Friday, March 25, 2005

Intermodal Adventure

The train swayed and clacked over the rails. Afternoon sun beat in through the windows of the boarding doors of the car’s vestibule.

I leaned my bike vertically against something that didn’t wiggle and work every time the train jostled. Holding the rear brake lever, I could keep it from rolling around as I tried to maintain my balance. I was in the space between two cars, watching their two platforms jerk back and forth.

This was intermodal transportation in 1980.

Somehow I had gotten the idea that one could ride a bike to the train station and board the train with the bike to cross greater distances than one could conveniently ride. Scraps of articles, vague conversations with other riders alluded to this sensible concept.

I got up at 5 a.m. to ride from Annapolis to the New Carrollton Amtrak station. I’d been riding the rails all winter to visit my girlfriend at Rutgers, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but now it was spring, and I was training on the bike again. I was tired of having to bum a ride to New Carrollton or Baltimore.

The 6:30 Metroliner rolled in. I stepped up to the doors with the handful of other passengers. A conductor stopped me.

“Whoa, whoa, you can’t take that on the train,” he said, pointing to the bike. He was nice about it. We knew each other by sight, after my months shuttling up and down the line on missions of what appeared at the time to be true love.

I explained my plan, indicating the various trains I’d stitched together in my timetable.

“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll let you ride as far as Philly. You can get a train with a baggage car there. That’ll take you the rest of the way to New Brunswick.”

He showed me into a car with a large space behind the last row of seats. I leaned the bike up against the wall and hunkered down beside it. We were on our way.

Those first accommodations were pretty cushy. The conductor even dropped by to see how I was doing. He apparently approved of my low-key presentation.

We said a cordial farewell at Philadelphia. I went to the platform where my next train was supposed to be.

Feeling confident after the friendly treatment the first conductor gave me, I walked up to the burly man in uniform beside this train and explained that I needed to put my bike in the baggage car.

“We don’t open the baggage car here,” he growled. “And your bike has to be in a box. Take the Conrail.”

After some negotiation, he told me to wait until the train was just about to pull out and then hop on through the doors of the car right in front of me. I could stand between the cars as far as Trenton, where I could get a Conrail train the rest of the way.

So now I stood on the dimpled metal flooring of my jostling cell, meditating on the beauties of the slums and industrial wastelands through which the rails ran.

Voices emanated from the leading car. I gathered it was the club car. As the muffled altercation grew clearer, I determined that the burly conductor was arguing with a railroad employee traveling for free, who had gotten drunk and disorderly.

The club car door slid open. The burly conductor shoved a smaller man roughly into the space I occupied with my bike. They continued their argument. Then the smaller man swung a fist at the larger one. The larger one felled the smaller one, swiftly kicked him and pulled his leg back to kick again.

I met his eye. Enough was enough. The burly conductor straightened out his clothing and withdrew into the club car.

The smaller man backed into the corner opposite mine. I didn’t really want to hear his story. I wouldn’t let the big man kick the crap out of him in my presence, but I had no way to judge any other merits of his case. We lurched on in silence for a few more minutes until the train slowed, then stopped, in Trenton.

As soon as the doors opened, I hopped out and headed away from the train. The police were arriving. Since I had not been supposed to be there at all, it seemed like time to disappear. I went looking for a Conrail train.

The Conrail conductor was another grouch, but he finally agreed to let me get into the back of a car and squeeze into another seatless space.

A woman in the next seat was convinced I must be some globetrotting adventurer. She wouldn’t let go of the notion, no matter how many times I told her I was just some schmoe trying an ill-conceived experiment.

Before I could be tempted to start making up stories to satisfy her craving for vicarious adventure, the grouchy conductor came up as the train was starting to move and told me to get the hell off, because he’d changed his mind.

Trenton’s not so far from New Brunswick. I could look in on my grandparents and grab a bite of lunch.

After a nice visit, my grandfather gave me a lift a few miles out of town and released me into the wild.

I broke a spoke coming into Princeton, but college towns always have bike shops. I bought a spoke and managed to snake it into the wheel, working on the steps out front. I’d fallen for piano-wire spokes when I’d built this wheel set, and I was regretting it regularly.

Back on the road, I wound down the last miles to New Brunswick. In the middle of town, I dropped into a left turn and immediately crashed because my front tire had been going flat and I hadn’t noticed.

I dragged my scraped and tired body out of the intersection and trudged the last couple of blocks.

Companions make all the difference, even if you just have them for a short time. When I tried to board a train to return home at the end of the weekend, my girlfriend was with me. This was a one-shot deal, one train all the way to New Carrollton. All I had to do was get aboard.

The conductor, yet another one, started to deny me boarding.

My girlfriend broke down in tears. I don’t even remember what she said, but it was a grief-stricken torrent of hard luck and need.

“All right, all right,” he finally said. “Get on, keep quiet, and if anyone gives me crap about it I’ll throw you off.”

My girlfriend shut off the dramatics instantly.

“There you go,” she said briskly to me. “Call me when you get home.”

A quick kiss and I was on my way.

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