The Day I Caught the Train.

Cantonment Railway Station, Bangalore

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the shadow of Cantonment Station but I love trains. In fact, the rails are easily my favorite form of transport. So without further ado, here is my comprehensive train blog of the year! All aboard! Come on ride the train choo choo ride it!

I recently caught the North Coastal Amtrak train which runs along the west coast from San Diego northwards through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and ultimately all the way to Seattle. I rode the train from Los Angeles to Oakland which usually accounts for a  twelve hour ride but due to mudslides(the natural disaster, not the cocktail) it took about fifteen hours. Ever the planner, I boarded the train with ample entertainment.

1) Mad Men season 4 (One of my favorite TV shows ever. Amazing. 9.3/10)

2) The League season 1 (I thought it would be funnier. 6/10 so far)

3) Ham & Cheese Sandwich (Satisfying at the time. 7/10)

4) Turkey & Cheese Sandwich (Waited too long to eat, got soggy. 5/10)

5) Two Spectacular *Brownies* (Made the trip even more of a pleasure. 10/10 ^_^)

6) The New York Times (Didn’t read it but hey it was comforting to have. 8/10)

7) A copy of Esquire magazine (7/10)

8 ) Drugstore Cowboy (1989) (Early Gus Van Sant starring a peaking Matt Dillon. Hats on beds. 8.5/10)

The ride started on what seemed like the 100th day in a row of pouring rain in southern California. I stood wet at the Norwalk bus station waiting for a bus that would take me to the city of angels (Los Angeles, not Bangkok). I was soaked because everyone under the tiny bus stop roof  inexplicably had their umbrellas open, thus pushing my umbrella-less self out into the downpour. Chinese water torture was no fun but still I promptly arrived in LA- only to be reminded that Amtrak is never ever prompt. Oh well, sank into an oversized wooden armchair in Union Station, an old timey station similar to the one from The Untouchables (1988, Kevin Costner is Elliot Ness and his incorruptible team vows to bring down Al Capone’s racket in prohibition-era Chicago, 8/10 “Thash the Chicago Way!”)

Union Station, Los Angeles, Don't be surprised if Andy Garcia is waving a gun.

I eventually boarded and scoped out my car, number 16. It was about half full and I seemed to be one of two people without gray hair. The other was an Agitated Hipster yelling on his phone. I figured he must have been on the no-fly list. I took my assigned window seat. A few minutes later, a man in a tweed blazer complete with elbow pads and a very impressive mustache sat down next to me. We nodded and said hi to each other. He immediately pulled out the NY Times and proceeded to destroy the crossword like Drago destroyed Apollo. He housed that crossword, he really did. I kept looking at his paper out of the corner of my eye, trying to figure out one damn clue before him but it was useless. I wondered if he could sense me looking on but of course I was too stealthy. He was like a Jeff Foxworthy from a Royal Tenenbaums universe.

For the next hour or two, I had a great view of rundown storefronts, some awful graffiti and some dumpsters. I went for a stroll. As I was walking, I heard an announcement over the intercom. A man named Pierre said “Hellooo everybody, hope you are enjoying your Amtrak Starlight EXPERIENCE so far and I wanted to remind you that I am in the dining car and we are now taking appointments for lunch. Someone will come through your car so please choose a time slot and I look forward to meeting you in person.” I didn’t like Pierre. He sounded like he was trying to suppress his accent. I wish he would’ve embraced his Frenchness and come full on like Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille. I reminded myself that he probably had to stick to a script as per his job demands.


I walked though car after car and what seemed like waves and waves of old people. Each car seemed more quiet than the last. Except for Pierre. This clown kept up his schtick not for an hour, but for HOURS. He kept up the reminders to sign up for a slot for lunch and then for the coup de grace, Pierre kept announcing who was due for lunch every 15 minutes complete with updates on who was late. He had become the most hated Frenchman of my life by voice alone.  At one point, between announcements 65 and 85, he came on the intercom sounding embarrassed and thoroughly defeated “…Uh…Ladies and gentleman…I’m so sorry…It’s me Pierre again…from the dining car…truly sorry to bother you all but…Larry, you’re 2:45 lunch appointment has come and gone, it is now 3:20 and we’re still waiting for you so feel free to come by Larry…better late than never heh heh…once again, I do apologize…” I decided I would not visit the dining car on principle. My two halves of a sandwich would have to suffice.

