Trainventure: Some Character Sketches

I recently took a vacation that was supposed to be a train writing adventure: Austin → Chicago → Seattle, get to Olympia, then again on a train to LA and from there back to Austin. My goals were:

  1. Finish a couple of stories
  2. Get some train experience for my writing
  3. Write a piece entirely on the train

12829496_10153794963230813_1653401339937989656_oThis… Did not go as planned. My PTSD precludes sleeping on moving vehicles unless I’m totally exhausted, and even then only for a couple or three hours max. I’ve known about cars and planes forever, but not trains. I figured they wouldn’t be an issue. I slept three hours en route to Chicago, then three 2-3 hour chunks as exhaustion allowed. The roomette (feels like closet) was just large enough for me — if I were 2″ shorter.

I was a zombie in Seattle, and in Olympia that night and the next day, although a good, hard sleep helped, but I was only operating at 80%.

774697_10153794963415813_744799248641000499_oThen I pulled a Shlomi, and realized Monday evening, after a day in Seattle and dinner with family back in Olympia, that I was supposed to be on a train Tuesday morning. I’d thought I had an additional day (me, not reading dates on ticket, oy!), and suddenly I realized that no, another four days of this and I’d be a zombie. So I canceled reservations and, in a fluster the next morning, just booked tickets for that day. Screwed up people’s plans to be with me, but, worst, left without having some more time with The Son. Stupid move on my part, driven, I see now, but exhaustion and wanting it all to stop (still felt like I was on a train even a day later). But I made the (bad decision). End of guilt trip. And by midnight Austin time I was back home, ready to enjoy several days of crazy jet lag, back pain, etc.


I finished one short story, at least to the point where I could start on the rewrite. Got the train experience sticker, and several character sketches that I’ll publish. and made some great progress on Shabbat Queen, which I’m rewriting for the nth time.

I’ll post more character sketches in the coming days; here are the ones from my Austin to Chicago leg:

Preacher Man

Leather right eye patch, right leather and metal leg brace, long brown hair past his shoulders and a full white beard almost as long. Felt Stetson (dimple on the top, flattish brim). Tightly crocheted yamulka covering 1/3 of his head. With all the other damage, I first thought maybe it was an artificial skull covering.

First I see of him is drinking a cup of coffee a little noon as we chug through the rain. He raises his covered cup. “It’s better with Bailey’s though.”

“So,” I say, after chatting about the semi vs. pickup accident three years back that brought his trucker career to an end (“I’m retired now. Time to drive around, and healthy enough to do it now that I got my truck set up so I can drive it with one leg. Just not the money to enjoy it.”): “Is that a yamulka?”


“You’re Jewish?”

“I’m a rabbi,” he declares. I hope I haven’t just given him a gimlet eye.

“Really? Where did you study? In a yeshiva?”


“Which one?”

“I studied scripture in Seguin.”

I bit off the next five things I want to say. This is going to be a long train trip, and he and I are forced company all the way up to St. Louis.


Later that evening I’m talking with Cal. “Wow,” she says excitedly, “I want to be Jewish.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because all I gots do is be good to others and be nice!”

The next twenty minutes are my attempts to put Judaism in a scope unrelated to Preacher Man’s Messianic delusions of Judaism. And it bugs me, even as I write this, that I’m having to defend a religion I don’t believe in from the god perspective from an evil parasite that would weaken it further. And embarrassed that I’m not confronting this shill on his lies. “Lies.” Feel the cognitive dissonance.

8:30 in the morning: after an hour-long breakfast “dining, we’re dining,” Cal says when I say hi, he’s sitting with them an hour later, tippling at a bottle of Bailey’s, sans coffee.


“Rain is for springtime,” she said. “It’s when everything comes back to life. But we can stop it if we do a sundance.”

“But it’s raining,” I said.

She takes a section of an orange and holds it up near the window. “See now it’s sunny out, we can do it!”

