If I could, I’d travel everywhere by train. The experience lets you fully appreciate the distance you cover and you often meet interesting people in the bargain. For a while, I tried to book a trip with Amtrak at least once a year; and until the company barred on-train smoking in 2004, I especially enjoyed sitting in the smoking cars, hearing the nation’s chain-smokers tell their stories to anyone who’d listen.
The smoking car was a wonderful combination of improvised theater and voyeuristic give-and-take. People seemed to gravitate to them less from boredom than emotional need. Often you’d find garrulous personalities taking charge of the room, airing out memories as though they’d waited for the trip in order to do so. Encountering them made me think of the stray souls who populated The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s classic set on the Mississippi River. I secretly hoped that one of them would permanently affect my life, much like Melville’s characters had affected one another.
That never happened, though I did encounter some fascinating lives. My favorite belonged to a small-time traveling salesman who sold paint to factories around the midwest. When I entered the smoking car, he was going on about his work—what it took to forge connections with buyers and how he spent his many days on the train. Cigarette after cigarette, he made the audience privy to his career, speaking with such enthusiasm (and, when it came to his work, self-seriousness) that we could understand the elation that accompanied a sale. He seemed rather young for such an Odetsian archetype—no more than 30, by his appearance. It was as though the train had picked him up from the middle of the last century.
An hour or so passed. As the result of a smaller conversation in the salesman’s orbit, a young woman from Oregon rolled a joint to share with an older man of sooty complexion and very few teeth. Smoking car etiquette discouraged privacy (I don’t remember anyone ever talking on a cell phone while inside, but this was before cell phones came to fill every crevice of public life), and the joint soon made its way around. The salesman refused: he once had gone to jail for marijuana possession, and he never wanted to touch the stuff again. But he didn’t want to deny anyone his fun (or, in the likely case of the sooty man, his ability to function socially), and he participated, after a fashion, by reminiscing about his brief tenure as a pothead before the law intervened.
He’d bought all sort of equipment for smoking, befriended the major dealers of central Wisconsin (an omen of his future career?), and hosted a few Weed Olympics for his friends. Marijuana had shaped his life and brought him satisfaction, it seemed, until it didn’t. He spoke evasively for the only time that day when he got around to the subject of his jail sentence. But even that chapter of his life came to some satisfying conclusion. He entered vocational training after he left jail, and in little time he landed the job that now gave him so much to talk about. Though he didn’t say so, I sensed he loved his job largely because it kept him moving after several years of stay-home Olympics and then prison. What would be drudgery for most people was to him a constant gift, and holding court over the smoking car, he attempted to share it.
I’ve never met anyone like him on a plane. The anonymity of an airplane cabin—which feels both more confined and infinitely larger than an Amtrak smoking car—seems the wrong climate for a personality like his, which needs to see in detail every mile it’s conquered.