Getting back to my car, I told Foxworthy I was moving seats in order to give us both more room. He barely lifted an eyelid as he marked up his crossword with cryptic hieroglyphics that I didn’t bother trying to decipher. Get er done, stranger. I sat down and looked out the windows again. The windows were nice in that they were large, I would guess 5 feet in height and the entire length of the train. What wasn’t nice is that you can never open your windows on trains here. The number one thing I miss about trains in India is the open windows. Although they’re smaller there, you get the smells and you get the breeze through those windows. That’s three senses being turned on as opposed to one.

The train ran along the coast now. Sand and waves took turns coming up beneath my window as I listened to Ratatat by Ratatat. Cherry, specifically. We were now in Santa Barbara. The sun shone through slivers in the clouds and it was drizzling. I ate a sandwich. The drizzle gave way to rain from time to time and I looked out on the surfers getting wet from all sides. We came to a stop. Someone other than Pierre introduced themselves and told us we would be here for 15 minutes. I got off for some fresh air.

Santa Barbara. The one from the soap opera.

I stepped off the iron horse and I was surrounded by cigarette smokers hitting their stoges harder than Foxworthy hit his crossword. I noticed a lot of hippies. One dude had hair down to his ass, hemp bag, the whole kit and caboodle. I listened to a song and decompressed. I was daydreaming when I saw this girl with huge eyes sort of wave at me. I waved back but all I could hear was Clipse in my ears. For some reason, I don’t know why, she unnerved me. Not in the way every girl unnerves me, she was different. Bad vibes. I think it was the way she wore her shawl – I got a sudden jolt and remembered Roy Hobbs meeting a girl on the train in “The Natural“. They hit it off. And then she shot him. I finished my song, got back on the train and sat behind Foxy again.

I sat and wondered if I had jumped the gun on “The Natural” connection, was I being paranoid? Since when am I paranoid? Is it wrong to distrust someone because they look eerily similar to a murderer in a movie? At that moment, some girl sat next to my crossword-ing friend. He didn’t even look up. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and Hemp Bag was standing there with his girl. “Hey dude, like, I hate to bug you man, I didn’t even know Amtrak did assigned seating, but you’re sitting in my seat. I hate the whole thing man but I guess I should sit in my seat. I just don’t wanna deal with any drama later.”  Too true and well said. I got up for them but now this redheaded dame was sitting in my old seat. Foxy took it upon himself and before I could say anything, he said to her bereft of emotion “You’re sitting in his seat.” Perhaps it was his delivery but she took offense to it and said “This is MY SEAT.” She said it as if she had given birth to it instead of just sitting there seconds earlier. I explained to her the who, what and where. She said she wanted Amtrak to tell her to move. I grabbed my bag and went to the back of the car.

The back was completely empty. I wondered why I hadn’t sat there the whole time. I opened up my *Brownie* and waited for my life on the rails to get even better. It did. Soon I had forgotten about the red-headed stepchild and I was looking out the windows ON BOTH SIDES while listening to Band of Gypsys.  Feet up, swag UP.  At some point, Red brought the conductor to me and said her piece. I didn’t even bother switching off the music. I waved them off and said “No big deal”,  “It’s all good” et cetera. Red walked away and the conductor gave me the look as in the look that says “God. What a tool.” I rolled my eyes appropriately. Happy as a clam, I seemed to be winning all my little battles on this train.

Sunset was somewhere over some mountains. I looked out upon it all and wished I had some of those Andes mints. Do they still make those? Darkness came. I switched off the music and decided to watch Mad Men. I was flying high and ready for some witty barbs from Draper, Sterling and the boys. The episode turned out to be one of my all time favorites (“Waldorf Stories“) and I was feeling unstoppable now. I took off my headphones and Pierre was asking about someone again. This time, I laughed at him for a good five minutes and decided to sign up for a dinner slot simply so I could make him call on me endlessly too. I filled out the form and gave it to the conductor. I used my favorite alias for such situations, Mbubu. It’s pronounced mmm-bu-bu, NOT muh-bu-bu. I wondered how Pierre would react to such a name. It had stumped the girl at Panera but maybe French people are more exposed to exotic names than Americans? I would find out.

I was standing by the bathrooms downstairs when the train came to a stop. I stepped out into the dark and the girl with the shawl was standing there again. This time, I handled that sh*t with aplomb. “Oh hey! I saw you earlier heh heh.” She asked me how I was finding the train ride. I said “Oh, it’s quite a splendid machine”. That dumb joke went right over her head but she didn’t turn out to be the threat I anticipated. We made small talk and then I got back on the train all the while trying to spy which car she was going to. Shawl girl wouldn’t surprise me again.

