Survivalist Housecats, Benadryl, and Political Turmoil: Riding Rails and Couches on a Circumnavigatory Amtrak Jaunt, Part 4

The Northeast

Highway drivers are envious of rail. They’re like prisoners on litter duty watching a freedom parade of drunken, naked people go by.

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One hundred feet away from us, the highway cars are traveling in the same direction and at the same speed as this train. We’re neck and neck, but we maintain the authority. The drivers do their best to mind the road, but eventually give in and watch us move.

Protestor, New York City
Protestor, New York City © Matt B. Simon

They’re awed, a subtle reminder that so many generations of Americans have grown up not knowing the locomotive. This train is an enigma because for us it’s always been cars. Always with cars, veering around, finding destinations, filling up on gas, and crashing into one another.

So this train rolls as the historical wayfinder: pretty, shiny steel casings filled with patient, ambling passengers.

After a brief stop in Atlanta, we moved fast to get Kamran to Raleigh, NC for his flight to Pakistan, which was of course delayed a week after fresh attacks there.

He had rushed me 1,300 miles from Austin, through hurricane destruction, and through perfectly good Southern territory begging for idleness. In our hurry, we were forced to spend the night on a train station bench in Charlotte waiting for a transfer, all the while his country can’t get its security straight.

I didn’t kick him and I didn’t berate him. I thought about the past few weeks and realized the only argument we had while traveling together, remarkably, was over what kind of sandwiches to get one afternoon in New Orleans. I forgave his final trespass because for so many miles I didn’t put up with him, he put up with me. Sometimes, I just want a certain kind of sandwich.

I was on my own now, headed north to New York on yet another speeding beauty, not lonely, just bored. With Kamran left behind, I had to find strangers to share whiskey with. “I knew a man once,” I wanted to explain to them, “whose beard was so thick that it was the only thing that made Karl Marx turn in his grave. And this, mind you, was in the era of rampant free-market capitalism.”

Wall Street Protestors, New York City
Wall Street Protestors, New York City © Matt B. Simon

I was wrong. What was in fact making Marx turn in his grave was the madness of the Great American Bailout of 2008, and it was in New York, specifically on Wall Street, where mobs of once well-intentioned citizens got really angry on September 25. They first gathered at the Charging Bull sculpture in Lower Manhattan in the late afternoon, and were joined by an almost equal force of media. Someone had done their PR homework.

Protesters were sprawled on the ground while news crews, photographers, and I tiptoed around them. If sex sells, then wearing black clothes and plain, creepy, white masks is like a cigarette warning label, something convincing you not to buy something. The government was selling a massive bailout of a cruel, vicious industry, and these people were not buying it.

So much yelling, so much flailing, so many signs, and so many flippant gestures as we made our way to the stock exchange. Terrified tourists could only scatter from a menace their concierge could never have foreseen. The suits leaving work and making their way through the storm either ducked away nervously or stopped, usually at a distance, to watch the political orgy.

I’ll side with a rabid dog before a bankster, but I couldn’t help resent the futility of it all. I’d like to think this is how we effect change. I’d like to think we can win battles like this, but we need to admit we’ve lost. We can’t compete. It was a high-stakes soccer game, begun 100 years ago, in which the financial villains brought rocket boots and we forgot our damned shin pads.

At this point we’re going to have to switch sports and start all over again. And this time we’ll need nicer shoes.

Girl and Officer
Girl and Officer © Matt B. Simon

Several days later, I was in Washington DC when the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was signed into law, completing our slow shift to kleptocracy. The people of this town didn’t look happy. On the subway, in bars, it seemed that they too had given up.

I was staying with an ex-girlfriend who now had a new boyfriend, so I could only sleep on the couch, stay relatively sober, and generally behave myself. During the day I hopped between museums, pushing children out of my way and reminding dinosaur skeletons that some sort of higher power had really had it out for them. By night, I drank at a bar with a thousand beers on tap and got lost on my way home.

While this was a good town, I felt like I’d walked in on a bad day. Its denizens seemed to be helplessly swimming in the final disgraces of the Bush Administration. The protesters in front of the White House, all three or four of them, were delirious, barely propping up signs and dribbling tired slogans. We’ve lost, they seemed to say, now arrest me so I may enter martyrdom and be done with this.

It all made me anxious. I needed to slow down. I hadn’t been in a small city in as long as I could remember, so the community of Greencastle, Indiana seemed like a reasonable destination. I had people there, specifically a former professor of mine. We’d researched representations of Islam in the English Enlightenment together, which may not sound interesting. If it does, and you happen to be a barmaid by the name of Vicky, then I may have a marriage proposal for you.

The approach of the Cardinal line was good music. She was cold, to be certain. I mattered no more than any of her other passengers. She was going one way, with or without me. But she was my train, emitting pure attitude and sweet diesel fumes.

And what business did you have here? she asked.
None, really.
Did you learn anything?
Well, not much, but I did touch a stick insect at the Smithsonian.
Isn’t it?
Sure is. But do you remember what Thomas Jefferson feared most?
That banks would take over our government?
Wrong. It was hamsters. He feared hamsters above all else. Now take a seat before I leave you with the oligarchs.

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