Some things are so surreal you have to wonder what the heck is going on with your day. Today was one of those.
I know this is long, but it gets better as it goes along and hopefully you’ll get how weird I felt by the time I got to my destination.
It started out innocuously enough – I did the usual struggle to sleep thing before an early morning start. You see I had booked myself on an 8.45 (wait for it) AM train out of Penn Station to get up to Albany for a couple of student events. I can never get to sleep early on these “night befores”. I toss and turn and then remember something I should do so get up and deal with that, then toss and turn – and repeat for ages until 2 or 3 am – at the earliest. Wasn’t helped by my phone ringing at 2am either and than having a hang up.
Oh, and on the flip side, I always struggle with trusting the alarm, so my body clock wakes me up at least an hour before, and then I flit in and out of sleep until I physically watch the clock tick over and the buzzer go off – 6.15am.
So, I’m on about 3 hours sleep – if that (still all normal).
Shower, dress, final packing, and leave right on 7 – according to plan amazingly enough.
Now my trip to Albany isn’t just a train from Penn Station. First I have to catch the HBLR (light rail) from Bayonne down to Newport, then transfer over a couple of blocks to the PATH to get under the river over to Manhattan, then down a block to Penn Station (this latter I’d never done before so was a little uncertain if it really was one block depending on how I came out of the PATH).
So, 7am departure to catch an 8.45 is reasonable – especially given I had to also convert my e-confirmation to real tickets for Amtrak.
So, I sit down, all relaxed and glance at the printout. Wait, that can’t be right – what does it mean 8.15 – it’s 8.45, right? Nope – it’s an 8.15 departure! Suddenly what was intended to be a relaxed, planned for trip into Penn Station became a mad dash that I am eminently familiar with. Watching the clock tick over on my phone, checking timetables for light rail and PATH, calculating distances, and just how fast I could walk/run carrying a 40 pound/18 kg backpack full of stuff I was going to give away and my awesome yet heavy as a concrete block laptop.
Then it began. First, some clown decided it would be fun to keep leaning on the door of the light rail. This causes it to auto-stop, and despite the driver’s comments, they ignored it. Still – miraculously, we got to Newport on time, just me frazzled that we wouldn’t. Well done NJ Transit.
Racing over to the PATH, I actually managed to get on the train I thought I’d miss – yay me. Unfortunately, it was so packed – as you might expect at around 7.40 – that I ended up freestyling the whole way there without being able to reach any kind of handhold and hoping that none of the usual jerks and turns would mean I fell on to the 9-10 year old girl standing nearby. And with my backpack solidly at my feet, I also ended up somehow contorted like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, left ankle hurting quite painfully. Again, though, despite the stress of uncertainty, we made it to 33rd Street on time and then it was time to book it down the block to Penn Station.
Of course, Amtrak is actually at the other end of Penn Station so a frantic duck and weave right throughout the whole place ended up in the right area – at 8.10. Train still due to depart at 8.15 according to the board. Scanned my confirmation and printed the tickets off and raced to the gate. YES!
But of course, now that I actually made it to the station on time, the train gets delayed. The weather was so cold today that the track froze and the train lost power. So we were delayed about 20 minutes before we were allowed to board. But once on, yes – plenty of space to stretch out and I quickly grabbed a window seat and relaxed. I was going to be a little late in but I had factored that in my plan too – so I wasn’t going to be late for my presentations – yay!
JUST as the train closed its doors, a innocent looking old guy came and sat next to me. I wasn’t sure why he picked my seat (at first – things became apparent later) as I am pretty sure there were other seats completely unoccupied but the seats were comfortable enough that I didn’t mind only having one.
I noticed that he didn’t have a sense of personal space – I mean – you can see where the seats join, so he should have been able to keep to his side, especially with me between him and the window meaning I couldn’t move anywhere else. But encroach he did, leg pushing firmly into my area. *sigh* Then he got paperwork out which also drifted over my way. *sigh*
But determined not to make trouble, I pulled my hood up and, bundled warmly, decided to sleep a little. I woke up some indeterminate amount of time later to an absolutely beautiful view of New York countryside – frozen lakes, dollops of snow on the top of every tombstone of the cemetery we were going past, sugar sprinkles of white on the top of wheat/grass. Pine trees looking amazing in their dark, deep green contrasting sharply with the stark whiteness of piles of powder. And it kept getting better. Iced over rivers, that were smooth and rough alternating, some places looking like actual turbulence frozen in mid-thrash. There was an awesome lighthouse in the middle of the river – which was all covered in snow, so it looked almost alien standing out there in the middle of seeming nowhere.
