The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


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Oct. 4, 2006

           I know I can’t fault Amtrak for the guy who jumped in front of the train just south of Santa Barbara. Or perhaps he was just taking a nap on the tracks, I don’t know---but I do know it was not Amtrak’s fault that he died. And it wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that after stopping the train, the engineer went on the P.A. and asked for a blanket---then changed the request to three blankets.
          It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that the guy was in three pieces, or that we had to wait an hour for the coroner.
          It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that my hat was stolen at Union Station before the trip even began, and that my train was three hours late coming in from Chicago (maybe there were buffalo blocking the tracks.) It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that a freight train broke down in Oregon, somewhere after midnight, and that we spent half the night waiting for it to be pushed out of the way.
          It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that just outside of Portland, a car stalled on the tracks and we had to wait an hour or two for someone to remove it. And it wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that because of this, our crew’s allowed amount of working hours expired, and we had to wait for a new crew to be trucked in.
          It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that we were 9 hours late arriving in Seattle, and oh, six or seven hours late getting back into L.A.., a week later. After all, freight trains have the right-of-way over people who relish archaic and quaint modes of travel that enable one to actually get a sense of movement.
          Still, I asked for some compensation from Amtrak customer service, and they agreed to issue my female superior and I credit for $100 each against future travel. It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that two traveling companions of ours on the same ill-fated trains received $150 vouchers. It wasn’t Amtrak’s fault that the agent who then agreed to up our vouchers to $150 had a sour tone as she did so.
          Your next question, of course, is: why the hell would I want “future travel” with Amtrak? Well, maybe it’s the nice way the train rocks when you are in a roomette, stretched out, sleeping. Maybe it’s the strange dinner guest configurations that can find you dining with a drug addict psycho just released from prison and a badly frightened older woman bookworm hermit. (Scintillating conversation excerpt: “I did acid while watching a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ marathon. When it was over, the Beaver and I were like that!”) Or maybe it’s just wanting to take advantage of $300 in travel vouchers.
          Whatever the case, I tried to book a one-way from Seattle to L.A. recently, for a planned excursion early next year. I spoke to Julie, and if any of you have ever phoned Amtrak, you have spoken to Julie, too. She is chipper, lively, endlessly helpful and polite. She is exemplary in her cheerfulness and efficiency, and she has a kind of cute lilt in her voice that is mildly erotic. She is also a recording, but most of the nicest people in the world are.
          Try as she might, Julie was unable to help me. I would tell her that I wanted to apply travel credit, and Julie would say, “Uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. . .” or “I think you said you want information” or something like that. After a while, I admit it, I got a little rude with Julie. I just cannot believe anyone can be so endlessly patient in this vicious world, and it started to irritate me.
         “Just gimme a f----n’ human being!” I yelled, and by God, she did.
          I told the human being that I was not pleased to have spent almost ten f-----n’ minutes dealing with Julie, and he said that if I used that naughty word again, he would hang up on me. He was right. How dare I be upset about Amtrak’s dear Julie, who had only tried her utmost to interpret my words with her pretty little electronic processors!
          So I apologized to the human, who then proceeded to listen to my request, and---I realize this tests the limits of credulity---book a reservation! What’s more, he even allowed that a lot of people get a little upset with Julie, and my admiration for her endless patience only grew.
          “Just take your vouchers to the ticket agent and they will be applied to your fare,”said the human, a trace of pleasantry entering his tone.
          Yes, I nearly replied, and just invade and occupy Iraq and it will turn into a beautiful and sunny democracy!
          I drove downtown to Union Station, keeping an eye out for my hat that was stolen a year ago. Waited in line for tickets for about twenty minutes, then was helped by a woman who smiled pleasantly and didn’t move very much.
          “Your name isn’t Julie, is it?” I said, smiling.
          “Can I help you, sir?” she said, making me wonder even more if she was Julie.

Once home, I got lonely and decided that I missed Julie. She at least had tried hard to help me, and couldn’t help it if she didn’t have a brain. The live Amtrak clerk, I suspected, might not have been able to use this excuse.

          I explained the situation, showed her my reservation number, and asked that my vouchers be applied toward my fare.
          “No problem,” she said.
          Now perhaps no two words in the entire English language more bode trouble than these.
          “Just sign them for me,” she added, sleepily.
          “Should I sign my wife’s, also?”
          ”Yes, sir---no, wait a minute. I don’t want to create any problems here.”
          Oh, heavens, no! She had already announced that there were “no problems,” so surely the last thing Amtrak would want to do is to create a problem.
          “Of course not,” I said.
          I concluded that this couldn’t possibly be Julie because she actually stood up and waddled away to confer with another Amtrakker. I don’t think the federal subsidy that keeps the trains running allows for audio-animatronic robots. Yet.
          The woman returned shortly, and said this:
          “Mm-mm. You can’t sign it. Your wife has to come here with you.”
          “Um. . .I see. . .Um. . .Er. . .Why didn’t the agent I spoke with explain this to me?
          “I don’t know, sir. You’ll have to ask him.”
          I refrained from saying that taking the time to phone and ask the agent why he had not told me this was the most asinine suggestion ever made by any living creature on this, and possibly any other, planet.
          “I guess he just assumed that you and your wife use the same last name.”
          “Ahh. . .so that’s the problem, eh? But he had both names right in front of him. I wonder why he didn’t notice this.”
          I stopped her with another statement before she could tell me that I could phone the agent and ask him:
          “I don’t know what to do now, ma’am.”
          “Well, you have until midnight to come down here with your wife, then they expire.”
          “I’m not driving down here again today.”
          “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
          I refrained from telling her that this was the second most asinine statement ever made by a living creature on this, and possibly any other, planet.
          “I don’t know what to do,” I said.
          She shrugged.
          I drove home, listening to Bob Dylan: "Living in the Land of Nod/ Trustin' their fate to the Hands of God/ They pass by so silently/Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee. . ."
          Once home, I got lonely and decided that I missed Julie. She at least had tried hard to help me, and couldn’t help it if she didn’t have a brain. The live Amtrak clerk, I suspected, might not have been able to use this excuse.
          Julie asked me lots of questions and gave me lots of choices about which menu I wanted, and which key I should push, but I thought I would have a little fun with her, so I just babbled:
          “Bloooga blooga blooga reeebeee reeebeee zip zip blah blah bleegabooga. . .”
          And lo and behold, Julie promptly transferred me to a live person! Babbling, she understood. Good girl, Julie! You should be Bush's press secretary!
          Live Person promptly transferred me to customer service Live Person, and he promptly explained that the whole problem was that my female superior does not use my last name. That's right---it wasn't Amtrak's fault that we use different last names! I thought about getting into a debate about the merits of married people using the same name, and perhaps he sensed this, because he cut me off and said that if I just mailed the vouchers to him, he would apply them to my new fare.
          I thanked him and told him I would.
          But here’s a special little secret I’m only going to share with you, my loyal readers:
          The chances of me getting on an Amtrak train again are every bit as good as Iraq turning into a sunny democracy.

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