December 12, 2018
The day before I was supposed to leave Washington DC, I went out to Red Derby, a sweet little dive in the Petworth neighborhood for a friend’s birthday, with a death-wish impulse to miss my flight. I didn’t want to leave DC. I was having such a good time and had made so many friends. Earlier that day I’d been hanging around at a house shared by Marge, Jon and Garrett, and I was thinking about how good I had it in this city. Many months ago and somewhat impulsively, I scheduled my flight to depart the day after I left my job. Rather than just change my plans (too expensive) I was ready to keep things interesting and hope a last chaotic time would make me feel like I’d sucked the marrow out of DC.
We arrived at Derby around 9pm and I palled around with the DSA crowd. I met a guy who shared my first name and was wearing the same “Capitol Hill Books” cap as me. We shook hands over the coincidence and walked to the bar to grab a drink together. I asked the bartender, a slender man named Cobra, for a some beer/shot combos. He asked me when my flight was. I tried to not act surprised that he had asked, and explained, oh, something like 5 a.m., out of Baltimore. Going to have to take a Lyft, too late for the MARC. Don’t worry about it, man! Cobra and I shared a shot. Cobra poured me another.
My night accelerated. I split off to find Marge and Garrett and found myself standing by the door talking with the bouncer. He had been unfairly pulled over by the police on the Beltway and was venting to me about it while I gesticulated furiously with my beer. Trying to telegraph both my virtuous politics and my respect for his role at my favorite bar in the city, I offered him my “what to do if stopped by a cop” card that I kept in my wallet. While we spoke, some friends stepped outside to smoke, and I followed them out.
As I stepped out the door, I walked straight into a friend of mine from high school in California. I was shocked. She yelled my name, I yelled hers, we talked outside for a few minutes and then I introduced her to my DSA friends. We were all pretty drunk by now, and I was reeling from the series of coincidences and the knowledge that I would not be back for a long time. Marge, Garrett, and I took a Lyft back to their house. I had left my bags there; I would leave for Baltimore in four hours.
We arrived at their house and just as I reached their door I made the “pat-every-pocket” move. Where was my phone? Where was my jacket? Where was my hat? Jesus Christ. I turned and saw the driver was still there. I walked over to knock on the door, but as I did the car sped away. I spun around. Them’s the breaks, I said, and went inside. Marge and Garrett laughed sympathetically. We’ll find it later. What a disaster.
I fell asleep late that night and woke up late the next morning. I called the phone, but it had been dead when I lost it. No ring tone. No location data. We waited to hear back from the driver. I got tired of waiting and walked, phoneless and feeling like a ghost, to a barbecue place a few blocks down the way, where I had a slow, solitary meal. I walked back and watched Barry Lyndon with Marge. A truly gorgeous film, it is over three hours long, which was fine. I had nothing but time now.
I was not about to leave DC without my phone, or at least not without the assurance that my phone had truly passed from this realm into the obviating dimension where socks and pen caps go. After the movie, I asked Marge to call it again, in the desperate case that it was alive. She rang, my phone rang: voicemail. We smelled blood. I grabbed my laptop and looked at where Google told me it thought I was. A few blocks over, down by the Hyatt. A hotel? Did the driver park outside? We scooped up the laptop and walked over, through the cold, through an absurd revolving door, and up to the lobby counter. I called up Lost and Found: no dice. I chatted up a very friendly concierge, who directed me to their head of security.
He was an enormous man, and smiled when he told me they’d found a phone matching my description. First, some due diligence: What room was I in? he asked. What room? He said they had found it in Room 686. What do you mean? I never stayed here. He assured me it was alright, he’d go get it and see if I could unlock it. He returned, and quizzed me again: was it cracked? Yes, a bit, at the bottom. What was the carrier? Verizon. He smiled. Good glory! Hallelujah! I started laughing, throwing my head way, way back and howling at the ceiling. It was back, bizarrely minus its plastic case, but back. And I was back too. Marge and I walked home triumphantly, stopping at Shake Shack for a beer and hot dog. I was back in the world of the living. No harm, no foul, just a missed flight.
We went back to her house and I bought a $100 ticket for the 4:05pm train the next day to Chicago, out of Union Station and a $5 bottle of wine with a twist-off lid, which, combined, was still slightly cheaper than the cost of changing the flight. And besides, riding the rails put me in my element. I bid Marge and Jon farewell, carried my duffel over to the station and hopped on board.
It got dark early, which was a shame, because the Appalachian mountains were beautiful, and I wanted to see them. Instead I laid back and played what I like to call “railway music:” upbeat, repetitive, and attention-holding. I used to listen to Medium Medium, or The Feelies, or LCD Soundsystem, but I was in the country, so I played Dylan and John Prine. We crossed the border from Maryland into West Virginia, and passed by Harper’s Ferry. I was sitting next to a science journalist, and we talked pleasantly about taking the train, and the state of the world. The current administration, right? I had some wine.
Immediately after we passed Harper’s Ferry, our train struck and demolished a dump truck that had been left sitting on the rails. The whole cabin shook, forward, then back, then side to side a few times. We stopped, and the smell of oil filled the cabin. A voice over the intercom informed the unobservant among us that we had stopped, and that we would get more information very soon. I’ve been riding the train for a long time, and I am familiar with the particular calming timbre in an Amtrak conductor’s voice, whispering sweet and empty solace like, “We will provide more information soon.” I was not worried. I had my phone, after all: luck was on my side. I tweeted, and posted a few pictures.
I asked some conductors what was going on, and they told me the man in the truck we had hit had jumped clear, that we would be stopped for a long time, and that they would have to swap the engine out since it was spilling fuel. In the meantime, several passengers started getting pretty wired. The mood changed when a drunk old Teamster, trying to find the bathroom, started yelling at a conductor walking up and down the aisle. “I have bigger problems than getting you to the bathroom,” the conductor yelled back. I wanted this old man to stop yelling, so I took him downstairs to the bathroom. I looked out the window in the door and saw school busses lined up along the side of the road, Mack trucks behind them, a flurry of red and blue lights in all directions, a helicopter hovering overhead, and firefighters walking back and forth along the other set of tracks. I took some pictures and posted them.
A journalist, responding to my tweets, asked me if I could do a phone interview. She called me and I told her all about the crash, the wait, the power cut when they swapped the engines, and answered all her questions while sitting in the changing room downstairs. Later, another reporter asked me if I could do an video interview. I didn’t have that set up, so she asked if I could go to a window.
I went to where I had walked the Teamster earlier, and opened the window in the door. The reporter and her photographer set up a camera beside the ravine by the service road and asked me questions by phone. I leaned out the window and gestured way down the tracks, recounted the play-by-play of the crash, yelled about Union Pacific and BNSF taking rail priority over passenger rail, and declared my faith in the competence and moral upstanding of Amtrak employees. This was exactly the soapbox I had wanted for almost as long as I’d been riding Amtrak, my chance to speak to the people about our national rail.
We finished the interview and I closed the window. The old Teamster had come back downstairs and had lit up a Black and Mild behind me. I made him put it out. I headed upstairs and split another bottle of wine with the reporter sitting next to me. The train eventually limped on to Chicago, delivering us from this long, staggering journey after 25 hours aboard. Them’s the breaks.
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