As a kid, traveling in Louisiana by train with my mom left pleasant, indelible memories. After arriving at the train station and buying our tickets, she’d find the right platform and track to await the right train. While waiting for the train, I’d hold her hand and carefully lean over the platform to peep down the tracks to spot that familiar white light on the engine. As the noisy train pulled into the station, I squealed in delight at the deafening whistle and the steam spewing from around the massive wheels. Satisfied with its arrival, I stood in awe as the hulking steel cars slowly snaked to a screeching stop.
After boarding, I’d run down the aisle to claim a window seat for my privileged view to come: serene marshy lands, flocks of winged creatures in Vee formations soaring over the bayous, and kids running and waving as the train skirted by their shanty towns.
Recently, a job opportunity beckoned me to Darmstadt, Germany, which was about a four-hour drive from my town of Vilseck in the eastern part of Germany near the Czech border. To lull in the comfort of my precious childhood memories, I decided to take the train.
The trip to Darmstadt proved worthy of bragging, given the solitude, the comfortable ride and the rustic, picturesque countryside. Even changing trains in Nuernberg and Aschaffenburg amounted to a minor inconvenience. But an unfortunate chain of events lurked around every corner, just waiting to turn my trip into a comedy of errors. Sadly, Ma wasn’t there to help me survive
After arriving, I checked into the hotel. Next morning, I awoke refreshed, ready for the day’s interview, which unfortunately ran in sessions for three days. Stressed out from the long meetings and the company’s hard-sell tactics, I decided not to make a commitment until they ironed out some issues.
At 4:30 that afternoon, I boarded the train and looked forward to a leisurely trip back. Naturally, I changed trains in Aschaffenburg and Nuernberg as on my trip up. No problem. My next and last stop should have been Vilseck, which posed a big damn problem!.
The beefy female attendant strolled through the aisles checking each passenger’s tickets. I eagerly presented mine to her. She scanned it and frowned, not a good sign for me. After handing it back to me, she screeched in fractured English, ”YOU ARE GOINK WRONG WAY. THIS TRAIN GO TO SCHWANDORF. YOU MUST GET OFF TRAIN AT NEXT STOP UND GO DIRECTION NEUNKIRCHEN!” I freaked out, “Schwanndorf? Where the hell is that?” Unmoved, she continued, “YOU MUST GET OFF AT NEXT STOP, OK? FROM DERE YOU TAKE TRAIN TO NEUNKIRCHEN, OK?”
No, NOT OK. I wanted to punch her, but it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, but I could feel a tantrum brewing in the pit of my stomach.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds, took in a deep breath, exhaled and mentally counted to ten…twice. After that, I was calm enough to hear her blast more orders at me, ”OVER DERE. TRAIN TO NEUNKIRCHEN STILL WAIT! HURRY!” She calmly resumed checking tickets and never looked back, not even once, to see if I was still a functioning human being.
Frustrated, I grabbed my bags and scurried off the train, foolishly deciding to skip the safety aspects of what should have been a simple process of getting to the platform on the other side of the station. I went to the edge of the platform, threw my bags down to the network of tracks and jumped down behind them. Then, I grabbed my bags and hopped over the tracks with good intentions of crawling up to the platform on the other side. But finding myself eye to eye with my target posed a particularly irritating problem. Not accepting defeat, I threw my bags up on the platform anyway. After getting a good grip with my hands, I hoisted one leg up. Huffing and puffing to get the rest of my body up to the platform. But, I couldn’t budge my lard ass, not even if a pack of wild dogs was nipping at my heels.
Suddenly, a severe, painfully paralyzing butt cramp figured heavily into this not-well-thought-out shortcut. Ignoring the curious stares from the other travelers, I paused and closed my eyes and stayed in that awkward position, waiting for the pain to subside. When it did, I slowly extricated myself from my clumsy stance, hoping no one had reported a deranged woman on the tracks to the Polizei (police). Then, I looked around for something to make this shortcut worth the embarrassment. Two large wooden blocks nearby provided me with the boost that I needed.
