Dolly in the Snack Car, Okie J.R. Are Memories of Traveling on Amtrak

I traveled frequently with my family while growing up, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered the pleasures of traveling alone. I use the term “”alone”” loosely; I wasn’t traveling with people I knew, but I was meeting people all the time. The people I met on the road were all very interesting to talk to.

Over winter break, I embarked on a train trip that took me across the United States and Canada. When I wasn’t sleeping on the train, I was sleeping in hostels. I have since fallen in love with these forms of traveling, primarily because they foster social interaction.

Trains and hostels are more interesting, stimulating and dollar-saving than the usual hotels and airplanes. Airplanes are filled with people traveling on business. They enter, sit and basically don’t get up until arrival. Sure it’s quick, but if I have the time, I would prefer to see the country. Hostels, like trains, are another great place to meet people. Strangers eat together, they drink together and talk with each other.

My first trip on Amtrak came at the end of last summer, when I spent two months in Chicago. Being a native of Chicago, I have flown between Chicago and San Diego several times a year since I was 4 years old. It was time to ditch flying and really see what lay between the two cities.

I set out on a Tuesday afternoon, and almost immediately met a guy named J.R. I was somewhat scared of him, as I later found out he had done time in San Quentin. But when I told him I was going to Oceanside, Calif., he got excited.

He left Oceanside years ago to get away from his drug problem, stopped in Oklahoma, where his truck ran out of gas, and has lived there ever since.

The drug problem explained his San Quentin time, but it was obvious to me that the problem wasn’t entirely behind him. He once grimaced in pain while sitting down because he had a pipe in his back pocket. Not a tobacco pipe. “”Oops, you didn’t see that,”” he said to me as he moved it to his front pocket. I did see it, and later when he came out of the smoking lounge with some other people, I could tell that they had put the pipe to use.

I was surprised that someone would do such a thing on a train, but there was little doubt as to what had happened. They came out very amused at the most mundane things. Corn fields were entertaining to them. Train life was beginning to entertain me.

Often I am most interested in talking to train personnel. Apparently I am not the only one, as they seem to have heard many of my questions a thousand times before. I now know where the crew sleeps, how well they sleep, how their shifts are scheduled, what their favorite routes are and why, how fast the train travels, and even how often people commit suicide by lying on the rails. I found it a very interesting life, and so did many of them. I also found that not all Amtrak employees enjoy their jobs.

This winter, I traveled to Seattle, riding coach on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. There were plenty of drunks on this two-day trip. Many started drinking in Los Angeles and didn’t stop until Dolly the snack car attendant closed the bar completely, much to everyone’s dismay.

Some guys called her a bitch, almost in front of her face, and while I thought they were rude, they weren’t that far off: I tried to start a conversation with her by asking her how her day was and it didn’t go well. She wasn’t having a particularly bad day, it was almost like any other, she said. She hated her job. She sold snacks and drinks all day, and no, traveling wasn’t an interesting aspect of her job. It got old after four months, and that was 17 years ago.

She advised me to pick a career I truly enjoy and told me her life was a sad story of someone who didn’t do that. I felt sorry for her and after talking to her over a two-day period I began to understand that she was having a rough time with the drunks on the trip. When she found out I was a writer, she told me I could write a book about the people on our trip, calling them the worst group of people she had seen in over six months.

Little did she know I would end up writing about her. If any of you are ever on the Coast Starlight, seek Dolly out in the snack car and make some small talk with her. She’s an interesting person and needs someone to talk to.

On the last leg of my winter journey, I spoke briefly with another interesting character, a former psychic reader. She wasn’t a true reader, but a former phone operator. She said she initially wanted to be a phone sex operator, but got talked into being a psychic.

Claiming to have experienced deja vu was all it took for her to get hired as a qualified reader. I didn’t ask her to “”read”” me, but I watched her do a “”psychic reading”” on another passenger. She explained why she said what she said and it all seemed very logical, as she was trained to pick up on little hints from people and work her psychic magic from there. It was all very fascinating.

The interesting people that I have met during my train and hostel travels are almost too numerous to count: the owner of an Internet company in Amsterdam, a widow whose husband was a big-time editor for a Toronto newspaper, a student from Hungary, a bartender from Scotland, and a man who, as a baby, was allegedly held by William Faulkner.

Inevitably, the discussions would turn to cultural differences. I discussed music in the United States compared to music in Britain and the Netherlands. I explained several times to several people how our nation’s electoral college functions. I also learned a lot about the attitudes Canadians have about Americans. Apparently I don’t “”sound like an American.”” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but assumed it was a personal compliment from Canadians.

These experiences have taught me the value of traveling alone and the value of alternate modes of travel. It seems that people who ride trains and sleep in hostels are of a different class than those who rush through airports and check into Hiltons. They are often working-class people, and I think that is what makes them interesting. They are not uppity or snobbish. I may travel by myself, but with this crowd, I will never be alone.

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