Three Men and a Lady Have Breakfast on the Train

San Antonio to Chicago, Texas Eagle, Train No. 22

Train dining carThe cars in the parking lot had their headlights on when I boarded the train. With a new day rising, I was hungry for a train breakfast. The Texas Eagle has a Sightseer Lounge where passengers can get snacks, sandwiches and drinks. Nothing there appealed to me. Most of the food was wrapped in plastic. The train also has a full meal service dining car. When I arrived for breakfast every table was empty except for one, where three men sat. They were on the younger side of middle age. A service attendant escorted me to this table. One of the men had already received his meal and was eating when I sat down. They did not know each other. Each was traveling solo.

Some passengers complain about this arrangement of being seated with strangers. Not me. Sharing a meal brings people together – people who may not have the chance or inclination to sit down with each other in any other circumstance. I liken it to making up a foursome in golf. It’s usually a pleasant time on the golf course with whomever you are joined to play with. The same holds true for meals on a train.

Passenger train traveler

Dining car breakfast with Curt, who grew up in Texas.

The man sitting across from me was wearing a cap with the letters USMC on it. He was a former marine traveling to Bloomington, Illinois, where he lives with his grandmother. His name is Curt. He said he traveled around the world while in the marines, but never mentioned any of the places he had been. Of his grandmother he said, “I’m trying to keep her out of a Home.”

He drove his grandmother’s car down to Texas to give it to his niece. “She’s studying archeology. That girl is smart. She’s going to be somebody some day.” His gloating over his niece made me think he had no children of his own. When I asked what he did for a living he mumbled, “Different jobs. Remodeling.” He appeared quiet for someone who had been a marine and grew up in Texas.

Sitting next to Curt was Steve. He works in a photography lab in Kansas City, Missouri. He was returning from a conference at the Gonzales Center in San Antonio. He flew there but chose to take the train back. “I was able to walk from conference to the Amtrak station so it worked out well,” he said.

Our conversation turned to politics and government. Steve said he was leaning towards voting for Ted Cruz. (This was before Cruz dropped out of the 2016 Presidential race.) “There are just too many laws inhibiting our free

Rail passenger Steve

Steve was taking the train back to Missouri after attending a conference.

dom and blocking business growth,” he complained. Curt nodded his head in agreement.

The man sitting beside me spoke up. “Your political system confuses me,” he said with a pronounced British accent. “I mean what do delegates do? Isn’t it supposed to be one person, one vote?” The Americans shook their heads. His name is Peter. He was taking the train to Chicago to catch a flight back to London.

“Why did you choose Texas to travel to?” I asked Peter.

“I’ve been vacationing at the Silverleaf Hill Country Resort for four weeks. It’s 50 miles from the Amtrak station but I’ve got my bike with me and rode the distance.”

“Four weeks vacation!” Steve exclaimed. “I didn’t take any vacation last year.”

“I don’t understand that either,” Peter said. “I was talking with a taxi driver here and he told me he didn’t have the money to travel to Europe. I told him to travel during the off season, as I do.”

Peter was not a jetsetter. He was a warehouse worker who bought a timeshare vacation in Indonesia through RCI, a worldwide exchange network. He trades off his time to visit places such as Texas. He packs his bike in a suitcase and brings it with him. “I’m sure to get where I need to go. I ride my bike 15 miles to work everyday. It keeps me in shape for my trips,” he said.

Train traveler Peter

Peter packed his bike on a train to tour Texas.

Our train breakfast arrived at a staggered pace with no aroma to whet our appetites. The service attendant never spoke. He slid the plates in front us one at a time. As we ate we talked about politics, property taxes, crime and healthcare. Peter seemed satisfied with the system he lived and worked under. Maybe he was being polite. Curt and Steve were disgruntled. “Property taxes are too high. It’s no way to fund schools,” said Curt. “Healthcare is still too expensive,” said Steve. We didn’t bother to discuss the food. My eggs were tasteless. The croissant was good. The crew lingered a few seats away.

