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Liquor, Cards, & Riding Amtrak to New Orleans

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We were somewhere in between Phoenix Arizona and Houston Texas on an Amtrak train headed for New Orleans when three hard knocks rocked the bathroom door.

“Who the fuck is that?” I whispered. 

Recently, I had been accepted to the masters program at SF State in creative fiction. I was on the hunt for material and what better place to go but the tracks for such things? Our groups plan was to get to NOLA just in time for Halloween, but this little snag could be the thing to get our butts kicked back out into the night.

My three associates Dennis, Coen, and Zeke all shrugged in unison. Their eyes were glazed with a mixture of self-assuredness, exhaustion, and mild horror. The trains double-vanity bathroom was the perfect place for the four of us to stretch our legs, get away from the other passengers for moment, and enjoy our “illegal” inebriants. Apparently, it was not allowed to bring one’s own spirits onboard, so what better place to do that but in the basement level lavatory away from watchful eyes. We’d in automobile, plane, and train for the last six hours. All of us were in need of salvation from the crowd and a proper drink.

All around were liquor bottles, shot glasses, as well as a single baby stereo – all criminal. I remember Randy Newman’s “Guilty” playing. As Newman crooned, Baby…I been drinking, I realized maybe we should have stuck to sneaking our drinks in empty Coke cans. Before I could fathom the repercussions of our actions, there were three more hard whacks.

“What you boys doing in there!” a voice erupted. “Train Manager here!”

“Sounds like the Train Manager,” Zeke coughed pulling a fifth of rye from his lips.

“No shit,” Dennis hissed. “How do we get out of here?”

“We lie,” Coen said. “Hard.”

“I can do that,” I said. 

It needed to be done. One doesn’t start in San Francisco to clinking martinis at Grand Central in Los Angeles to somehow catching the Sunset Limited Amtrak bound for NOLA just to get kicked off a few hours later. I remember thinking, I’ll be damned if a little good time is going to keep us from a bigger one.

With the pounding of the Train Man growing louder, I prepared a lie fueled with hope.

Amtrak or The National Railroad Passenger Corporation serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, operating more than 300 trains daily over 21,400 miles of track. That’s all well and good, but our crew, three travel-hungry, beer washed, all-day, all-night warriors and I were interested in just one route: The Sunset Limited. A 20-stop ride from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, and finally New Orleans, the 48-hour 2-day journey is a test of one’s will, physical and mental fortitude. The Big Easy, that holy grail filled to the brim with ever clear jungle juice daiquiris, jazz, and Po’ boys, was a mecca of sorts for us. All save one had been there before.

“Beyond beautiful, beyond fuckin’ shady,” is all he could tell us.

Perfect.

Amtrak right now is pushing some major deals this season. Find them at https://www.amtrak.com/deals. I got an email the other week and was instantly transported to hazy scenes of taking a flight from SFO after a few specials at Tempest bar. After landing in LAX, we only had an hour to acquire goods for the 2-day voyage. Things like water, ibuprofen, and reading material were obviously replaced with playing cards, liquor, and whatever our already booze-soaked minds thought was necessary. Somehow, after screaming at our Uber driver and nearly losing Coen (or maybe it was Zeke) we sprinted to our platform just as the conductor screamed all aboard. 

Yes, they really do say that.

Shuffling to our seats (there are six levels of accommodations which you can find here) we were of course in the reserved coach class seats – the absolute bottom of the barrel.

Dennis scoffed. “How the hell are we supposed to sleep in these?”

“I think they recline,” Zeke said flinging his bag overhead.

Coen, who’s at least 6’5’’ creaked his seat backward. It barely moved two inches. “Yeah, I’m pretty screwed.” He shrugged. “Guess I just won’t sleep.”

And we didn’t, not really. 

The next few days would be spent conversing with other like-minded travels not going anywhere fast, just enjoying the ride; playing gin, go-fish, and hearts until we couldn’t see straight; drinking $2 Budweiser cans with secret soda cups of whiskey in sunlight fading to moonlight and back; catching naps between the seats in the community sunning and lounge room; taking 30 minute pit stops to stretch our legs and chug Lone Stars in towns no one in our crew had ever heard of or would ever remember; getting kicked out of the diner car for not wearing shoes for lunch service; watching a guy booted for getting lucky in the bicycle storage area; and waking early only to be serenaded by the sliding of metal upon metal awash in the hot tangerine and pink dawn.

On the fronts of food, you can expect hot dogs, stale chips, and top ramen. There is a “restaurant” but it was overpriced with poor service. As noted, there are 20 stops over the two-day trek where you have about an hour to sprint to any liquor store (you’re not supposed to have your own booze on board but like any true blue traveler, as long as you keep it tight, those rules can be broken) or chain restaurant. I stopped at a Hard Rock Cafe somewhere in Fort Worth I believe and treated myself to a double-decker margarita at 10 AM. My stomach promptly relieved myself of that choice an hour later, but I remember it being pretty good. But really, that is what train travel is all about: testing the linings of your intestines all while breathing it, seeing it, tasting it, and feeling it, all the while making sure your ass doesn’t miss that train.

On Amtrak’s website, Ansel Adam is quoted saying, I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful – an endless prospect of magic and wonder. I definitely wasn’t thinking that as we hurriedly cleaned up the bottles and all three hooligans jammed themselves into the tiny room with the toilet. When all was settled, I cracked the door.

“Just you in here?” the Train Manager asked sniffing. “Smells like beer.”

“Sorry about that,” I smiled. “I’m actually just about to brush my teeth.”

Seeing I had no toothbrush, I gave him a thumbs up as a sort of proof.

He snorted. “Alright then. Goodnight.”

“Wooooo,” the three of them whistled trickling out. “That was sketch-eeeee.”

As the four of us listened to the Train Managers footsteps fade, I felt we had a newfound appreciation of the beauty behind, in front, and ahead of us on account of the bullet we had all dodged. Before scurrying back to our seats, we had a silent cheers.

“Get on the train!”

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.