I was holding court in the back of the 16 car when I decided to spice up the party. *Brownie* number two. Don’t mind if I do. I gazed outside while listening to tunes, the most therapeutic thing I can do for myself. Some Rolling Stones, I think it was. It should have been, anyway. At some point I listened to You Can’t Always Get What You Want and that choir seemed to fill up the whole damn train.

I lost track of time.

KTX Seats in Korea

I thought of the KTX train in Korea and how pleasant a ride it had been. The seats were a burgundy felt that I loved. It relaxed me on sight, it really did. Plus, every half hour, give or take, a beautiful immaculately dressed Korean girl would enter your car, bow, and walk a cart full of snacks right by you. She would reach the back door, bow and leave. Easily one of the best snack presentations I’ve ever witnessed. I would have squealed in delight if that had happened at that moment in the middle of the California night.

The entire vibe of the train had become different. No more vistas. No more views and definitely no more views of the vistas. No more people, it seemed. All was quiet and dim. We had been on the train for 10 hours and due to delays, I had another 4 to go. I put on Drugstore Cowboy. It’s in my personal top 40 movies of all time. First time I saw it, I gave Matt Dillon and Gus Van Sant a lifetime pass for that one. However, being all brownied up and watching that movie on a 3 inch screen disoriented me a bit.  Suddenly I was hungry and the silence in the train struck me as very odd. I hadn’t had a real meal all day and so it was I asked the conductor why Pierre wasn’t making any announcements for dinner. She said dinner had ended an hour ago. Hmmm. Could Pierre have chickened out and refused to even try to pronounce Mbubu? Did he call Mbubu and I didn’t hear him? Could he have called on Mbubu only for me to forget that was my alias? I don’t have the answer.

I had the munchies now and I wandered off in search of some grub. Upstairs was crazy, the length of the cars seemed to get longer. And wider. Or narrower. It was like that Virtual Insanity video by Jamiroquai but with old people moving around instead of furniture. I went downstairs and it was empty. And noisy. It was another world down there. The humming sound of the train on the rails echoed off the walls and restroom doors that stretched on the length of the whole car. Every ten seconds or so, there was the semi-loud crash of the chains between the cars. I grabbed a pole to keep my balance. For a second it felt like this.

Wait, is this car 16?

I scrambled back to my seat. My mind could have outrun the train at that moment. Thoughts of the train rides I had been on. Faces and landscapes. Conversations with strangers. Trains from Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Berlin, Seoul to Busan, New York to Boston, Bangalore to Madras. And now, Los Angeles to Oakland. I was nearing the homestretch. I listened to every song I had about trains or the songs with ‘train’ in the title at least. There was “This Train” by Bob Marley. There was “Stop the Train” by Peter Tosh. There were others but it seemed like musicians only used trains as a metaphor. I thought of a song my mom used to sing when I was a kid, “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone, you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.”  At least that was about a train.  By the 14th hour, I was exhausted. I laughed at how the flight for the same distance was 45 minutes AND cheaper. Still, given the same choice, I’d take the train again. What was it about the rails? It was something about time. Not saving it, but savoring it. And space. And leisure. A completely different vibe from flying and a different purpose too. And then I realized that one of my all time favorite songs captures the spirit of a train ride better than I’ll ever be able to.

Never saw it as the start
It’s more a change of heart
Rapping on the windows, whistling down the chimney pot
Blowing off the dust in the room where i forgot
I laid my plans in solid rock
Stepping through the door like a troubadour whiling just an hour away
Looking at the trees on the roadside feeling it’s a holiday
You and i should ride the coast
And wind up in our favourite coats just miles away
Roll a number, write another song like
Jimmy heard the day he caught the train

He sipped another rum and coke- and told a dirty joke
Walking like groucho sucking on a number 10
Rolling on the floor with the cigarette burns walked in
I miss the crush and i’m home again
Stepping through the door with the night in store whiling just an hour away,
Step into the sky and the star-bright feeling it’s a brighter day

You and i should ride the coast
And wind up in our favourite coats just miles away
Roll a number, write another song like
Jimmy heard the day he caught the train

You and i should ride the tracks
And find ourselves just wading through tomorrow
But you and I when we’re coming down
We’re only getting back
and You know I feel the sorrow

We’ve got the whole wide world !

When you find that things are getting wild, Don’t you want days like these

When you find that things are getting wild, Don’t you want days like these

When you find that things are getting wild, Don’t you need days like these

When you find that things are getting wild, Don’t you want days like these, like these!

One response to “The Day I Caught the Train.”

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