The service attendant handed only me a bill. The three men had sleeper car accommodations so their meals were included in the ticket price. After our conversation ended, we headed in different directions. I wouldn’t see them again.

When back in my seat I felt the mood in America was changing. Who knows what the American dream is anymore? I looked outside as we passed a row of small wood houses with a pickup truck parked in every other driveway. A church steeple towered up like an exclamation point to the sky. Shiny red tractors under a tent waited for buyers.




My Return Train Trip With Two Romani Gypsies

San Antonio to Chicago, Texas Eagle, Train No. 22
Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

I like places where my senses feel at ease. The lovely, historic Menger Hotel served as a respite while I visited San Antonio during its annual Fiesta celebration. The parades, street food, people and music were invigorating. I relished the museums and sitting along the San Antonio River outside of the Riverwalk. Near the Blue Star Arts district turtles rested on the river’s banks. Black birds cawed in the trees that offered shade from the hot sun.

Train travel is like that for me. Whatever is going on elsewhere, I feel suspended in time and at peace while inside this tubular vessel. That’s how my return train trip to Chicago began. When I learned that the two men who sat down near me were Romani Gypsies, my pensive mood was jolted by curiosity.

They wandered into the car carrying bags and blankets. They hesitated about which seats to sit in. “This car is cooler. Let’s stay in here,” the man with a mustache said to the other. He took the seat in front of me and the other man in a faded blue jean jacket sat across from him. They looked to be in their early fifties with bronzed skin, dark eyes and silver sideburns.

Their slapstick actions and petty arguments with each other made me think of the jesters in an opera. But my thoughts about them changed. They dropped their belongings, some of which were carried in black garbage bags, onto the vacant seats and floor. Once they were settled in, they spoke to each other in a language I was not familiar with. I tried hard to decipher it.

Rambling on the rails

The man in the blue jean jacket started playing music out loud from his cell phone. The other turned his phone on to a radio talk show. When the Conductor came by, he indicated to the men that they should use earphones. They turned the volume down, but when the Conductor passed they raised it again. They continued broadcasting their selected radio stations as if it were some sort of competition between the two of them.

A phone rang. I heard the mustached man seated in front of me say in English, “Give me a month. You’ll have the money. I’m buying that red truck. This train is much better than the bus. Saved some money. I will be in St. Paul via Chicago on Monday. We may go on to Iowa then back to Florida because of my lungs.” He ended the conversation saying, “I try to be a good Christian, but the obstacles keep coming.”

Texas freight trainWe had a twenty-minute layover at a station stop so I went in to buy some food. I was nearing the front of a long line when I saw the two men. I learned the mustached man’s name is Michael. Upon his request, I bought them a pack of smokes with a $10 bill they gave me. “You can keep the change and buy yourself a cup of coffee,” Michael said. I gave him the change. He was born in Waco, Texas. He and his cousin, Allen, were traveling to Minnesota to find blacktop work. Allen was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and seemed lost without Michael there to make decisions. I wasn’t sure where they were living but they got on the train in Ft. Worth. I asked them what language they were speaking.

“Romani Gypsy,” Michael said.

“We’re the only nation without a flag,” said Allen.

Romani people flag

International flag of the Romani people.

“No,” Michael corrected him. “We got a flag.” He told me the Romani Gypsies’ country of

origin is India. I quickly looked it up on Wikipedia and Michael was right about the flag and the country of origin. An estimated one million Romani people live in the United States.

Leaving, yet holding the past

We talked more when we returned to the train. Allen admitted to being a womanizer in the past. He called his first wife “a good woman.” A silver chain bracelet was wrapped around his wrist. He read off and on from the Bible. When in the morning Allen couldn’t find his Bible, he began to panic. He questioned each passenger on whether they had seen it.

The Conductor entered the car and Allen pleaded with him for help. The conductor asked him, “Did you have anything in it?’

“My whole life,” Allen replied. Minutes later he found it beneath the seat behind him and opened it to read. I think the Bible reading marked the beginning of his day even while on the train.

