I decide not to test my luck with Houston’s METRO buses, but to Uber over to the Amtrak train station. My twenty-something Mexican American cabbie Osiel tells me he moved from Chicago to Houston a couple of years ago because of the Texan temperatures. He was fed up with the Windy City’s chilly climate. The Uber gig is for during free time only. Osiel’s working as a cook in an Italian restaurant to save up money to go to university.
We soon arrive at an inconspicuous station building on the edge of downtown. This little Amtrak station replaced the former Grand Central Station – located just east of the current building – in 1959. Behind it is a double-track railway and not much else. Drawings and pictures depicting the Houston railway’s heyday in the forties and fifties decorate the walls of the waiting room. It seems fitting that the only functioning vending machine refuses to take my dollar coins.
Early bird special
The eastbound Sunset Limited pulls in around 11am, having left Los Angeles the night before. It’s a pretty impressive sight. As I’m lining up to board, a fellow passenger by the name of Jack Atkins lets me in on the fact that this will be his first solo travel in almost three years. Telling me this, I sense a childlike anxiety, like he’s excited to go on a field trip, but he’s afraid he forgot to pack lunch.
Jack, who’s 61, and I are seated next to each other. He tells me right off the bat he had major brain surgery in 2014. I find out why only right before he leaves me about three and a half hours later at Lake Charles. Jack’s going to stay there at a hotel with golf courses. He’s on an expedition to try out the facilities before he returns there with his son later in the year.
It’s been rough since the operation, Jack explains, especially the first few months. He couldn’t speak coherently, often had, and sometimes still has, excruciating headaches and – somehow, this sounds to me the worst affliction of all – he’s completely lost his sense of smell and taste. Nevertheless, we both jump at the on-board early bird lunch special – a man’s got to eat. I get Jack’s jumbo cookie, while the “taste” of chocolate is worst of all. The beers, though, go down nicely, for both of us.
Bad thing could be worse
As we’re cruising toward the Louisiana Bayou, the former telecommunications expert and Navy vet – Jack was stationed in Iceland in the early 1970s to monitor Russian submarine activity and deployed in Vietnam for two years after that – shares one story after another, making minutes and miles fly by. One such story, and he returns to it several times during the trip, is about how he spent the first ten years of his life in Germany, where his father worked for the U.S. military. The family situation was tense, even violent at times, Jack recalls, but there are fond memories as well, especially involving his best friend at the time, now living in Hamburg. He plans to visit him in the near future and maybe go see the towns where he and his family once lived.
Regularly, text messages come in from his son and ex-wife, both inquiring how he’s doing. His son had insisted on the smartphone, even though Jack preferred an old-fashioned flip model. Jack tells me the three of them live in the same house just out of Houston. His son, who owns a small concrete pumping business, sends him a video of the construction site he’s working on. In one of his replies, Jack sends them a picture of me at the platform in Beaumont, Texas, stretching my legs.
Paths may cross
Shortly before we pull into Lake Charles, Jack explains what prompted the brain surgery. While working on a housing renovation project, he fell from a ladder, face down. During the surgery, the doctors discovered that Jack had an existing brain condition, something to do with the narrowing of arteries inside the brain. This may have caused him to fall in the first place. Had it gone unnoticed, the condition might have killed him. He’s aware and appreciative of the fact that the bad thing he’s dealing with could have been far worse.
Jack hands me his little printed business card right before he disembarks and I return the favor. For both of us, the journey continues, along paths that, I hope, may one day cross again.
On the train, Jack plays me Jerry Reed’s song, “Amos Moses”, a classic about the Louisiana Bayou