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