Then it got worse. I realised that there was a slight pressure on my leg. I looked down and there was “innocent” old guy’s hand, resting on my leg. I glance over and his eyes had closed, so I wasn’t sure whether he had done it on purpose or just part of him moving around in his own little dreamtime, but a little offputting to say the least. Especially with the ever-so-slight smile on his face and his other hand down underneath the tray table and out of sight. OK… ummm… umm… um… this unasked for, yet provided affection, wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I casually moved my leg away and he didn’t budge. May have been innocent after all.
Next up – the train slowed down to an eventual standstill which is where we stayed for about 15-20 minutes – just outside Hudson. Eventually, the guard came through and informed us that we would be pulling up to a southbound train that had broken down and transferring all the passengers off it to bring back to Albany with us. It seems that the train had left at 5.20am that morning and they had been stuck there ever since – it was around 11.00am by this stage (which – all going well, still gave me enough time to get to my presentation). But it was another 15 minutes or so before we even got to the other train, and another 15-20 minutes after that to transfer the passengers over (including luggage, etc).
OK – I was now probably going to be late, but what could I do?
It was nothing compared to these poor people – one guy nearby said this was his second failed attempt to get home (oh joy, I am still in Albany as I write this and wonder what my fate is tomorrow).
So, we eventually get into Albany to be greeted by this:
Apologies for the quality of the photo (you can zoom in and make out the words/numbers though) but apparently it was so cold that the computers were fritzing too. It turned out that we were the last train to make it through (the Adirondack) before Amtrak completely shutdown. You’ll also notice that it says that the train was originally scheduled for 10.45, had a status of 35 minutes late, but the time was 11.41 – my math makes that 56 minutes late, but hey.
As I left the hall, I heard the announcement come over for the poor saps who were trying to make it to NYC – they were destined for a bus service to take them down. I guess that’s what happens when the temperature is –20C/-4F.
By this stage I was expecting an issue at the taxi rank and yes – it was bedlam. But I had one last surprise for me to cheer me up.
So while I was halfway down the line, because I wasn’t going downtown, I had to wait for the right taxi. Eventually it turned up when it was between three girls going to RPI and me to SUNY Albany. This crazy looking guy pulls up in a rusting – and I mean RUSTING – yellow cab, honking his horn like his life depended on it. I looked at the taxi rank guy and said “really?”
Turned out – "really”. So I jumped in, and off we went – while his horn continued to blare randomly. I then noticed the trunk was wide open and mentioned it to him – he stopped in the middle of the street going absolutely hardcore with the horn, jumped out, shut it, and got back in and off we went.
The horn kept going and I almost felt like royalty as cars moved out of his way, but then he revealed his embarrassing secret. The wiring in the car was wrong and whenever he applied the brakes, the horn would blow. And it would blow louder the harder he pressed on the brakes. AWESOME. Once that mystery was out of the way, I actually quite enjoyed myself – even when we got to SUNY where I thought I would be mortified by such an undignified entrance, but ended up chuckling as a group of students waiting at the bus stop scattered when they heard the sound thinking he was warning them he was about to crash.
To eliminate the rare moments of silence between horn toots, the driver revealed his (obviously not-so-embarrassing) secret – he was a degenerate gambler and I was his last fare because of the horn and he was headed to the track, yes sirree, the track where he knows them horses like the back of ‘is ‘and and could pick winners not like those city boys who don’t know nuthin’ (yes, he used words like this). He proudly told me his bank account was $0 last December and he’d got it up to $330! through betting at the track alone. I gotta get me some of his talent. Yes, this is sarcasm due to the apparently claimed maximum balance he had last week of $10,000. Betting wins, huh?
So I finally got to Albany and did my presentation. I was even only 12 minutes late! And then I – just to top it off – proceeded to tell the surreal stories of the Queensland floods – of bullsharks cruising the main street of towns, of cows standing on the roofs of houses, of people floating down the river in outdoor spas.
It felt only right.
I love these kinds of days in hindsight – just not necessarily so much while I’m living them.