Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happy Holidays, Amtrak!

Thanksgiving is the kick-off to the frantic, stress-filled holiday season. With family spread from Cleveland to Boston, Thanksgiving is also the start of our own personal traveling frenzy. We've made the trip from Ohio to Boston countless times in several different ways. We've traveled by car and minivan. We've flown direct flights and circuitous indirect flights. As we planned the journey this year, my husband pondered, "Wonder what it would be like to travel by train?" We purchased 4 round-trip Amtrak tickets. We were ready for an adventure!

I suppose there are longer and more uncomfortable ways to travel to Boston. For example, next year we might travel by mule.

Blessedly our 8 and 10 year old kiddos were quite content for the entire 20 hour trip to Boston. Yes, 20 hours. It wasn't advertised as a 20 hour trip, but trains can be delayed just like planes. The trains are equipped with electrical outlets so our children's treasured electronic devices never ran out of juice. As I watched my children's eyes dilate to twice their normal size, I did wonder about the long term effects of nearly 20 hours of uninterrupted electronic bliss. Sure they risked thumb cramps from the constant pushing of tiny buttons, but I treasured their silent contentment.

Their quiet contentment gave me ample opportunity to reflect on the environment around me.

Public bathrooms are often unfortunate places. Train bathrooms are in a league of their own. Imagine a small, moving, coed, public restroom. Let me help you get a better mental picture of this traveling urine-rich space. Picture a small walk-in closet. Shrink it by 3 feet and add a metal toilet and sink. It's basically 2 times the size of an airplane bathroom.

Keep in mind the following facts (yes, facts):
1. Men are not known for having great aim when sober and standing perfectly still.
2. The train has a popular "lounge car" that sells mediocre, over-priced alcohol.
3. Men's ability to aim while intoxicated and while moving along bumpy train tracks is almost laughable.
4. Women do not like to have their bare cheeks touch public toilet seats.
5. A woman's ability to hover over a seat is greatly decreased thanks to the lounge car and the moving toilet seat.

Multiply the 5 facts above by 20 hours and see how long you can "hold it."

The door slides open, and the first step into the pee-zone warns you of the coming scene. Your shoes stick to the floor and you pray to the bathroom gods that there is a rational explanation for this other than the fact that you are standing on the semi-dried pee of your fellow travelers. The smell reminds you of toilets you encountered as a youth in college bars. You pause a moment and realize how much fun you had in college compared to how little fun you are having at this very moment. Perhaps it's the memory, or the stench around you, but tears come to your eyes. The tears are a blessing. They keep you from clearly seeing the droplets of urine on the toilet seat. For the first time, you truly understand penis envy. You contemplate trying to pee like a man. That's clearly what the lady prior to you must have done. Instead you make vain attempts to sanitize the area before allowing your own precious butt cheeks to make contact with anything in that space. When your bladder is empty you whisper a prayer that it will remain empty for the remainder of the trip. Despite the urge to drown yourself in the lounge car, you resolve to not drink anything for the remainder of the trip. Dehydration has its advantages!

You return to your seat to find your children hovered over their electronic devices. You say something to them, but their precious brains have begun to ooze out of their ears as a result of electronic nirvana. They turn their glassy eyes towards you briefly, but you know they hear nothing but the beeping of their electronic games.

You turn to your husband and find him making vain attempts to sleep. The train chairs are wider than airplane seats and they recline more, too. However, the seats are ill designed. Imagine a slide on a playground. Now imagine a tall adult trying to sleep at the bottom of the slide. If there is a way to sleep comfortably on a slide I don't know how one does so. The chair reclines and gravity slowly pulls you towards the floor. You recall the floor in the bathroom and you know with absolute certainty that your own shoes have brought dried urine back to your seat. You dare not touch the floor, and you fight with your seat to keep from slipping to it. You pull out numerous neck pillows only to realize you've forgotten an eye mask. You try not to beat yourself up about this, after all you're a novice train rider. How did you know that Amtrak would keep the lights on for the entire trip? You rig up some strange contraption that involves a napkin, sunglasses, and a headband. You are suddenly desperate to cover your eyes and sleep. Just as you start to drift off, the evilness of the reclining chair slips you closer to the floor. You jolt awake and sadly the napkin on your eye mask contraption slips and falls gracefully to the floor. You want to cry because there is no hope for that napkin. It has been contaminated. You realize you may never sleep again. You look at your watch to discover you only have a mere 6 more hours to go.

After 36 hours (amount of time for the roundtrip journey)of trying to sleep on the train, I declare it impossible. I believe I've invested enough hours into trying to accomplish this impossible task that I can be considered an expert on such matters.

On the plus side, the Amtrak staff are delightful people. Nearly every single worker we spoke to was friendly and helpful. I imagine the workers at the stations are just grateful they don't actually work on the trains. As for the staff on the train? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps cheerfulness is a side effect of dehydration or perhaps there is a clean staff restroom hidden on the train.

All of that to say... Happy Holidays, Amtrak!
I hope the New Year brings you shorter trips, fewer delays, and pee-free environments!

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