Finally reaching the platform and boarding my train, I stepped in line to let the attendant guide me to a seat. Tall and militarily imposing in his crisp uniform, he stood ramrod straight with hands clasped behind his back. He frostily greeted passengers with a quick, terse nod and no hint of a smile, I assume, for fear of cracking his face. As I tiptoed around him, I caught a glimpse of his name tag: “Blutstein (Bloodstone).” “Hmm. I gotta be careful not to tick him off,” I thought. After securing my bags, I got up to find Herr Bloodstone to ask him to check my ticket to make sure I was on the right train. I approached him cautiously and broke the ice in my best German with, “Bitte, nachpruefen Sie?” (Can you check this, please?) Whisking it from my shaky hands, he scanned it quickly and frowned, not a good sign for me. A Darth Vader-like voice with a thick Bavarian accent thundered, “YOU ARE GOINK IN WRONG DIRECTION! DIS TRAIN GO TO NUERNBERG! YOU MUST GET OFF IN NUERNBERG UND TAKE TRAIN TO AMBERG!”
Unfortunately, that petrifying voice blocked out any and all comprehension of what I thought he might have said. So I feigned ignorance with, “Bitte?” (Excuse me, please?) Thoroughly ruffled at my audacity to ask him for a repeat, he exploded, “YOU MUST TAKE TRAIN TO AMBERG!”
Inconsolable, I sputtered, “But, but I just came from that way!” Indifferent, he shoved my ticket back at me. With an impertinent flair, he continued with more instructions to me, “AMBERG! YOU CHANGE TRAIN UND FROM DER YOU GO TO VILSECK!” I snatched my ticket back and glared at him through squinted eyes. My self-contained reticence and limited German prevented me from arguing with him, and besides, he was too big and surly for me to put up a fuss with. Thankfully, he spun around and stepped away, taking his stoic look and sour personality with him. Actually, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, but I could see a nervous breakdown galloping over the horizon.
I trudged through the crowd back to my booth to await the next stop. Too dejected to sit, I stood by the window and leaned my head against it to pout, trying to grab some solace from a tight formation of birds soaring through the sky. I smiled at the children waving excitedly as the train zipped past their village. The beauty of the setting sun bathing the countryside in an orange and gold glow was a comfort to see. But these pleasant distractions whizzing by failed to snap me out of my blue funk.
I wanted to pull the emergency cord, fall out and kick and scream in the aisle, things I could probably pull off if I were two years old and traveling with my Mom. But Herr Bloodstone kept eyeing me suspiciously, staving off my pity party. Suddenly, a staggering mix of stale liquor breath and body odor assaulted my nose and caught my attention. On top of that, I felt as if someone was staring at me. Turning to check the source of this stench, I locked eyes with a tall, thin unkempt man. Stringy gray unwashed shoulder-length hair framed his gaunt face, which had finishing touches of deep-set, blood-shot eyes, bushy eyebrows and a long straggly beard. I almost blurted, “What the hell are you looking at”? but he spoke first. “Can I help you? I have a handy (cell phone). Can I call someone for you”? He spoke flawless English! Thoroughly humbled by his kind gesture, I spoke up, “Yes, yes please.” I explained my situation to him and asked him to call my friends in Vilseck. He took their numbers and dialed them all, but no one answered. Just like friends to be out of the net when I need them most. I needed to hear from any one of them, because I was about to experience an epic nervous breakdown. Oh well. I sucked it up because I had no other choice but to fend as best I could for myself. I thanked him for his kindness and moved towards the door to get ahead of the crowd and make my exit easier and faster.
At 7:15 p.m., I got off in Nuernberg again and headed for the other side of the station. Keeping safety in mind this time, I took the stairs down to a dimly lit, dank tunnel. Upon entering, I ran head on into a wall of putrid-smelling urine, which reeked throughout the hallway. Litter was strewn all over my path and the walls were battered with graffiti. I held my breath as long as I could while running the rest of the distance through the hallway and up the stairs to the platform on the other side of the station. Whew!
