Urban Sprawl

A few months ago, my friend Karen at The White Dresser antique shop posted a picture of a cute little vintage picnic bag on her Facebook page.  Life in my vintage imagination needs more picnics and more plaid vintage picnic bags.  I had to have it and the price was right so I bought it.

It’s got a thermos and a plastic sandwich box, both of which fit perfectly inside the bag.  The stylish little thing just needed a place to go and a few snacks to fill it up.  If I put on a cool summer frock, it had to be picnic time somewhere.

I had a standing invitation to Reggie Black’s house somewhere in the suburban sprawl of Tampa, Florida.

As I thought about the different travel possibilities, my first priority was my picnic bag.  I knew a tall woman with a vintage picnic bag would be met with disapproval when she arrived at an airport.  Homeland Security was not going to let me carry my picnic bag onto an airplane without ripping it to shreds first, since it is a little-known fact that red plaid vintage picnic bags are often the carrier of choice for travel contraband.

I had to take the train.

I fibbed about it when people asked me about my trip.  Sure, I was flying.  Long discussions about peak oil, carbon footprints, and the need to carry plaid vintage picnic bags aren’t the kind of discussions a woman has over the office printer at the end of a long day at The Big Corporation.

If nothing else, I would have twenty-four hours to rest and read; that was something that I had been longing for all summer long.

So, I packed up my Lady Alone Traveler suitcase with a few summer frocks and some Floridian sandals and stuffed my picnic bag with crackers, organic grass-fed beef jerky, and Pellegrino Limonata.  There would be no better opportunity for me to collect stories for the blog.

I queued-up for the Northeast Regional in Boston and flashed my ticket at the small cordon of Amtrak police.  I was waved along with nary a suspicious glance at my vintage picnic bag.  I found a seat, arranged my suitcase in the overhead compartment, and settled in with books, magazines, and my netbook.  I was going to crush through some magazines, finish a light novel, and write at least one blog post before I switched trains in New York.

My trip was going according to plan; I boarded the Silver Star at Penn Station in New York and resumed my peaceful train trance.  My tray table was down, I had no one in the seat next to me, and I had started working a blog post about healthy snacks and picnic bags.  I was nibbling on a macaroon cookie and an individually wrapped serving of almond butter.  Maybe I nodded off for a while; the next thing I knew, the conductor announced “next stop, Wilmington, Delaware.”

My peaceful dream ride was about to end.

A tall, thin man staggered down the aisle and planted himself in the seat next to me.  My bloodhound-like sense of smell picked up a whiff of booze and stale cigarette smoke.  He sprawled into the seat and started rummaging through all twenty pockets of his cargo pants, searching for his ticket.  My hope that he would be bounced off the train for lack of appropriate documentation ended when the ticket was produced from his twenty-first pocket with an additional bonus of lint specks and tobacco flecks.

I moved closer to the window, trying to disappear.

The pocket rummaging continued and my seat mate turned towards me and asked if he could use my tray table.  I guess he couldn’t see that my netbook and my can of Limonata were taking up the majority of the space.  From within the depths of my strength, I said

“NO!  Use your own tray table.”

My new travelling companion, who I’ll call Fred, was taken aback and attempted a feeble apology.  Knowing myself enough to know that this was the point where I often caved in while “being assertive” and “standing my ground” I steeled myself and turned away.

Rejected, Fred began making phone calls.  I heard mysterious whisperings and the occasional words “Da, da.”  Finally, he adjusted his cargo pants and closed his eyes.  He began to sprawl and spill into my seat.

Fortunately, Richmond was a “smoke and stretch break” for train passengers.  When the train jerked to a stop, Fred bounced up with a cigarette behind his ear.  In his absence, I packed up my books and magazines.  I shoved my picnic bag into the overhead compartment next to my Lady Alone Traveler suitcase and ventured down to the Club Car.

I found Kalim, the Car Attendant.  I explained my concerns with Fred and asked if it would be possible to switch seats.  He said the train was sold out, but he’d see what he could do.  He made no promises, but his earnest expression of concern provided me with comfort and hope.

I hung out in the Club Car and got a cup of coffee.  Much to my chagrin, Fred showed up and tried to pay for my coffee.  I wasn’t sure if it was an attempt at apology or chivalry, but having had a little bit of life experience with men who smell of booze and stale cigarettes before sundown, I rejected his advances and hoped he would vanish like a puff of smoke.

An hour later, Kalim stopped by and told me he had arranged for a seat reassignment when we reached Raleigh and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I thanked him three or four times.

Raleigh arrived and right in front of Fred’s bleary eyes, I collected my suitcase and my picnic bag and victoriously marched down to the next car to meet my new seat mate, Michael.  I resisted the urge to say

“We are breaking up.”

I would have one final encounter with Fred at 8:00 p.m. while waiting for my 8:30 p.m. seating in the Dining Car.  He was queued up at the snack bar to order a beer and he approached me.  He was fumbling around for words and once again, I knew that a clear and consistent message of “NO” was the best direction to take.

I held up my hand and said “Please leave me alone.”

On the run again, I got up and went back to my seat.

A thousand thoughts of kindness, compassion, and hypocrisy crossed my mind.  Fred didn’t know Aunt Tomato, the Lady Alone Traveler and blogger; what if he read my blog and found out how much I longed for peace on earth and grass-fed beef?  What if he read my many posts about learning to love my neighbor and borrowing tractors?  Here I was, channeling my inner Helen, “asserting myself.”

It felt awkward.

Since most stories here on the blog have a happy ending, I left Fred in the hot Florida dust of Mickey’s house.

It would only be a few more stops to Tampa; Reggie Black had promised to meet me at the train station and I was sure he wouldn’t reek of booze and stale cigarettes.  My new friend Michael consoled me by talking about what to expect in Tampa and the train started to roll on again.

To be continued…

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One Response to Urban Sprawl

  1. Mary Conant says:

    Julie-Ann,
    I enjoyed this blog very much. Dave loves traveling by train because he thinks it’s so relaxing. I’m glad you were able to “get away” from Fred although sometimes things and people we meet have a special meaning.
    My sister was going to travel via train to visit us but she has multiple health issues. Once I was informed of the transfers she would need to go through we thought it would not be in her best interest since she would be traveling alone.
    Your style of writing is refreshing. Keep up the good work. Hugs, Mary

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