Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Traveling by train is a gamble — it can be tedious and torturous, or amusing and entertaining. Mostly it depends on your traveling companion. I always travel alone, but whether it’s my neighbour in the adjoining seat or someone in the lounge car, I usually meet someone. My interactions with such people have varied from barely polite to warm, almost friendly. As I said, it’s a gamble.
This particular trip was not the exception. I should have known by its auspicious beginnings.
On the way to Pennsylvania from Chicago, my seatmate was a woman of late middle age and questionable intelligence. As I waited for her to move her belongings from my side to hers (apparently, she never did notice the convenient overhead luggage rack), I regretted my place in the queue that had doomed to me to sitting in seat 47.
“You’re probably not going very far,” she observed hopefully. In her eyes, I could see her plans to move her luggage back to my side before my seat had even had a chance to cool.
“I’m going to Altoona.”
“Oh! That’s not far. I’m going all the way to Pennsylvania!”
I decided against pointing out that Altoona is in Pennsylvania and to let the length of my stay on the train remain a mystery. She continued to probe subtly, but I was unmoved. In frustration, she dug out a portable tape player and began trying to ram a tape into it. I watched, eyebrows arched.
“It’s my husband’s,” she explained. “Darn it! I can’t figure out how this works!”
“Here. Let me.” I put the tape in (facing the correct way) and pushed the play button. Nothing happened. “I think your batteries are dead.” This was both a comment on the tape player and a personal observation. As I suspected, she didn’t get it. “See? Nothing’s moving. This tells me the batteries are dead.”
“Well, I told you it’s my husband’s. I don’t know anything about it.”
“If the batteries were okay, these things would be moving.”
“Oh. Well, I give up.”
This made sense to me. The conductor having collected my ticket, I picked up my computer and shoulder bags and headed out to the dinette for the better light and space, not to mention my primary fuel — coffee. An hour and a half later, about 11:30 p.m., I returned to find that my seat mate had again indulged in ancestral territorial behavior by moving all of her bags to my side. I gently woke her up.
“Oh. I didn’t think you were coming back.” She grudgingly and groggily moved all of her bags. Except for one, which insisted on being in my way. I gave it a nudge and settled back. For once, I fell asleep quickly and deeply on the train. Life was good.
Until, a very short time later, my seat mate began crawling over me. Apparently, nature couldn’t call when I had returned from the dinette and was awake. No, nature chose to wait half an hour and then was very insistent. I was on my guard after that. The watchfulness ruined my sleep.
The next morning, my seat mate (strange that it never occurred to me to ascertain her name) seemed surprised that I was still there, since we had crossed the border into mythical Pennsylvania. Apparently, she thought I would be long gone. She eyed her bags ruefully as she realized they were doomed to stay under her feet for yet awhile longer. She hinted again that I might consider making my trip as short as possible. Unfortunately, Altoona had not shifted significantly westward during the night, although I wasn’t going to point that out. I made for the dinette. I needed coffee to fortify me for the coming ordeal.
Unfortunately, coffee was not the cure for this particular affliction. When I came back, she waited until I was sitting down, then asked me where the lounge was and if they had hot food. I curtly indicated the direction from which I had just returned and said I thought so. I got up so she could get out. This aspect was clearly a game. I was weary of it.
She returned with a pizza. I hid my amazement as she inhaled it at 10 in the morning. I had barely swallowed my own cheese danish, which seemed much too heavy a meal after a night of half-sitting, half-reclining. I was in awe. Or disgust.
Sated, she dug out the tape player. Aha, it occurred to me — the dinette car attendant had foolishly sold her batteries. I cringed as she dug out tapes and pushed buttons randomly, trying to figure out how the darn thing worked. But that was nothing compared to what followed. With eyes closed rapturously, she began humming — tunelessly. She could have been listening to Lawrence Welk or Ozzy Osbourne for all I could tell. To see if I had noticed this latest ploy, she periodically opened her eyes, mid-note, and glanced at me somewhat surreptitiously. I say “somewhat” because it was not altogether successful. I had indeed noticed. At this point, her desire to drive me away was no greater than mine to escape.
As in a movie, the train plunged into a tunnel. The tunnel at Cresson. The tunnel at Cresson within a half hour of Altoona. As a train man began a short historical lecture about the eastern continental divide, the tunnel, and the Horseshoe Curve, I relaxed. I knew I was close to freedom. I didn’t share that with my seat mate. Her first and only clue was when I collected my bags and sweater and swept toward the exit at the front of the car. She muttered a “goodbye” and looked after me a bit wistfully. Her triumph did not seem to bring her much joy.
She did, however, immediately begin piling her bags in the area of the now-vacant seat . . .
Not joy. Contentment.