(james benedict brown) on the road

Train #49

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 18 September, 2007

At about half past eleven on Sunday night, I was woken by an officer of the US Department of Homeland Security. He was leaning over my coach class seat on board Amtrak train 49 The Lake Shore Limited, and he wanted to see my papers.

The last time I took a trip with Amtrak was actually on this very same route, when I traveled from Montréal to Chicago back in January. That time I had left Montréal in the morning on the Adirondack, changing onto the Lake Shore in Schenectady, New York. This time I had come from Manhattan, and was several hours into the overnight trip from New York City to Chicago.

The Adirondack train is frequently delayed by tortuously slow border controls, when customs officers of the country that the train is entering board and inspect the papers and luggage of all the passengers. But since the Lake Shore remains well within the US for its entire journey (through the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) the only delays it usually encounters are caused by derailed or delayed freight trains on the busy tracks ahead. I found my passport and explained my presence in the US, and the officer seemed satisfied to let me go back to sleep.

The train was standing at the platform of Rochester station in upstate New York. Outside was nothing but a dark night punctuated by orange phosphorous lamps. Presumably the train had been stopped for a reason – a random check of papers in an increasingly paranoid nation? I imagined that of all the delays subjected to its trains, a check by the Department of Homeland Security was the least that Amtrak could do to avoid.

Across the aisle from me, another passenger was fumbling through his bags for a proof of his identity. The officer had moved forward to the next row of reclining seats to chat with a German backpacker. The officer told the young tourist that he had many happy memories of Germany. He’d apparently spent three years in “Free-burg”. The backpacker nodded, and said “ah, Frei-burg” to himself

By this time the passenger across the aisle from me had found his passport. I’d spent almost eight hours less than three metres from him, and we had not exchanged a word. I’d only really observed him in the first hour after we had left New York City, when the train rushed north along the eastern shore of the Hudson River. His silhouette is visible in a couple of photographs I’d taken while cursing that I had forgotten to sit on that side of the train for the great views of the river and the bridges that cross it.

We had exchanged a glance and a smile an hour or two later on the platform of Albany-Rensselaer station, when the train had stopped for its first ‘smoke stop’. In the afternoon sunlight we had both looked up and down the station platform as the southbound Adirondack pulled in and as connecting passengers from Boston joined our train.

The man across the aisle from me passed his papers to the officer. He flicked through the pages. Questions were asked. Each question was asked with a more urgent tone of inquisition. I noticed that the officer’s right leg was twitching as he stood on the spot.

“Put your shoes on. Get all your bags. You’re coming with me. Give me your ticket stub so that I can tell the conductor you’ve left the train.”

By the following morning, train 49 had made up the forty-five minutes lost during the check at Rochester station. Standing on the broken concrete trackside at South Bend station in Indiana, and while turning my watch back an hour from Eastern Time to Central Time, I chattted with some of the smokers about what I had seen the night before. Overheard questions about an expired visa, and enquiries about two years spent illegally in the United States of America. The smokers took long draws on their cigarettes, and at the far end of the long shining  stainless steel train, the lead conductor shouted “all aboard!”

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