I last left off detailing my day in Los Angeles waiting for my train home. Here is the subsequent account of what happened after boarding that train:
My seat was at the tail end of the train and it was coach, not a sleeper like I have grown accustomed to travelling in over the past month. But it was cool; Amtrak had me sitting beside Kevin who I quickly decided was an alrite guy as well as a fellow traveller to boot. Being that he had been living la vida homeless
for the better part of the last two years I took the opportunity to pick his brain; he elucidated upon many topics such as where to sleep, security of your possessions (a big one for me) and where to shower. He had a certain gravity as well, but “gravity” is perhaps not the right word. Rather he spoke like (and looked like) Lionel Osbourne, the character Tim Meadows played on the SNL skit, Perspectives
It’s now 4:15 in the a.m….
…minus the grey. Furthermore, I came to admire his serenity: he was en route to New Jersey and aware that it was a damn sight colder than Cali and also that his clothing was a little inadequate, but he accepted this information matter-of-factly. This sort of acceptance is something I have tried to cultivate in myself over the past few months as I have stared down the barrel of my fair share of shitty situations. In light of all his real-world experience I was actually flattered when he seemed impressed by my travels and stories which I related to him; he was the real deal and he was in awe of lil’ old me.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Kevin was actually a flawed human being and not the eminent drifter and source of wisdom I had built him up to be in my head. The first hint should have been when he whispered to me at one point:
Kevin: Hey, just between you and me, you know how sometimes you be on the road and you alone in your sleeping bag? Sometimes you gotta handle things yourself. You know what I mean?
Me: (Not grasping his dead-seriousness) Mmm-hmm, I try not to because it makes a mess in my sleeping bag, but I follow what you’re saying
Kevin: Well some people got to do that when they alone and if you not on the road like you and me they don’t understand
Me: (Oblivious) Man, I’ve travelled enough and seen enough at this point that I don’t really pass judgement on people. Whatever you gotta do to get by.
Little did I know I had just given him implied consent.
The lights went out after a while and I politely declined his offer to share his blanket, I (thankfully) had my own blanket after all. As I began to close my eyes I felt Kev’s elbow rocking back & forth and I moved my elbow away so he could continue “scratching” unimpeded. However, when the movement continued it occurred to me that he might not be scratching an itch, at least not literally. I was horrified when I realized that he might well be masturbating right beside me. It then dawned on me that I had expressed approval for this sort of behaviour and while I was wrestling with how to get him to stop in a polite and discreet manner the movement all but stopped. I figured I’d leave well enough alone hope he went to sleep and try to do the same.
Then the movement started again. I stole a glance over at him (taking special care not to make eye contact). Covered with his blanket he was awake and alert. I swallowed my discomfort and made the first overtures toward intervention:
Me: Hey dude, you alright?
Kevin: Yeah, I’m good. Just kinda watching things, takin it all in
The movement which had stopped while we were talking quickly resumed when the conversation ended. At some point it stopped again which I took as him finishing. This whole time I was trying to figure out a more direct way to broach the topic but remain tactful while also wrestling with the possibility that he may not have been doing what I thought he was doing. Then he pulled down his blanket: During the time I was puzzling over my direct approach I guess he had cleaned up and put his business away because he whipped down his blanket and although he was not exposed, the smell of his B.O. and mischief made my nose-hairs curl. I was certain at this point that a “doings” had transpired. Time to be direct:
Me: Hey dude, remember when you asked me about masturbation earlier?
Kevin: Yeah, why? You feelin’ the urge?
Me: (Mortified) Not at all. I just wanna make sure that if you had to do that you would go to the bathroom?
Kevin: Oh, um…yeah
Me: Ok cool
Kevin: Yeah no problem man. (Momentary Silence) Haha, you my ridin’ buddy; we ridin’ all the way to Chicago together (I guess this was an attempt to show what a good sport he was and that there were no hard feelings. Unfortunately he patted me on the shoulder during this display of magnanimity)
(Uncomfortable silence for a few minutes)
Kevin: So um when was the last time you masturbated?
Me: I’m not really comfortable talking about this dude?
Kevin: Yeah, you right…
(A few more minutes of uncomfortable silence)
Kevin: I think Imma try goin down to the bathroom and masturbatin’ like you said cause it feel good
Me: (exasperated) Dude! I don’t want to hear about this!
Kevin, Yeah, you right. K, Im gonna go.
After this I went and asked for a new seat assignment from the reluctant conductor. He insisted that dealing with weird people was part of riding on public transit. I was tempted to actually say why I was so adamant about getting moved but I decided that I didn’t want to snitch on Kevin because it was some violation of the homeless code. I would just content myself with removing myself from the situation.
This experience was sobering in that it served to remind me that in spite of the hardships I have endured, when it comes to homelessness/drifting/vagrancy I am a poseur at worst and a novice at best. This guy was a seasoned vet and had all the traits (good and bad) that come with such a lifestyle. Living on the street is more than just sleeping outside voluntarily and writing cheeky blog entries about your misadventures. I realize that I could never presume to say that I understand the struggles of the homeless based on my relatively brief experience but I’d like to think that I have gained some perspective. What I do with that newly-gleaned perspective will really determine how fruitful this endeavour has been.
The subsequent few days of train-riding were uneventful compared to that first night; had a pleasant evening talking with Marcus and Lucy the following night and enjoyed my layover in Chicago the third day before my overnight train to Buffalo where my Dad picked me up.
So would I take Amtrak again? Well, there were other problems aside from the masturbators who populate coach, but ultimately I think that a train is a great way to travel. There is a certain purity in it that you don’t get with a plane. Even a long-distance bus is not quite the same. Still, it doesn’t match hitch-hiking as far as grassroots travelling goes and this fucked with me because I felt I was cheating myself by taking a quicker route home. Ever the master rationalizing things to myself, I concluded that while the train was indeed quicker, it presented its own set or challenges which made it a worthwhile experience. Also, it allowed me to see a good deal of the countryside which is one of the most important aspects of travel for me. So overall I’m glad I decided to abandon the open road in this instance and have a leisurely, (mostly) enjoyable trip home.