{ This Mobile Microcosm }
Adam Vrbanic
photo by Patrice Lehockey

train tracksMuch like gastronomy and childrearing, train-travel is an art whose practice is too time-consuming, its pleasures too simple, and its dividends too subtle, for the warp-speed, instant-gratification lifestyle of most Americans. In all fairness, perhaps The United States isn't the ideal environment for trains; an expansive country, an inefficient rail system, and the relatively low cost of air fair certainly don't add to the allure.
   With no metal detectors, no reading of maps, and surprisingly spacious seating, trains provide the kind of hassle-free journey that simply begs for personal exploration and transcendental reflection. As a testimony to the enlightening powers of the rail, my journal from a recent trip to a New York City quietly but expediently recuperating:

9:09 a.m.Red-eyed and restless, I watch the unassuming buildings of downtown Pittsburgh back slowly and quietly away. The sun is shining in a brazenly seductive way that inspires both lust and melancholy in one who is trapped inside a moving train. At this ungodly hour, the voice issuing from the train's P.A. system is devastatingly loud and seems to drone on endlessly (while at first I'm inclined to attribute the excessive volume to some sort of minor technical error, I later discover, during a trip to the food car, that it comes as a result of the fact that the train stewardess is FUCKING SCREAMING into the microphone). According to the train captain, our particular train has a maximum speed of 79 mph. While I have no real way of knowing, I'm pretty sure that we won't break the 40 mph mark at any time during this epic eleven-hour trip.

10:01 a.m.During our stop in the small, peaceful town of Greensburg, Pa. (home of the legendary Red Star Brewery), a group of twenty mentally retarded adults are led onto the train. Though forced to abandon all hope of sleep, I'm also excited for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to test out the age-old proverb "There's nothing more fun than a train-car full of retards." (The author, who happens to have a mentally disabled uncle, obviously recognizes the morally reprehensible nature of this sentence. He can't, however, help having thought it, although he might one day grow to be mature enough not to find it amusing.) The entire group is predictably well-behaved, and their total absorption in the train-riding process is infectious, inspiring me to pay greater attention to the scenes passing slowly outside the window.

11:41 a.m.A young woman who bears a striking, and, frankly, disconcerting resemblance to John Leguizamo takes the seat next to me. Though we exchange nary a word, and she falls asleep almost instantly, I am for some reason struck by the strange feeling that she's angry with me.

1:16 p.m.Hungry again, I wander back to the food car. My conversation with the Screaming Stewardess goes something like the following:

Me: I'll have a veggie burger, please.
Me: I'll have a veggie burger, please.
S.S.: OH, O.K.

   The veggie burger, following a short tenure in the train microwave, is volcanically hot and has the consistency of wet papier-mâché. The Heineken that I buy to wash it down is decidedly more satisfying.

4:11 p.m.The landscape is bathed in beautiful golden sunlight. Majestic, really. Amber waves of things everywhere. Even John Leguizamo begins to take on a certain golden charm. A few of the many wondrous golden-sunlight-bathed things that I see along the way:
   • Weather-beaten barns whose faded tones work perfectly as a somber counterpoint to the bright autumnal trees that surround them (if only we all might die such a proud and colorful death).
   • Ponies chasing and nipping at each other. If you've never witnessed it, believe me, ponies really will do this sort of thing. Once, in high school, I saw about thirty deer engaged in what appeared, for all practical purposes, to be a game of deer-tag. Whether ponies and deer will eventually respond to forced integration in nip-and-chase-related activities is left to speculation.
   • Rusty cars. Some of these alloyed cadavers are on blocks but not all, not all.
   • Glittering streams. Deciding on a verb for what streams do is not easy. Do they glitter? Do they sparkle? Do they shimmer? In the end I went with glitter, although I'm not really sure why.
   • Real live ducks and geese mixed indiscriminately in the front yards of trailers with plastic replicas of indiscriminately mixed geese and ducks.
   • Silos and water towers with town names or insipid phrases engrained on their sides
   • Sheds. Sheds galore. Oh the sheds.
   • The gratuitous use of boxcars for both decorative purposes and as practical architectural structures
   • Checkerboard crop formations
   • Closely cropped and aggressively green little-league baseball diamonds
   • Trees that look like pencil drawings of trees
   • The cold geometry of warehouses and industrial parks and factories
   • The occasional white birch that always reminds me of waking up on a train on the way to Prague, scared shitless because guards are pointing machine guns at me, but not altogether insensible of the beauty of the thick fog outside the windows.
   I fall into a deep reverie and am overcome by an intense fondness for the passing American landscape. I am moved to sing Bruce Springsteen songs about America and freedom and sparks leading to fires and of course trains and pickups and girls in jean cut-off shorts (sometimes called "Daisy Dukes," but not in these songs). When I run out of Boss songs, I reluctantly switch to John Cougar Mellencamp songs about summers and six-strings and losing one's virginity in the backseat of giant, predatory cars and heartbeats and America. Finally, in desperation, I even hum that one Bon Jovi song about working in a factory.

4:45 p.m.I begin to drink heavily. Around the fourth beer, I'm having no more of that screamy bitch's screamy ways. I begin to whisper my orders to her, seductively. Having obviously dealt with my kind before, she is unimpressed, and maintains her banshee's wail throughout.

5:31 p.m.Trenton, N.J., has a giant neon sign that covers most of one side of a train bridge that says "TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES", without punctuation or anything. I am struck by Trenton's selfless self-sacrifice. Trenton, N.J., is the world's martyr. I'm reminded of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, where a tree is stripped down to a stump as a young boy grows into a man and takes the tree's wood for whatever selfish purposes he sees fit. The tree ostensibly gives of itself willingly and even happily, but even as a small child I recognized that the tree got the raw end of the deal.
   I come to the sudden and overwhelming realization that The Giving Tree is an allegory for parenthood. I'm pretty messed up for a few minutes.

6:38 p.m.In an attempt to stay awake, I introduce myself to the young man sitting next to me (who replaced John Leguizamo some time ago). Through means largely unremembered by me, we enter into a long and complex discussion on the Canadian health-care system and the prospect of reform in the United States. Though I speak with confidence, it's obvious that I'm drunk and have little idea what I'm talking about. The young man, astute beyond his years, easily recognizes all of this, but is polite enough to pretend that he doesn't. He gives me a Noam Chomsky book that I will mistakenly give to my ex-girlfriend under the ridiculous auspices that she will someday read it.

7:36 p.m.My train arrives.

back home.