For eight dollars a pop, an Amtrak attendant will microwave you as many plastic-wrapped Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches as you can stomach. A paragon of the cuisine options in the café car, down a narrow set of stairs beneath the Sightseer where nutritional value goes to die.
I ate the hard way on my first cross-country train, so I packed a cooler this time—fruits, greens, chicken breast, avocado, jerky. But with its faulty insulation the ice didn’t keep, so I ate what perishables my appetite would allow posthaste, stored the rest, and mourned what was a good idea with a bag of Doritos.
That evening in the Sightseer, the windows were painted black with night, opaque clouds sagging beneath a June moon. I sat in silence, only a young girl at the end of the car hunched over in a seat tethered to her phone by wired earbuds. Spinning an avocado on the table like a top, I negotiated with myself, blasé about another bland mouthful of green mush. So I decidedly left it there and went to bed hungry.
The Sightseer was teeming at sunrise. And with the avocado absent, I wondered who around had found it. I sat with a coffee and banana in front of a loquacious group of young bucks in the seats beyond my booth. Feet planted in a row up on the ledge framing the window, they teased each other the way boys in bonding do.
I passed by to toss out the peel and in the ambient cloud of their banter, the big one in a jean jacket and long, slick-backed hair marked me. “Did you buy that banana on board?” The question had to be rhetorical, I thought, mocking the menu in the café car. “Packed a cooler, actually.” Silence fell, heads nodded in approval. I paused, “I’ve got an extra if you boys want to share.” Sliding back into my booth, I reached into the tepid cooler, broke one off the hand’s stem, and tossed it over playfully. “Three guys and a banana,” I joked.
I put my head down to write and looked up at them some minutes later to a curious set of eyes in flannel. He nudged, “You a journalist? You look like a journalist.” Told him about Moved, that I’m not on assignment, just lit up by experiences like the train – time-boxed, meditative, adventurous, people-focused – as ‘platforms’ for creative work. Struck, he asked his pal nearest to me to switch seats.
AJ, a singer-songwriter, was aboard with his band – musicians from Denver and Memphis – en route to perform for 10,000 at a gig in Cleveland. The chops of a leader were revealed at once. Not merely that he went for the conversation or was the lead vocalist of the band, but that as I listened more, I took him to carry a vision, a reflex for responsibility, and a tender authority—a group adhesive for aiming up.
He asked about my process and I about his—the ache of taming the abstract, elusive forces of creativity and shaping them into the fixed form of a managed project. He gave me a tour of recording a song—the writing, integrating the accompaniment, harmonizing personalities and opinions, the limits of studio time, and his auxiliary role as a producer: the Dad that gives the band money and bad news.
We tend to romanticize a musician’s life on the road, but seldom hear how dreary and monotonous the space between gigs can be. Who has the fucking van keys? Asked repeatedly, unreasonably, predictably. And yet of paramount importance he stressed, that real synergy, real respect, real friendship must be shared.
AJ and I talked about art and our lives, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Why the choices we make are marches of hope into the night, bearing the weight of questions only a time to come can answer. The two of us puttered on for a while when suddenly he cut with pause. “Dude, I am so grateful for this.” This, he meant, as fleeting exchanges of the sort – colliding hearts in Travel – that are, like anything else, familiarized by repetition, but buoy a spirit again and again, and again.
Energized, AJ tossed a line in the water to two European ladies in the adjacent booth, whose body language read like they were eavesdropping, keen to join. The conversation took on more life, the band came around, and so did Anna, the young girl with wired earbuds from the night before—our pod became the majority to occupy the Sightseer. Stories, laughs, snacks were shared—bags of chips from the café car passed around, jerky and avocado from my cooler on offer. It was the train’s variety of breaking bread and I was happy.
When I offered Anna an avocado, she politely refused. But she was enthusiastic to share the dramatic short film shot on her phone of a lonely one she’d found in a fit of insomnia at 3am the night before—it had been mysteriously abandoned on the table of the very booth in which we sat.
When she learned it was me, we were hysterical. AJ and Jake, a fourth bandmate who emerged into the Sightseer from a nap, looked over my shoulder as we crowded around to watch her raw footage. I pitched a direction for a closing scene and suggested we film it before our farewell in Chicago.
Jake was AJ’s collaborator and best friend, he endearingly proclaimed. Best friends long before the music, and the music long because of it. They produced an acoustic blues record together under Fullerton & Friel (which scored the many writing sessions of this issue of Moved).
AJ spoke highly of his bandmates with such humility, and so little of himself. How skilled they were, and that these were good men. But Jake assured me not to be fooled, that AJ was the glue, the huge talent, the shepherd.
An intimacy burrows at the heart of lifelong friendship. When boys become men in tandem, they share a perennial love, beyond the measure and limit of a temporal respect merely—grounded in an exposure to the early parts of us imminently armored to weather the world. A brother never had by blood becomes a brother just the same by bond.
Though Jake became a musician, Amtrak and the history of U.S. railroads were in his bones. His father worked the railroads, and his father’s father just the same. With pangs of disappointment, he explained how the evolution of the infrastructure was thwarted by regulatory missteps and the emerging automobile and airline industries. What would have been a world class passenger transportation network, akin to that of Japan or Europe or now, China, has atrophied over the last century.
Indeed Jake had the spirit of a railroader, a conductor in another life. And characteristically so, he sang the blues and played harmonica.
As a child, his father took him on a trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, gave him a few bucks and turned him loose on the gift shop—to little Jake, all the money in the world. Rock magazine, check. A guitar pick? Absolutely. But after a boyish arithmetic done on his fingers, calculating what he had left to spend, there just wasn't enough for any option off the harmonica wall. So with low spirits, he moped on over to the register. As he slid the bills to the clerk for the pick and zine, he noticed a box of starter harmonicas on the counter priced at precisely what he had remaining.
Jake left the Hall that day, harmonica in hand, with the joy of possibility only a child can know, and never looked back, except fondly.
The day rushed by as we moved toward Chicago, a six-hour layover awaited – the one transfer to cross the country – and bridged us to Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited, routing onward to New York, our final destination.
Before we disembarked, we needed to film Anna's final scene, and thus needed the 'set consistency' of the Sightseer. So as we neared Union Station in Chicago proper, I hurried her to get into character as I fumbled with the controls on her Android's camera, and hit record.
“What’s the short going to be called?” I asked as I regained my composure from laughing, handing her phone back. With avocado all over her face, she tilted her head and looked up in wonder, tongue in cheek, and then around at the Sightseer, around at each of us.
“Avopod,” she replied. “Avopod.”