(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)
My most fascinating yet challenging experience in Sedalia had nothing to do with the ragtime festival. Even though I had had a spectacular time on my own, the two days in town had flown by quickly, and I found myself getting off the bus a block away from an Amtrak terminal near downtown an hour early.
I felt a bit intimidated. There was no one in the station, no agent, no passengers. The train just slows down and stops very briefly to drop off or pick up passengers, and then it is gone. I thought of a line from the poem I had memorized in high school, Ozymandias:
“Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
I surveyed the interior of the empty station. I used the clean and well-outfitted men’s restroom just off of the large rectangular waiting room. Several rows of back-to-back divided bench seats occupied the middle of the room. There were also bench seats around the side walls and the long wall opposite the restrooms. You could buy tickets from a vending machine, and there were the usual displays of posters and travelers’ materials. Another nice feature, which I soon used, was the regularly spaced electrical outlets on the floor near all of the seats. I started to charge my iPhone. I waited and reviewed my two days in Sedalia.
In about a half hour, the first passenger arrived, a young guy headed for Chicago with a huge khaki duffle bag. I’ll call him “Sam.” We exchanged greetings. Sam’s round white face had short-cropped black hair, a close-cropped chin whisker beard and dark brown eyes.Within a few minutes he had decked himself out on one of the wall benches that had a seat arm missing, head on duffle bag and reading a paperback thriller of some kind. During the remaining two and a half hours that I was there, he came out of this prose-entranced posture only a few times to check in for scheduling information. Obviously, despite his youth, this was a seasoned traveler.
My prize of a passenger appeared just a few minutes before the River Runner from Kansas City was scheduled to stop at Sedalia at 10:04 a.m. Initially, he made me a little apprehensive. I’ll try to describe him, though words will not do justice here. Artie was a walking study in alternative presence. Initially, that presence was excluding me. He had lip and nose piercings, but they seemed to fit him. A cascade of clean, relatively thin, wavy hair hung loosely around his face in an Arthurian sort of way, but it was just a bit too thin to be beautiful. I didn’t notice it at first, but when he looked at you in a certain way, he had startling blue eyes. His tightly fitting black jeans were carefully “ripped” strand by strand just above his knees. He had on a plain, faded jeans jacket. A couple of times, he spoke to someone on his iPhone, maybe a 5 or earlier, and he seemed to have an Eastern European accent. His ensemble was completed by a jam-packed jumbo black cloth suitcase on wheels that stood over four feet high. He carried a skateboard. This is someone with whom I would have probably not even exchanged a few words, had the train not been three and a half hours late.
As it happened, in my planning I had gotten an online id for Amtrak when I bought my tickets, even though I didn’t know if I would ever use it. As part of the registration process, I had agreed to receive updated information about my trip on my iPhone. That turned out to have been a smart move. When the train was about 10 minutes late, I received my first email from Amtrak: My train had been delayed by 15 minutes, and a new estimated arrival time was given. Since there was otherwise absolutely no evidence at the terminal that anything was out of order, I felt it was my obligation to share this information with Artie and Sam, and I did. Predictably, Sam was unphased and continued his engagement with the mystery he was reading. Artie, on the other hand, was nonplussed. He started tossing out questions my way in this vaguely Russian accent. “Do you think will be refund on ticket?” is one that sticks in my mind. I, of course, didn’t know.
Thus began a regular series of emails from Amtrak spaced about 15 minutes apart, and these jarring announcements continued for at least an hour and a half. I kept updating my two fellow travellers. Sam continued take the news in stride, while Artie became increasingly agitated, walking back and forth and starting a long, running conversation with me. Over the course of this conversation, I found out a lot about Artie.
He wasn’t from Eastern Europe.
Me: So where were you born? He: Unfortunately, in Sedalia.
The accent had been staged.
There was a Russia connection, however.
Me: So what kind of music are you listening to? He: Oh, it’s heavy metal, mostly. I listen to a lot of Russian bands on the internet.
Ok. Kid from Sedalia posing as an Eastern European immigrant. Russia meddling in our elections. Hm.
Gradually, bits and pieces of the puzzle that was Artie began to fit together. He announced to me that he was a polyamorous bisexual who was going to St. Louis to visit his transgendered boyfriend. And he had to somehow communicate to his boyfriend that he was going to be late. The boyfriend was going to be waiting at the station in St. Louis. He didn’t have his boyfriend’s phone number. Their contact was their mutual friend, Marta, who did have a phone.
In the meantime I was beginning to get a little concerned about 1) what happened to the train, 2) how I was going to find my way back to St. Louis and my disabled spouse reasonably on schedule. I was afraid to leave the station, because the train might arrive. I had taken a light breakfast of toast and coffee back at the motel, and now I was very sorry that I hadn’t dug into the extensive poolside buffet at the Best Western State Fair Motel. Biscuits with sausage gravy, scrambled eggs and grits invaded my thoughts.
Artie and I had wandered outside where there were a few seats and a wall on which to sit. He was carrying a skateboard in addition to the huge suitcase, and he occasionally released quite a bit of youthful energy by skateboarding down the loading platform and back a couple of times. Artie had revealed quite a bit about himself to me, so at some point I decided to reveal to him that I was married 35 years to another man and that I was exploring a nonbinary identity. He seemed genuinely impressed with the long-lasting relationship.
