When last we left off, I had successfully recharged my computer and my appreciation of anonymous post-modern life in Chicago’s fair Union Station. After departing that invigorating scene, it was not long before I was settled in coach on my Amtrak train headed east on a 23 hour trek to Boston, Mass.
Which brings us to…
Vingnette 2 – I snooze, You lose
Let’s be clear about one thing up front: sleeping sitting up is basically an oxymoron. I mean, sure, it can be done, but really? Would we honestly characterize that as “sleep?” I feel not. A nice, proper trip into the depths of your unconscious requires a horizontal posture, plain and simple. Which is why, presented with the opportunity, any self-respecting human would choose to snooze laying down.
If we’re all in agreement here, then it’s obvious that I would be disappointed to discover, upon boarding the Amtrak, that each pair of seats already had at least one occupant in it. No chance of claiming two together and crafting them into a make-shift cot for me. I would have to choose a partner, and short of requesting to rest my head on that person’s lap (and even my excessive friendliness has its limits), I’d be “sleeping” upright. Well, I wasn’t about to let a little vertical repose ruin the prospects of an otherwise delightful train excursion, so I zeroed in on an unsketchy-looking fellow, smiled, and asked if anyone was seated next to him. He said no, so I plopped my things down and began to nest in my humble aisle seat.
As the train pulled out of the station, we exchanged a few pleasantries which mainly consisted in his multitudinous tales of all the festivals he’d worked recently. I was never clear on what his role in said festivals was, exactly – he didn’t sport the exuberant personality one associates with performers (this was no Dextre Tripp), nor was he toting enough gear to be plausible as a roving techie or amateur videographer – perhaps “worked” had more than the usual meaning here? Regardless, he sure had made the rounds. Polish festivals, Irish festivals, festivals celebrating the abundance of any kind of food crop imaginable: cranberry, potatoes, clams, you name it, he’s been there. In fact, it seemed that in some instances, he was not even “working” these festivals at all, just looking to indulge in the experience. On the cheap, no less – he became quite animated when explaining to me that he had once found a festival that would let you in day-of without a ticket if you brought two cans of soup to donate to the local food pantry!
By the end of the conversation, two things had happened. First, I was beginning to wonder how all these festivals had been happening around me since my birth and I’d never been aware of their prominence in the potential job market. Second, the word “festival” had completely lost all manner of sense or historical context in my brain. It’s really a strange thing to hear said over and over – in my mind, a festival was a sort of mystical, exuberant, infrequent event. Hearing about festival after festival after festival, I started to lose track of reality and wondered if I hadn’t boarded at platform 9 and 3/4 after all.
Luckily, my seat mate did eventually tire of regaling me with stories set in this repetitive context, and went back to examining his iPod. Gratefully, I opened up my computer and began a proper TV marathon (fortunately, I’d uploaded a season’s worth of shows to my hard drive; festivals might be in abundance, but internet was not). And so we passed several hours in silence together. Occasionally one or the other of us would get up to explore the oh-so-hygenic-feeling bathroom or pop down to the dining car. Eventually it grew dark outside our little train windows, and we approached the sleeping hour.
Now, I’d been staying up rather late in the last few days, so I was content to keep watching my show or read or just take in the passing scenery for a few more hours. But other passengers began to drift off. Probably my favorite was the burly man to my right, who HAD managed to secure a full two seats for himself and was now sprawled out across both, his legs contorted across the aisle seat, a foot dangling into the aisle, his head tilted back against the window and his mouth wide open. And from this gaping fissure emerged what were without doubt the single loudest snoring sounds I have ever heard in my entire life. Hands. Down. It sounded like someone was dragging heavy chains over metal grating. Repeatedly. Then recording it, amping up the volume and layering the various audio files on top of each other. This was a truly masterful orchestration of nasal cacophony.
What made it art, however, was the passenger behind our sleeping Maestro. This peevish little man wanted his Zzzs and he wanted them now – and the background music wasn’t to his liking. So bless his heart, he started giving the seat in front of him a pert little kick every few minutes, causing the Maestro to jostle awake and resettle himself. This only bought our glowering insomniac a few moments of silence, but it gave me a delightful pass time. When I didn’t feel like watching TV or window gazing, I’d check in on the pair of them – the snorer slumped over, doing his thing; the disgruntled chap behind him getting progressively more fed up, his glares growing progressively more fanatical, his kicks getting quite insistent one moment, only to become futile jabs the next. Ah, the human condition – always trying to control the great mystery that keeps us awake at night, always looking so charmingly ridiculous in the process.
But even with these distractions, I was starting to feel a little sleepy myself. I was just getting ready to negotiate some sort of posture conducive to napping in my seat when The Man of Many Festivals began to stir. I watched him for a moment as he stretched and collected his things. Huh, I thought, I wonder…. and sure enough, he finally made eye contact and said “I’m heading up there” and gestured toward the front of the train. GREAT, I thought, collecting enough of my own items to permit him to walk over me to the aisle. In a matter of moment, he had taken all his belongings with him and left a perfectly vacant seat. HaHA!
Well, let me tell you how fast my coat became a blanket, my sweater got spread out to soften the uneven surface between the two seats, and my pillow realized its destiny as a true pillow and not just some glorified head-rest. Boom. Sleep is ON. I even had ear plugs, so I didn’t have to rely on Sir Kicks-a-Lot for audio relief. It wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever had, but it was far superior to whatever dozing I might have accomplished while fighting gravity on the edge of the aisle. I was in coach heaven, and slipped off quickly into a peaceful night’s rest.
It wasn’t until much later the next morning, when I opened my eyes to find my original seatmate standing over me looking somewhat sheepish that I realized he had meant to come back. Despite removing all his worldly goods (read: place-holders), he hadn’t intended to leave for good at all, but rather had every idea of returning to his rightfully purchased seat in the middle of the night.
Pssh! Buddy, you gotta defend your turf! That’s all I have to say.
That, of course, is totally a lie. I had many things to say – I jolted awake and scrambled all my belongings into the window corner to make it easier for him to sit down (read: to make it easier for me to then remain in the window seat for the rest of the trip), then apologized profusely and explained that I thought he’d left for good, seeing as he’s taken all his things. He was a genuinely good sport about it, said he’d come back around midnight, saw me sleeping and didn’t want to disturb me. You know, “saw you sleeping” is such a nice way to say “I saw that you’d totally taken over my space, re-purposed it for your own use, and even laid down an elementary slumber infrastructure of your own textiles to mark your territory.”
All I can say to that un-voiced angst is, “Take notes.”
And damn straight that’s what I did. We may have boarded in the Midwest, but we’re Boston-bound I’m New England born and bred, sir. I don’t mess around with niceties when there’s sleep on the line!
Anyway, we got on reasonably well for the rest of the trek, and after my initial effusion of penitence, I smiled a bit mischievously to myself and enjoyed the pleasant rested feeling in my limbs and my now un-obstructed view out the window.
I’m sure I will have to pay my karmic dues for that one someday, but for now I take this story as a classic validation of the adage, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Of course, if you’re less interested in the forgiveness option, you can always take the more political route to success. For my experience was also a classic case of a favorite expansionist philosophy of mine, which urges settlers who find a territory unmarked and undefended to take it as quickly as possible without asking either permission or forgiveness. Indeed the only thing you need ask, if challenged, is one simple question: “I’m sorry, but do you have a flag?”