It’s 3:15 am. I walk up to the kiosk, which does not tell me if I can retrieve all of my USA rail pass tickets. There is an animation loop of instructions to slide an Amtrak card. Negative. And then a piece of paper with a barcode. Perhaps. I do, indeed, have a barcode to scan, but which barcode qualifies?
A lady is inside the ticket booth. She is on the phone.
“Excuse me…” I reluctantly interrupt. She acknowledges my presence.
I attempt to proceed with my question, but she says, “I can’t help you right now; I’ll take you at 3:30.”
“Can I get my USA rail pass from the kiosk?”
“No. I’ll take care of you at 3:30. You leaving today?”
“You shoulda came ahead of time in case there are problems. You got both reservation numbers? The payment reservation number and the trip one are separate.”
“Yes ma’am, I believe I do.”
“I’ll take you at 3:30.”
Fifteen minutes later, I am back in front of her. I hand her a sheet of paper and point out both numbers.
“No, I need that one. That’s more important.”
She processes my tickets. I wait patiently and hope there are no problems. I briefly imagine if there is a delay, how my entire itinerary for the next month will be shot. I try to keep faith in her competency, but my hands are left to a nameless older woman with bleached hair, chipped red nail polish, and reeks of stale cigarettes. My train leaves in an hour.
She finishes. “Sign here.” She staples a bunch of tickets in one ticket sleeve. “Word of advice…” She leans closer on one elbow. “Keep your train tickets separate from your pass. You can’t get your pass replaced. And if you have any change of plans, call ahead of time. Don’t get stranded at a place where no ticket booths are open. I’ll board you at 4:20.”
I express gratitude and ask, “I should wait here?” She nods.
There are two types of people here: people down on their luck needing to get to a place, which may or may not have the answers. A young son being sent off to his mother. A vietnamese man who occasionally curses and kicks up his legs with agitation, has no luggage but one box labeled, “farm vegetables.” There are those who haven’t showered in a while. One who smells like a colony of mildew has taken over, keeps pacing back and forth. There is a deaf man at the ticket booth attempting to get information for several minutes. No one seems to understand. I wonder why he doesn’t write down his question. Other passengers are getting frustrated: “C’mon man, we gotta get our tickets.”
The others are easily identified as transients. An asian guy with large shoes, a bookbag, and a bicycle. A caucasian boy with similar attire sits on the floor and eats his breakfast. A young Caucasian girl dressed professionally with only a bookbag stands behind me in line to board. We have the same haircut. We are both busy with our Blackberry phones.
I am clumsy with my bookbag, rolling luggage, and food bag. There are escalators, and my shit is heavy. I instantly envy the backpackers, the transients who have been at this longer. If only I didn’t have to be prepared for everything: all US temperate climates–arid desert, humid subtropic, oceanic–then perhaps I would have packed lighter.
I’m the third in line to get on the train. A short conductor waves me to come closer then tells me to move down to the next train where I was headed in the first place.
I get settled on the right side of the train, facing forward, right behind the young professional. There are plenty of open seats. I heave my carry-on overhead and again regret the weight of it. It’s small but packed solid to the seams.
A black guy in sweatpants sits across the aisle. He watches me as I rummage through my laptop bookbag and take out an mp3 player and a thick anthology for my Honors Freshman Composition course. I brought it along so that I can work on the syllabus. He takes out a book as well.
The short, mustached conductor comes by to collect tickets. He is stapling and tearing sheets and punch-holing and sticks pink tickets above our seats. He studies mine and says, “I need your rail pass.”
I say, “I was told to put that away,” as I dig into my laptop bag.
He continues, “And an ID. I’ll be back.”
A minute later he returns, studies my pass and ID, scrunches up his face to pronounce my last name, “Aeh-yes?”
“Aeh-yes?” I nod. Close enough. I pass. He walks away and returns a few minutes to stick a pink ticket above my seat.
I sleep for a couple of hours and see parts of Illinois farmland and intermittent yet ubiquitous small towns.
I’ll get better at preparing.