Amtrak runs a route between my original home, St. Louis, and my adopted home, Chicago. That route is called the Lincoln Service. I’ve ridden it quite a lot in the five years since I moved to Chicago. It is always awful.
Someone decided it was a good idea to bring a four-year-old on a 7am train. This boggles my pre-coffee mind. 7am is too early for me, a grown man with twenty-six years of practice in acceptable social behavior. The child is a rookie. I can tell by looking him in the eye. He doesn’t know how people should behave this early in the morning, and he doesn’t care. They’re soulless, those eyes. They swallow contentment.
Sometimes, children fuss. This is one of the four or five things I undestand about toddlers. It is 7am, I am pre-coffee, and the child does something that, if we’re being honest, I want to do, too; he fusses. Because a 7am train does not mean you wake up at 7am. A 7am train means you wake up at 4:45, stumble around your mailbox-sized apartment, lose a fight with your constantly broken coffee maker, cut yourself shaving, slip and almost drown in the shower and severely don’t care, catch the 5:48 bus at Clarendon and Buena, and lug your 50-pound bag down the steps of Union Station to be on the train by 6:45. This, I feel, is entirely fuss-worthy (especially when, even after twenty-six years of practice in acceptable sleeping patterns, I refuse to go to bed earlier than my midnight norm the night before). All of this, it is all fuss-worthy. What it is not, however, is scream-worthy. The child does not agree. He does not want to be on this train; he wants to be at home in bed (or, if we are to be honest, at home in front of cartoons. Or that may just be me). And so the child screams. The child screams loudly. And incessantly. His mother is either too used to this behavior or too powerless to defend against it, and she lamely whispers things like, “Shh, quiet,” and “Stop now” with all the conviction of a champion nihilist. This seems to only encourage the child. He screams louder and longer. He screams like he is being murdered. I time him. His lung capacity is impressive. He screams for more than seventeen minutes straight. Seventeen minutes.
I’ve literally had relationships that didn’t last as long.
I could complain to a conductor, but then I’d be “that guy.” I don’t want to be “that guy.” I want to be the guy who understands what a crushing struggle it must be for a single mother, or at least a single-at-this-moment-on-this-train mother, to bundle up an angry preschooler, pack his bags, pack her bags, pack the “my toddler is angry” emergency bags, corral him and the aforementioned bags into the train station, and get him into his seat for a long day of traveling. I want to be the guy who smiles at the boy as he yells his little head off, shakes my head knowingly, and says, “Kids are tough, aren’t they?” then produces a fun size Twix bar from his pocket and winks and says, “If your mom doesn’t think it’s too early.” I want to be the guy who pats him on the head, squeezes his mother’s shoulder, and smiles reassuringly, letting her know that I empathize with her struggles and that it will all get better.
I want to be that guy. But I’m not. I’m that other guy, “that guy,” the guy who just wants someone to go get the goddamn conductor and have him bring his coloring books or his duct tape or whatever the hell he uses to pacify children and maintain order.
And I’m not the only one thinking it. I survey the other passengers’ faces, and there’ll all “that guy,” too. Even the other mothers. We all want quiet, and we all need coffee, and we all want to throw that child right out the window, but we are also civilized, so we don’t want to be the one to get the conductor. We’re not narcs.
The screaming continues.
I wonder if I could off myself with a luggage rack.
But then, a miracle happens. The doors at the front of our car slide open, and a conductor steps through, his blue cap a beacon of hope to us all. Sunlight breaks through the windows and illuminates his angelic face. He glides to the woman and her screaming child and says, very calmly, very politely, “Ma’am, we have a space a few cars up where you and your child might be more comfortable.”
The mother practically weeps with relief, and for the first time, it occurs to me that perhaps she doesn’t like being the tangential cause of a 7:18am pre-coffee ruckus amid so many strangers. She thanks the conductor, who grabs her bags, all three of them, and ushers her out of our section, off to some magical car at the front of the train with playpens, changing tables, and warm bottles for days. (Wait, do four-year-olds drink bottles? Well, whatever they eat, it’s up there. I know it.) They cross the gap between our car and the next, and then the doors slide shut, muffling the screaming that still, still, has not stopped for even a second.
I look at the other passengers. The other passengers look at me. We all look at each other. We are so, so relieved.
Then, in unison, no fewer than ten of us leap to our feet and dash for the café car in the back of the train, where we collectively burn through four urns of awful, delicious, horrible, wonderful Amtrak coffee.
I muse on the notion of raising dogs instead of children.