Texas Eagle train travel passengers

Michael and Allen on the Texas Eagle

Allen slept a lot but it was Michael who seemed tired. Tired of questions, tired of trying, tired of chasing the next buck. “The reason why we’re poor,” he blurted, “is because we’re trying to do what’s right.” As we approached Chicago he allowed me to take their picture but only if he could take my picture as well.

During the 32-hour train trip from San Antonio to Chicago, it was Allen who gave me a language lesson in Romani Gypsy.

Sar son means how are you.” I repeated the words and he smiled.

Kushti means good.”

“Kusthti,” I said.

Pakvora – beautiful.”

Allen’s choice of words told me that for all the hardships he and Michael were facing, they remained optimistic. Another thing we had in common – they both love the British singer, Adele.

Seeing Texas By Train With a Blind Man

Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Amtrak station at Marshall, Texas

Marshall, Texas train station

Morning began with a suggestive gray light. Then the sun streaked the horizon with turquoise, crimson and carrot-colored orange. Having passed through parts of Missouri and Arkansas at night, we were entering the state of Texas. Pastures for grazing, bounded by fences, had replaced open Midwest cropland.

I sipped a two-dollar cup of coffee and listened as the conductor made a good morning announcement: “Welcome to those who boarded overnight. A safety instruction card is available at your seat describing emergency exits. Shoes must be worn. Escort your children at all times. The rest rooms are in the lower level. No smoking. Next stop, Marshall, Texas.”

My hunch that everything would be big in Texas was immediately put to rest as we passed the Piney Woods of East Texas. The young woman seated behind me complained to her boyfriend, “These pine trees are skinny, not like the ones we have in Michigan.”

This is what Texas looked like to me from the train – Head Hunters taxidermy, fireworks stores, green pastures, Route 80, Valero gas station, Coastal hay for sale, BBQ, peach tree orchards, Southwestern Christian College.

In the dining car I was seated with a man named Ed. He couldn’t see any of what Texas looked like because he lost his eyesight at the age of nine. He was with his Golden Retriever service dog and a woman named Bo, who was his wife.  His dog laid down under the table on my feet. “I hope he isn’t bothering you.” A dog owner myself I assured him, “Not at all.”

Texas telephone towersEd’s sunglasses wrapped around his eyes past his temples. They were not dark glasses, but gray colored. “When I called Amtrak the first woman I talked with said I could travel with my dog. The next woman said she wasn’t sure, but when I got here they let me on.”

The couple had traveled by train from Cleveland to San Antonio then back to Austin. From there they were making their way to Tucson. Friends had told them to come visit in the spring before the weather got too hot. They talked of their other trips – to Europe and the Middle East. I was curious and asked Ed, “So much of travel is visual. How do you describe where you’ve been?”

“I think visually,” he said. “I love to design stuff. When traveling I might recollect what it felt like. There’s a spatial quality to places. I remember certain smells and sounds, including music. I know if the people are friendly or not.“

A second marriage for both of them, they exchanged wedding vows in Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I asked.

“Because of its role in establishing a training school for guide dogs,” Ed said. Bo talked about the beauty of the country and the people.

Blind man riding the rails

Ed and Bo on the Texas Eagle

I asked if I could take their picture. The man who had no idea what I looked like, only what I sounded like, removed his sunglasses and posed with the same vanity we all do. Bo smiled broadly; confident she had found a gem of a man.

I went back to my seat and shut my eyes. I wanted to experience the train ride in the way Ed might. The rumble beneath my seat sounded like two people on a treadmill running in unison. Above me a whisper of air circulated. My shoulders rested between the wings of the chair. Its polyester fabric pin-pricked my skin. I heard the crinkling sound of a package being opened and then smelled a whiff of potato chips. A lawyer talked on his phone incessantly.

I put my ear buds on and listened to Van Morrison sing Bright Side of the Road, then Bonnie Raitt, I Will Not Be Broken, and The Lumineers singing Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. My eyes-closed session ended with Sheryl Crow and Sting singing Always on Your Side. At will, my eyes opened to the sights of Texas. And it was amazing.