She’d appeared in the dining car the previous evening in full flapper mode, complete with hat, narrow, matching, eggplant-colored jacket over a dark purple top and a short pencil, but not fringed, skirt. Bright red hair, wide cheekbones and eyes a bit too wild to match the eyes. She works in a used book store, which, she says, gives her time to travel. Austin to Kansas City. But the Missouri side, not the Kansas side, she assures me. “It might be great for sunsets, but otherwise the Missouri side is better.”

Cal and Erin

Lesbian couple living in Michigan. They call each other their fiancée and plan on getting married “soon.”

Cal’s a black, 31-year-old woman with sport-style prescription glasses who lost 200 pounds after meeting Erin. She dresses in layers of clothing from neck down, still coyly disguising her (self-described) deflated figure.

Erin’s a curvy, outgoing woman (26) who confides that she’s got a bad case of shyness: she just can’t speak up in public. In one sentence she says she wants to work in particle physics and that she’ll never do it because she doesn’t have a degree. I try chivying around some assumptions. Afterwards Cal says “thanks for saying that: she doesn’t listen to me.” Then: “I’ve been working on her and you should have known her back then. Takes a village to build someone up, it does.”

Cal said “it’s great we’re both into boobs: it’s like we’re 13 year old boys!”

Meth Man

Taller than me, baggy jeans and maybe a pair or two more. Corduroy coat, a couple of t-shirts under a denim shirt. No teeth, flapping cheeks and wild eyes.

I walked past Cal and Erin later in the evening. “Oh thank you thank you thank you,” Erin says. “We thought he’d never leave.”

By morning he’d disappeared.

Mom & Daughter

25ish yo black woman in stretch pants with similarly attired 2yo daughter, who is smart, vivacious and outgoing if not very verbal. Mom is a chef, who started our conversation by talking about how much she needed to smoke, and how she would use the stroller hood so she could puff and how hard it was to smoke when it was raining out. When I said I was allergeric she said “what? Which are you allergic to?” “Both.” “Oh, wow,” she said, shaking her head. “Tough.”

When she was drunk later that evening she went circular on me for getting the best deals on travel by rail and chided me for paying too much, saying she was getting all the way up to Chicago for under $200 for them both, then the same to go from Canada down to Florida the next week and I needed to figure out to push them on prices and get discounts booking ahead or being part of the club. Much later that evening she and Cal and Erin were all talking at max volume with the daughter’s far overwrought tired whines as a counterpoint.

Pre-Navy Writer

First three time he walked past me I thought he was on the Autism spectrum. “Looks good,” he said, looking at my writing. 5’6”, intense, glasses. “Like the font,” the next time. When he settled down near me he showed me the laptop rest he fashioned from the back of a metal chair. Writes fan fiction, “but that’s not real writing. It’s all erotica,” he says. “Ever hear of Fallout 3? That’s where it’s at.” Lists several games. Seems nervous, discounts his writing. Talked to him about nanowrimo. Going into the Navy in May.

Retired Gummer

Retired 21 years ago, train lover. Took the train from Cairo to Alexandria with his son who’s a train buff because he is. Asked “so, you look like you know how to order meat. I don’t have any teeth – I mean, I’ve got dentures, but I don’t wear them. What’s the best way to order my meat so it’s easy to chew? I explained about aging and protein breakdown, but that medium would be the best for low quality meat. And wondered why I was the elected poobah for that. Also a self-taught computer guy, doing the apocryphal DOS->building computers to building them for family to linux guy. Self-effacing, polite, nice. Neatly trimmed beard/mustache, 5’4” hobbit-ish but balding, white hair.

Evie of the Trains

Black rubber boots, eminently practical, with a pink ribbon in pigtails in her dishwater blonde hair. A nose ring, pink cell phone charger cord. Piano pen case, a journal, three books, plastic bags. A rosy flush, possibly rosea, puts her age from anywhere from 17 to 25. Gray sweater tunic and stripy pink pants.

Tweed Couple

In their 70s, chatting while looking out the window. Woman mentions geospatial intelligence agency as they chat while downtown Springfield, IL passes by. Satisfied silences as they look at the window and occasionally continue the patter of a couple long familiar with one another and eminently comfortable with their silences.