I boarded the other train without any problems, but began to feel like Freddie the Freeloader taking all these rides on just one ticket. Too bad this isn’t Disneyland. I chose to stand for the twenty-minute ride to Neunkirchen.
After arriving, I stepped off the train onto the platform of a tiny, dismal station, which was deserted and eerily quiet. Recalling my childhood nightmares of Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, I quickly hustled my bags into the dingy station and claimed a spot on a bench with my back to the wall and with a full view of both doors.
With so much activity and stress from my day, I had an intense urge to pee really badly. I looked around for the ladies’ WC (water closet), but unbelievably it was locked at this time of night. But, the men’s room door was ajar and I really had to go, but who knows what I’d find in there! “It” was too pressing to try to hold in until I got to the next station. The thought of going into the nearby woods was out of the question. So, I bolted out the front door to scout another source of relief. Fortunately, a still-opened Gasthaus (restaurant) was across the street. My bags? I rushed back into the station to grab them and tucked them into a corner of the station before heading towards my relief point.
I tore through the front door, startling the diners who all looked up at me in unison from their meals. But the women knew that look of “urgency and desperation” on my face. I ignored them all to focus on finding the ladies’ room. Fortunately, I saw the sign, which indicated that the WC was downstairs. I skipped a few steps in my haste to get there. Finishing up, I ran up the stairs and back across the street to the station. Not surprisingly, my bags were still in place. Only in Germany! Never in New York!
Though trains are hardly ever late in Germany, I decided to recheck the arrival time on the schedule posted on the wall. “Hmm…45 minutes away. At least, I’m at the right track for the right train this time.” I walked to the front door and looked out into the night. With all the mishaps and close calls I’d survived so far. I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately, it did. It started to snow.
The thick flakes blurred my vision of the Gasthaus across the street. Shivering underneath my long black coat, I drew it tighter around me to stay warm and sat huddled on a bench in a corner near my bags. Later, a family of three came in: a middle-aged couple and I assumed the young boy was their grandson. The couple nodded a polite “hello” to me. I returned their gesture. Honestly, I wanted to share the details of my unfortunate day with them, but I knew that they spoke only German. Hell, I didn’t know the language enough to explain much to them without me sounding foolish and them losing interest and turning away. It’s times like these when I miss my dog, who would always listen attentively to me whenever I needed to vent. So I kept it all to myself, deciding to corral my friends and unload on them once, if ever, I got back home.
After arriving in Amberg at 8:30, I checked the schedule for the next train to Vilseck, a 15-minute ride away by car. “Let’s see: Amberg to Vilseck: 10:15. 10:15! That’s two hours away! Dammit, I can’t spend two hours in this train station!” So close to home, yet so far away. I decided to try calling my friends again, who should be home by now. Called Billy. No answer. I forgot that Wednesdays are his Bible study nights. Called Betty. No answer. I forgot that Wednesdays are her German-American Friendship Club nights. Called Mike. No answer. Crap! Who knew where the hell his randy ass was. Taking a taxi home would be too expensive. So, my wait continued as my patience wore paper-thin. Being realistic, I contemplated spending the night in this unusual train station about a stone’s throw away from my home.
The noisy, party like atmosphere in the station grabbed my attention. At nearby tables, rosy-faced individuals at different stages of inebriation huddled close to each other, laughing and clinking their glasses to toast anything that moved. A haze of gray smoke drifted lazily around them. Empty beer mugs, shot glasses and ashtrays teeming with smoldering butts filled the tiny tables. I looked around again to see if this was a train station or if I had accidentally wandered into a local pub.
