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Back On The Train To Rochester For Christmas

So bad it’s good.

PENN STATION, New York City- It’s more crowded than usual. It’s more tense. A black guy yells, “It was your ass that bumped into me!” at an Arabic guy on the escalator. People are pushing each other in the crowd. It’s a real shit show.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Maybe my Jewish wife is onto something with her unbridled abhorrence of this holiday. For years, I thought she just felt left out and overpowered by the spectacle of the event … But it’s also one of the ways that she seems to find cultural distinction. What would she be if she celebrated Christmas? A normal white person, I guess.

My train boarded late. For a minute there I thought it was going to be cancelled, and I was feeling a little sad about the prospect of missing Christmas, which made me realize that, yes, beyond all the bullshit and nastiness there is something nice about this holiday.

Eventually the train boarded. I got on and took a seat. The Amtrak out to WNY is usually packed — every seat is sold and occupied; there is no hope to get two seats for yourself. Usually you move so someone and their companion can sit together.

A dude with a Buffalo State sweatshirt on asked me to move so he could sit with his lady friend. I obliged.

I now had a choice of sitting next to some bald guy with bags under his feet and his legs sticking out into the area of the adjacent seat or a 30-something dude who was acting a little off. Weirdo A or Weirdo B.

I went with Weirdo B — at least his legs wouldn’t be sticking out into mine. Then the dude started twitching. F’ck. I can’t sit next to this tweaker for the next seven hours. So I moved up and sat next to the bald guy, thinking that he would move his legs over into his own area. He didn’t. Then a lady with a baby came in and took the seat the tweaker was sitting in and the guy moved up and sat in the seat across the aisle from me. So I guess I got both.

The dude sitting next to be was around 45, short — maybe five foot five — super white. He said he was going to Syracuse, where he seems to have been originally from. He was wearing low grade business attire and had a lanyard from some bank hanging around his neck that he liked to point out to people. He said he did risk assessment for said bank but looked more like he sold insurance. He talked about his successful friends and how he lived in Europe. He had a giant cooler on the floor in front of his feet. He opened it and I looked inside. It was full of stuff from Wegmans — and not the new one that just opened in Brooklyn.

“I prepare when I come into the city each week so I don’t have to spend money,” he explained.

I got the impression that his mom packed his cooler for him.

I was at the point where I needed to make a decision as to how I would approach this guy. He was a talker. While conversing with people on public transport is part of the appeal of travel, having some guy blabbing to you the entire time saying nothing makes the journey a touch difficult to enjoy. We talked about the sunset that we would see over the Hudson after we pulled out of the tunnel and I decided to can the conversing. Riding is something approaching sacred for the traveler. You don’t want to desecrate the experience.

I’ve found that riding the train up to WNY can be an interesting experience in terms of interacting with my fellow passengers. As Amtrak separates passengers into cars based on destination and nobody goes to WNY for the fun of it, we’re all pretty much from the same place and we’re pretty much all currently living in NYC. That gives us something in common from the start, and when you mix an inherent love for the Bills into this you have the groundwork for good conversation and a fun ride. The last time I rode this train there were two other groups of people who were also going to the game — one dude told me of a better place to park. I sat next to a 16 year old theater savant (according to her friends). She graduated two years early and moved to NYC from Buffalo on her own. I inquired as to what it’s like to be a college student who’s technically illegal to date. She said it sucked.

But on this ride everyone seemed Christmas-whipped. We were all heading home for the holidays and were on the last train out on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t be arriving in Rochester until around 11:30 pm. We all seemed to of had our asses kicked in one way or another. Some were sick, others were tired, everyone seemed a little apprehensive. Going back on family visits isn’t an easy thing for a lot of people. The entire train seemed suspended in a hundred separate little worlds.

All except for the bald guy, who decided to start hitting on the pretty young black girl in the seat in front of him. She played nice as he told all kinds of stories about himself which seemed to have been custom ordered, concocted on the spot.

