further plastered on Wisers and Smirnov. Not to worry, because these increasingly rowdy gents are being picked up by the Boston Police, who are waiting for them as escorts in South Station when they arrive (as welcome guests) for a charity hockey tournament in Boston.
We are now nearing Albany New York, and all of the NYC bound riders are getting kicked off to the other end of the train. I am able to stay however, and continue using the 120 Volt outlet to charge my laptop. Now I am having conversation with three college kids from Chicago, who are going to Boston to see the Dropkick Murphy's. I mention that I know their original guitarist, Rick Barton, and they are immediately impressed. I remember when I was like these guys. Not a care in the world, other than getting drunk, rocking out and looking for women. I am not living vicariously through them, because they are all likely sleeping on the floor tonight.
I grab my camera as we are stopped, and snap a few pictures of Albany.
A fourth gentleman is now hanging out in the lounge car. "Cliff" is from LA, and in our brief conversation between train connections, he has given me his life story. He has been kicked around by life enough times for it to show in his otherwise handsome features, looking like a shorter Johnny Knoxville from MTV's "Jackass" show.
He is simply traveling around the country, drinking Coronas... and leering at women.
"I've never been laid on a train", he exclaims lustily. The guy is a wired-up and slightly frayed ball of energy. He is staying with friends in Albany, but he has been on the train all the way from California. He played in a few bands in Napa valley ("we were a WINE band, man!") but came out of it with a nasty divorce, and no money to his name. So now he is looking for the one night stand of his dreams on a train.
But it's not going to happen for him today.
"Helllooooo.... I love youuuuu!!!!" he says through the glass door of the diner car at a pretty girl he has just spotted, but we are now separated from that end of the Lake Shore Limited, as the trip splits up for Boston and New York City. The train separates, and the other car slowly pulls away.
"Awwww! Damn it!!!" Cliff curses. "I had her!!!"
He gets so caught up in talking to me, and confessing his life's misgivings, that he forgets the train has now pulled into Albany/Rennnsalear Station and is going to leave momentarily for Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
"Oh shit! I gotta go!"
He asks me just before he shakes my hand and bolts,
"what's your name again?"
So now it is just me, my camera, my laptop, and a train full of Amtrak's finest.
I am now just one person living in the final moments of a small story - built upon a whim, and involving a little-known novel first published over 60 years ago. These moments are winding down, as I am swaying on a rattling train, slowly descending the Berkshires and picking up speed through Westfield. We are passing familiar landmarks on Route 20, and with one more stop to go... I am coming home.
Where is home?
I come to the birthplace of children's author Doctor Seuss, of Blues musician Taj Mahal, of Smith & Wesson Firearms, and of Basketball. Springfield is a city with a colorful past, an underachieving present and a questionable future. I could go on about what I think could be done to make it a more welcome city to explore and discover, without the fear of crossing paths with random violence on the way. But it marks my final stop, and for that reason, I am as glad to see it as I was to see first Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Because of the story I now get to tell everyone.
(Sun setting on Catskills and Hudson)