Deciding to keep moving, I grabbed my bags and headed for the phone area again. While dialing Mike’s number, I caught a whiff of a familiar stench poisoning the air around me. It was the same stale liquor-breath from that nice man on the train. With the phone still up to my ear, I turned around to face a rotund man with a head of thick, wiry gray hair and a dingy gray, bushy Santa Claus beard. Blood-shot eyes and a bloated beer belly told me that he was no fitness trainer. Wobbling and weaving in place, he belched loudly before he slurred something to me in German, which I did not understand. Then he smiled at me, giving me an unwelcome glimpse of his yellowed chipped teeth. I blurted out in fractured German, “Scrammen Sie!” (Get lost!) But he continued smiling, tickled, I think, at my lack of a fitting comeback to him in his language. Or maybe I just sounded plain foolish to him. I then gave him a look which, in any language, told him to fuck off. With his smile fading as quickly as it had appeared, he turned and stumbled back toward his partying buddies at the table.
Still having no luck reaching any of my friends, I felt I needed something to help me pass the time away. The intoxicated group’s jovial demeanor created a party-like atmosphere, which convinced me to have a beer too. I headed for the bar and bought a strong Pils. Luckily, I found an empty table at which to sit and sip my suds, trying not to sink into a deep funk about my day so far. Dutifully, the strong beer relaxed me. However, it was hard to ignore the group’s noisy banter and laughter filling the station. I envied them having a good time. I even thought about joining them to momentarily forget my troubles, but the drunken fat guy sitting with them made me change my mind.
Finishing my beer, I headed back to the phone and finally got Mike. He laughed throughout the brief description I gave him of my situation. He assured me that he’d arrive shortly. I called Billy and briefly told him of my trip. He was still laughing when I told him that Mike was coming to get me. Betty would probably laugh too, so I skipped calling her.
Mike arrived thoroughly amused with a big grin on his face as he walked through the door and saw me. But what I had been through was no laughing matter. He grabbed my bags with one hand and with the other put a reassuring arm around my shoulder and led me to the car. In the driver’s seat was his “friend,” a wacky lady (loose term) with a hair-trigger temper and a short attention span, politically correct terms for just plain stupid. I headed for the back seat, but for some reason, Mike insisted I ride in front. Recalling my day so far, I got in front as he wished because I was finally going home.
She started up the engine, which backfired and belched a sound like an elephant with tonsillitis. “Bad, bad muffler, I thought.” I tried to buckle the seat belt, but it wouldn’t snap securely, so I held it in place across my lap for the short trip to Vilseck.
She slipped smoothly into traffic as snow continued blanketing the streets. The windshield wipers were of little use to keep the windshield clear of the thick snow coming down. Though the icy, two-lane road to Vilseck posed a major driving hazard, Miss Stupid drove like it was summertime dry. “Just what I need, a crazy driver, a hoopty with broken seat belts and no air bags.”
I tried to settle down, welcoming the warm air thawing my body. It felt good, and I was finally going home. But this crazy lady’s kamikaze diving tactics elevated my panic level to an all-time high.
I gripped the seatbelt tightly as she swung the car sharply into an ‘S’ curve which forced us all to rock left and right. Incredibly, she tried to start a pleasant conversation with me, talking to me as if we were chatting over coffee in a cozy cafe. I was appalled that she actually thought I would be interested in anything she had to say. With a frozen grin on my face to give her some semblance of interest, I blocked her out and kept my attention glued to the road and my feet riveted to the floorboards, praying she wouldn’t send us all tumbling down the steep embankment on one of the sharp curves in the road.
I lost count of the times Mike yelled for her to slow down. But her erratic driving continued. I wasn’t sure if she was ignoring him or couldn’t hear him over the roar of the muffler. With this unfolding heart-stopping drama, my first thought was to just pass out, so I wouldn’t feel the impact of an accident. My second thought, “Maybe I shoulda waited for the damn train,” but it was too damn late for hind sight and wishful thinking.
Finally, she pulled in front of my apartment. I got out of the car and thanked Mike and his crazy lady friend for picking me up and getting me home safely. Finally inside, I dropped my bags at the door and headed to my living room. I was too tired to cry, but had just enough strength left to sit in the middle of my living room floor and hysterically laugh my ass off at what had taken place that day. That was my therapy. I chuckled a bit when I heard the hoopty backfire a few more times before the sound faded into the night. But I promised myself, “Next time, I’ll drive!”