Below is an excerpt from my new book Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight. You can read it free right here or support my work by snagging a copy on Amazon. Either way, please let me know your feedback on the book on Twitter. Which chapter or line is your favorite? What would you have liked to read more of? Just send a tweet to @bombtune or email me at wellsbaum[at]gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!
I've also submitted this post to this week's photo challenge given the different landscapes of earth, air, and water I observed on the ride from Seattle to Los Angeles. You can find pictures that accompany each stop along the way in the book.
Chapter 9: Journey Inwards
The train entered Santa Barbara, still about two hours outside of Los Angeles. To prepare for his final dinner, Paul changed into a clean collared shirt and khaki shorts and went off to the bathroom downstairs to brush his teeth and fix up his unkempt hair. He heard a knob turn on in the next room and rush of water filter through the shower pipes. Paul looked forward to cleaning up at his brother’s place.
The parlor car chairs were all occupied up by the time Paul got back upstairs, but he saw an opening at the end of a booth.
“Excuse me, think I can squeeze in on the end there?” Paul urged the inattentive teenager. He raised his voice this time and gestured with his finger pointing to the open seat.
With her eyes glazed over Snapchat, so deep in voyeurism, she never even felt Paul’s presence nor saw him in the periphery. Mobile video was the new TV, and it struck the right neurological note.
“Sorry, yes,” she apologized for her dilatory response while pinching the screen to zoom in. Bored, a second later, she swiped right to check out the next video in the queue.
Generation Z lived in their phones absent from the brain platform which they relegated to flesh. They enjoyed being in public but sharing their lives in private, augmenting their personalities in their own virtual world. Paul got text-neck just looking at the girl stare down into her phablet, resisting the original window of life, also known as reality.
“Sorry, I’m in my own world,” she said as if her behavior needed further explanation. She was restless, transfixed on creating and consuming bite-sized rewards. The Instagram heart, the Twitter retweet, the Facebook like, the incoming Snap–she tasted content pellets with her eyes. The only thing that could save her hijacked attention was that of another hunger–food.
“All six o’clock reservations are welcome to come to the diner car,” the conductor announced over the loudspeaker. The primordial food foraging survival instincts still held hegemony over people’s attention.
The only way to get to the diner car was to gallop and prevent yourself from falling by using the walls to stabilize your balance. Paul peeked outside and saw empty warehouses with broken windows, a seemingly artist’s haven, and junkyards full of old cars. The train snaked through the industrial part of Southern California, an hour away from downtown LA.
The steward sat Paul down in a booth across from Bob and Susy, an older couple from Seattle. They smiled at each other before making introductions.
“So close, yet so far. Enjoying the ride?” asked Bob.
“Definitely. It’s very scenic. I’m looking forward to stretching my legs though. That, and a shower,” explained Paul. They all laughed. Paul spotted a sticker on Susy’s sweater. “Attending an event?” Paul asked.
“There’s a fundraiser at the LA Convention Center,” said Susy. She never mentioned who for, quiet about her partisanship.
The American election season was in full swing, with the country so divided no one talked about it face to face for fear of instant judgment. Instead, voters lived in their social media echo chambers, validating their cognitive bias and openly resharing fake stories.
Susy refrained from stoking the conversation into a political one. She nervously pushed her dark bangs to the side and switched topics.
“We usually fly down for this event, but we saw a friend on Facebook post pictures from of a recent train trip, so we wanted to give it a try.”
Facebook presented the fantasy of the perfect life, and people took the bait. The fact was that Facebook made you miserable while Google search retained the truth.
Well aware of the curated life, Paul switched topics: “Have you spent any time in the parlor car?”
“We passed through it, briefly. Fantastic view.” Bob looked back down at his phone to answer email or continue a crossword puzzle; it was all the same. Everyone checked their phone more than a hundred time a day.
The waiter took their orders. Paul asked for another basket of bread, working his kindness for the entire table. Susy asked for water. Sharing relieved some of the tension.
But Susy still appeared anxious, lost in the pressure of being too present with time. Paul and Tom sat idle. The upcoming presidential election season made everyone uptight.
“So where are you from?” asked Tom.
“Connecticut, by the Long Island Sound. But I’m thinking about moving back to Boston. I went to school there and would love to go back.”
“I worked there for a bit after college. Exciting town but smug: I still prefer the West Coast,” replied Bob, before looking down at his phone again. “I’m just tagging along for the ride. I’m visiting some clients in Hollywood. Susy’s the political junkie.”
Never judge a book by its cover, Paul reminded himself. Genetics, education, experience, income — all these characteristics do is prejudge possibilities. People are complex beings; deep down they know it’s more complicated than the side they end up choosing. But at the end of the day, we are what we say, do, or even tweet. There’s no fence-sitting.
Paul took the train to comprehend himself, for even he admits there is no first-person point of view. We’re as clueless of ourselves as we are in reading other people.
As much as Paul tried to interpret the mind of others, he admitted his faulty self-awareness. He tried to stay open-minded and give people a chance, fighting the urge to mentally swiping right or left.
“We will be arriving into Los Angeles within the hour,” announced the conductor. “Please make arrangements to clean up any trash. Start organizing your personal belongings for arrival.”
The thought of his unfinished book itched Paul again. To save some time, he wanted to go back to the parlor car and write as much as he could before getting off.
“Well, I need to head back and pack up,” said Paul who brought a little backpack as his suitcase.
“You’re not going to eat?” asked Susy.
“I’ll eat dinner when we get there. I’ll text my brother to grab me In and Out.” Paul winked and waved goodbye. “It was nice meeting you all. Enjoy LA.”
Paul walked back to the parlor car. There were a few open seats this time, but he preferred to keep pace with the running conversation in his head. Instead of sitting down, the aspiring writer strolled up and down the parlor car, his thoughts a form of locomotion. Unable to stand still, he typed a new chapter while pacing up and down the car. Each step prompted another word.
Chapter 3 — New England
The beat tinkered and echoed around the venue. The lights bounced to the rhythm. They were getting brighter with each step the sun went down. The crowd morphed into a quiet rave, head nodding and whipping their heads back and forth. James closed his eyes and followed along, adhering to the patterns of the drum and bass.
“Hey James!” He turned around. It was Anna from camp. The one he liked. Was she here all by herself?
“Excuse me,” a passenger nudged Paul to get by. Paul stopped writing and stepped aside to let a family through. He never flinched, keeping his eyes on the phone, writing and walking at the same time. He zipped inside and outside like food digesting in the esophagus until he felt stagnant in multitasking. Continuous partial attention never led to remarkable discoveries.
Breakthroughs required focusing on one single task at a time. Professional writers did one thing: they matched the fluidity of their prose to the outpouring of their ink, in rhythm and solitude.
Outside turned pitch dark. The only thing Paul could see now was his reflection in the window. Yes, he acknowledged, “I’m still here.” The train conversation grew louder with the anticipation of arrival. The passengers became excited.
Paul felt restless. The images in his head appeared clearer than they did on screen. He’d purge a book out of him before he had to go back to the cubicle to prove that he could defeat the resistance!
But writing didn’t feel natural. Paul forced it. He had imprisoned himself at the expense of enjoying the work and would soon again relinquish the freedom for his day job back in New York.
Perhaps he had already written a book, in his head and his mobile notes but not synthesized on paper. All he would need to do is scan his mental notes and go back through his online archive, connect the dots, and clean it up. It would take a lot of disconnecting, letting go, and being bored.
Then again, he might as well be living the story, progressing with each turning wheel of the train. Although he felt too drained to complete a rough draft, he refused to give up. He’d scratch the itch eventually.
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