At one point I noticed that the tweaker had either pissed himself or spilled half a can of pop on his crotch.

The sick lady in front of me coughed and wheezed.

I got sick of the bald guy’s feet sticking out into my area so I slammed the foot rest down on them. He said ow. But he also retreated.

The ride kind of sucked in that particular Christmassy sort of way.

But then something happened that made me feel a little different. The tweaker, who either pissed or spilled himself hours ago, removed a Christmas card from his bag, wrote something down on it, and then, with hands shaking, carefully inserted two twenty dollar bills.

Some may call that the Christmas spirit.

Filed under: Celebrations, New York, New York City, Train Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3563 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

10 comments… add one

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  • Trevor December 28, 2019, 12:05 pm

    Great story…. so who got the two twenty dollar bills?

    the countdown is really on… 2 working days remain…. just did a double delivery.. am stuffed

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 31, 2019, 8:45 am

      Sweet, man, today is your first day free. Enjoy it!

      Link Reply
      • Trevor December 31, 2019, 12:14 pm

        Thats it im done with being a mailman. Wasnt the best of days.. did double delivery too.. and now im drinking a beer.

        Happy New Years best wishes dude

        Link Reply
        • Wade Shepard December 31, 2019, 12:22 pm

          That makes my day to hear! Happy New Year!

          Link Reply
  • Rob December 28, 2019, 1:16 pm

    I’m home for Christmas, well at a daughter’s place in Washington state. That’s about as close to home as I can come these days.
    I hope your Christmas was a good one!

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 31, 2019, 8:47 am

      That’s excellent! But, man, Washington state in December??? That’s putting in the effort for the holidays! You could be out where the sun is shining and the weather is warm!

      Well … so could I, I guess haha.

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  • julie hamilton December 29, 2019, 12:46 pm

    This just made my day! Thanks for taking the time.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 31, 2019, 8:53 am

      Thank you!

      Link Reply
  • Jack December 30, 2019, 10:18 am

    It probably was Christmas spirit?

    I always thought that Amtrak riders were a cut above Greyhound bus riders. Kind of like the difference between shoppers at Target and Walmart. I did Amtrak when I was a kid in the 1980’s and also did the bus.

    Have you ever done a long ride on a greyhound bus before? Oh golly, the stories. In 1983, my entire family took a bus trip from Oregon to Maine. I still have vivid memories from that trip. I have done many bus trips since then, but not since 2004. Long distance trips on Greyhound are the domain of the downtrodden and otherwise messed up. Everyone taking that Greydog on a long ride has a story to tell and there is usually either despair or hope in their voice.

    Back in 2000, I was on the bus from Iowa to San Francisco to board a plane to Asia for the first time. I did a layover in Sacramento for a day to sleep. I was waiting in line for the bus from Sacramento to San Francisco. There were a couple who were telling their story about being in Sacramento to do research for a movie idea about black Cowboys. They had been interviewing one in a nursing home in Sacramento. They claimed to be the creators of the movie the Rock. When they walked away, another guy waiting in line who heard the story confided in me that he didn’t think their story was true because they were riding the bus.

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    • Wade Shepard December 31, 2019, 9:14 am

      Yes, totally. Weird shit happens on those buses. I haven’t dared to take one long distance since I was in my early 20s — who would I? It’s generally cheaper now to fly — but, man, I have some strange memories. The passengers all sing on the buses in the south. People who’ve never taken the bus there think that scene in Trains, Planes, and Automobiles is made up. It’s not. Also, there’s these weird bus hookups that make their way into fiction every once in a while that are also very realistic. It’s like being in a completely different world on those Greyhounds. It would be cool if someone wrote a book or made a film about it … but it’s not going to be me!

      “When they walked away, another guy waiting in line who heard the story confided in me that he didn’t think their story was true because they were riding the bus.”

      Haha! He was probably right!

      A family bus trip from Oregon to Maine!?! That’s crazy. Man, you’ve always been traveling.

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