You meet three kinds of people on trains — train buffs, crazies and unforgettable characters.
Most people are there for the same reason we’d chosen Amtrak; they love to ride trains.
The number of crazies depends in part on the type of train. On the Elevated Train in Chicago, we met three who talked non-stop from the time they boarded till the time they left. One chose me as his victim, describing the places we were passing in such numbing detail that I considered throwing myself on the tracks. The second talked to anyone who would listen about his imminent crackup. The third talked on his cell phone loudly, and endlessly, about his girlfriend’s thong.
That brings us to the unforgettable characters. The first was Freddie Baglio. Freddie and his family were returning from Memphis to their home in Independence, La. They’d gone to Memphis to see their son, Jason Baglio, perform there. Jason is an Elvis impersonator.
Freddie approached us after quietly watching us play a card game in the observation car.
“So you have to follow suit if you can and the trump changes every hand?” he said by way of introduction.
We invited him to join us. In three hands, he’d mastered the game.
Freddie owns a restaurant, Mufaletta’s Deli in Independence, where he said he worked “17 hours a day. My kids all help. They live in my back yard.”
Literally. They have houses or mobile homes there.
When he isn’t running the restaurant, Freddie works for the nearby Amite Sheriff’s Department.
Or travels as far as Las Vegas to see his son’s Elvis performances.
“If you can get him a gig up there in Boise, I’ll come visit you,” he said. “He’s very good.”
No argument. We checked his site and thought we were seeing the real Elvis.
Freddie deftly shuffled cards — sideways. He did one of the best card tricks we’d ever seen. He reached across the aisle to two little boys, snatched their toys and in seconds had them laughing. When his stop was called and he got up to leave, he gave us two new decks of Amtrak cards and each of the boys five dollars.
With planes, you get body scans, cramped seats, fellow passengers with their noses buried in magazines or digital devices. On trains, you get cards and Freddie.
At the station in Lafayette, La., we met a garrulous gentleman who walked up and spontaneously began to tell us about his life.
“You’re from Boise?” he said. “I used to live in Payette.”
Payette? What were the odds of that?
He went on to give the intimate details of some hospital tests he’d just had, and went on to say that he’d left Lafayette as a young man but returned to live there after his parents died, that his weight fluctuated between 150 and 210 and that he’d almost died from drinking but “quit when the Lord gave me a second chance.” All without being asked a single question.
In the New Orleans station, a muscular young man with head-to-toe tattoos walked up and, without so much as a hello, asked me if I had any aspirin. It took an annoyingly long time to find some in my suitcase.
“Thanks,” he said. “You’re nicer than most of the people where I came from.”
“Oh? Where’s that?”
“Incarcerated,” he replied. “I’ve spent the last seven years in prison.”
This, incidentally, was the second person we’d met in as many days who was on his way home from the slammer.
In New Iberia, La., it was all the shuttle driver at our motel could do to find the train station.
“I’ve been here 11 years, and you’re the first people who wanted to go there,” he said.
The station, such as it was, was on a one-lane road that quickly became a gravel road. It’s an understatement to say there wasn’t much activity. There was no activity. The small, dilapidated building appeared to be abandoned. It looked less like a station than a place to store picks and shovels. A sign on a locked door reassuringly reported that it wasn’t an Amtrak office and there were no public restrooms. With the train due in an hour, not a soul was in sight.
“I hope you’re in the right place,” our driver said as he sped off, leaving us alone in a neighborhood where the chances of getting a train and getting mugged looked to be about equal. We were trying to look invisible when a truck pulled up and its solitary occupant emerged and headed directly for us.
“I wasn’t going to get out of my truck until I saw you,” he said. “This isn’t a safe place to be alone.”
“Are you here to catch the train?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I just like trains.”
His name was Billy Gesser, and he had lived in New Iberia all his life.
“So we’re in the right place? This really is the Amtrak station?”
“Yes. The train is due at 5:42.”
Gesser explained that New Iberia’s onetime train station is now a Louisiana Delta Railroad maintenance shop, which explained why it looked like a place for storing picks and shovels. Amtrak still stops there, but only a few days a week, and there are no services at all.
The train was late, which was okay because it gave us time to talk. Gesser lives near the station and goes train-watching there several days a week. He had model train sets as a kid and, in his sunset years, still has two of them in his bedroom.
“I take the train to New Orleans whenever I can,” he said proudly. “And I’ve been all the way to Jackson, Miss.”
We were talking trains when a young man approached and asked if he could buy a ticket on the train.
“Yes,” Gesser said. “The conductor sells them.”
“Good! I can’t wait to get home. I’ve been gone two years?”
“Where have you been?” I asked.
Dear God, was there anybody in this state who hadn’t been incarcerated?
Distancing ourselves from our new friend, we continued our conversation. A retired jack of all trades at a car dealership, Gesser said New Iberia was spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina so he put up some of its victims in his one-bedroom home.
“At one time I had eight of them living there at once,” he said.
I commented that it was a fine thing he did.
“It’s just what you do,” he said. “We were lucky here. New Orleans wasn’t.”
He proudly said that he hadn’t missed a Mardi Gras in 55 years.
“And I have every intention of making it 60,” he said. “I stay with friends and I always take them a ham.”
Running out of things to say, we stood quietly in the steamy Southern heat outside the rundown building that now passes for New Iberia’s Amtrak station. Gesser seemed to be lost in thought.
“This wasn’t always the station, you know,” he said after a long silence. “It was an auxiliary building. The main station was down the tracks. It had a nice waiting room. The trains came every day then. The place where we’re standing was a flower garden. It was a busy place then. Now it’s a neglected, lonely, dangerous place.”
I told him how sad I thought it was that Congress had allowed our rail system to deteriorate so badly.
“*It is sad,” he agreed. “It’s beyond sad.”
No Woodward vacation would be complete without a couple of travel mishaps, right?
Our train from Memphis to New Orleans was scheduled to leave at 6:50 a.m. It was roughly a half-hour taxi ride from the hotel to the station, so the desk clerk arranged for a cab to pick us up at six.
Ten after six? No cab. Quarter after? No cab.
“Which company did they call?” a new desk clerk asked.
“Yellow Cab! They don’t never show up!”
Thus reassured, we called another company. The cab arrived at 6:30. If there was no traffic and the driver floored it, we might make it.
He did. We arrived in the nick of time and climbed aboard as the train began to move.
Moral: If you’re ever in Memphis, call anybody but Yellow Cab. They don’t never show up.
In New Orleans, we weren’t as lucky. Our itinerary said the train for New Iberia left just before noon, so we got up, had a leisurely breakfast and were planning a farewell stroll around the French Quarter when I checked our tickets and stared with disbelieving eyes at the departure time: 9 a.m.
It was then 9:20. (Amtrak had e-mailed a schedule-change weeks earlier, and you-know-who forgot about it.)
“No, it left right on time,” the agent said when I called to ask if by chance the train was late. “The next one isn’t for three days. But if you can make it to the station by 10:30, there’s a bus that will get you as far as Lafayette.”
No two people ever vacated a hotel room faster. We caught the bus to Lafayette and took a very expensive taxi from there to New Iberia. In our haste, I left my favorite, almost-new shoes under the bed at the hotel in New Orleans.
It had been a great trip.
But I still miss my shoes. May the maid’s boyfriend love them as much as I did.