A New York (NJ, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, GA, AL, MS) Minute, Part 1

I’m on a train. For 30 hours.
train ride

I’m sure the doctors had my best interests in mind when they told me not to fly for two months. “But I’m in love with a woman a thousand miles away,” I protested. They said something about my broken eye socket and something about the air pressure on planes and then something about wanting to avoid unnecessary surgery. I stopped protesting.

And so I found myself on long-assed train ride, 30 hours and 18 minutes if everything was on time. (We were an hour late pulling into our first stop. Everything was not going to be on time.) I am a patient person, and I enjoy quiet, personal entertainments like drooling on myself while sleeping, but I was a little nervous about sitting still for nearly the amount of time I spent in class my entire senior year of college.

But early on, despite the delay, I was settling into my sleeper compartment and having a good attitude about things, which is to say that despite the 3’6” width of the “roomette” I wasn’t having a claustrophobic panic attack. I also had 40 slices of Higgins prosciutto and a loaf of bread to keep me busy for about 10 minutes, but happy for much longer. I even extended a slice to share with my neighbor across the hall, hoping to make friends. He took it and thanked me kindly. Then he told me about how he had trouble fitting on the extra tiny train toilets. I thanked him for the information. We didn’t have much to say after that, having already covered both sides of the human relationship with food. It was an efficient friendship.

We rolled on in silence, the rocking causing the door to my toilet paper compartment to rattle, a jarring noise I started to grow irritated about until I looked out the window somewhere between Baltimore and Washington to see a bog, a display of different greens on still water that stunned me back into silence. Our country can be so beautiful, especially in places you don’t expect.

O.C. Smith is our cabin attendant. He’s a cool dude with an easy smile; been rocking the rails for 25 years despite early dreams of being a lawyer. “Bills got in the way,” he explained. He’s done about every job there is to be done on the train, except cook.

With a lull in between stations, we talked about the people he’s met on the job. Who are they? I asked him. Who rolls around on tracks when you can fly? I asked him who the regulars are, what’s the craziest story he’s come across. He looked at me with warmth and curiosity, as if he didn’t understand why I was asking him these things. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said slowly, and I got it. In 25 years of walking back and forth sleeper car cabins, you know he’s seen some interesting things. But he is an honorable man. He’s discreet. He’s not going to tell me anything. Except that dinner was being served in the dining car, which was good enough for me.

“Hey, O.C.,” I called to him as he turned away to get back to work. “What do your initials stand for?”

“Nothing. O.C. That’s my name.”

“C’mon. You’re kidding,” I said. He smiled and shook his head. “That’s just too damned cool.”

“Hey, that’s what it is,” he said. “Alright, I got to go. I’ll talk to you later, Baby.” He’s from Mississippi. Only Southerners are cool enough to call strangers—both men and women—“Baby” and be totally charming about it.

On my way to my seat earlier, I caught a glimpse of the dining car. There were flowers and cloths on the tables; an utterly civilized scene. I was psyched walking towards dinner, feeling a little bit like a boy play-acting, like when little kids get really advanced while playing House and start cooking instant ramen noodles.

Next week: An African woman with strong ideas on parenting, a baby with no mother, and a lawyer in love with tomato sandwiches.

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