Our conversation continued in fits and starts, interrupted by online band listenings on his phone and skateboard scampers. He professed to be a vegan. He was for complete gun rights and no gun control. We argued about that, and to my amazement, his defense of his position was sophisticated. He liked to shoot, was all. He liked the noise and excitement. So he was not about to agree to have an assault weapons ban. He had obviously read all the NRA’s counter arguments to the “liberal media’s” insistence on an assault weapon’s ban: better registration procedure needed, keep crazy peoply away from guns. I, of course, rehashed the standard progressive arguments for gun control. At one point I thought about asking him how rare were vegan gun proponents, but thought the better of it. However, our gun control conversation blended over into women’s reproductive rights, and there, Artie was on my side of the issue.
Back inside the station, I received a more ominous message from Amtrack. My train had been delayed. That was it, no estimated time of arrival, no explanation. The message suggested that I might want to make other travel arrangements. Well, crap. My train ride over to Sedalia had been so perfect; now the reality of Amtrak travel was smacking me hard in the face. The news seemed to make Artie distraught, but Sam remained unphased. For whatever technical reason, Artie needed a wi-fi connection to be able to make a phone call, and he pressed me to use my iPhone to create a wi-fi hot spot. I knew about this possibility, but had never tried to use it. He offered to help me set it up. I protested that I was concerned for security. What if his phone had been hacked? He insisted that security was not a problem, but he didn’t convince me.
From time to time there were people entering and leaving the station, and it was not always clear whether or not they were somehow connected to Amtrak train travel. One woman, though, was in contact by phone with her friend who was traveling that day from Kansas City. The train stops at Independence, Lee’s Summit, and Warrensburg before arriving at Sedalia. As the woman talked to us, a better picture of what had happened began to emerge. There had been a terrible thunderstorm in the early morning hours. A couple of trees had fallen across the tracks. Apparently, the woman with the phone was there to pick up her friend, and continued to reenter the station from time to time with more news. The picture became more and more grim. The train had made it to Independence, but now, out on the open rail, the engineer was having to stop the train every few miles while further debris was removed from the tracks. I felt a sort of hopeless surge at that point.
But not for long. My problem solving mode always kicks in in an emergency. I went back to the email announcement from Amtrak, and noticed a phone number to call, which I did. I waited 15 minutes on hold. Eventually I spoke to an Amtrak representative. There ensued a long, drawn out conversation in which the agent “checked some information” a couple of times. Yes, there was space still even on the 5:45 train. Yes, the current train seemed to be making slow progress. She has no further information. It was now approaching Lee’s Summit. I thanked her and hung up.
Maybe I can hitch a ride back to St. Louis with Bryan, I thought. I called the Hotel Bothwell; Bryan had already checked out. Maybe I could text him. But for some darn reason, Facebook Messenger will not send messages unless on wi-fi. Maybe I can use my iPhone for that. I enlisted Artie to help me set up a wi-fi hotspot on my iPhone, but still not agreeing to let him connect to that hotspot. Once the wi-fi hotspot was activated, it turned out that Artie could use it, but I could not. How stupid is that, Apple?! I can’t use my own wi-fi hotspot. However, all this technological activity had simply reactivated Artie’s desire to communicate with his transgendered boyfriend.
Our forced companionship had the result that Artie and I had begun to relate less as strangers and more as fellow travelers who occasionally meet. Despite the enormous age and social gaps, there was a certain tense but flowing character to our dialog. “Artie,” I offered, “how about I just let you use my phone to call your boyfriend’s friend?” He enthusiastically took my phone, dialed a number, and began a conversation with Marta, if the series of clipped questions and muted monosyllabic answers that ensued deserves the designation of conversation. But eventually, he secured Marta’s promise to let the boyfriend know that he should not wait for Artie at the station, but that Artie would be in touch when he got there. He handed the phone back to me without thanks.
It was getting close to noon. I had paid $26 for the return ticket to St. Louis, and I was seriously thinking of just abandoning my attempt to ride the rails and later seeking a refund. Or just forgetting about it. Aha! I bet Rich has Bryan’s number, and I have his number. So I call Rich and explain my plight. He actually doesn’t have Bryan’s number, but he will text Bryan (since he is on wi-fi), and let him know of my plight. Hopefully, Bryan will call me back. It was just a few minutes and Bryan called. Yes, he could give me a ride back to St. Louis, but it would be after the afternoon concert at Liberty Center.
Frankly, I had had it with Amtrak and with adventure and the unknown and unfamiliar—I thought at the time—for a good long time. I gave the Amtrak station one last once over, put on my back pack, and I proceeded to walk back down Ohio Street towards the Festival. There was one Irish Café across Ohio from the Pettis County Court House that I had not gotten a chance to sample, and I thought I just might be able to have a beer and lunch before trying to get a ticket to the afternoon concert. A couple of blocks south, just as I was walking past the large outdoor mural of Scott Joplin, I heard the train whistle. I turned and looked back just as the train was crossing Ohio. “I’ll never make it,” I thought. The Universe was playing a little joke on me, apparently. And a Killian Red was waiting at the Irish Café, along with a generous serving of corned beef and cabbage.