Amtrak/Camel Cigarettes

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When I was ten, I began to travel by myself. I was independent and rarely got homesick. For some reason, I very much enjoyed taking the Greyhound Bus from New Jersey to Toronto. My parents footed the bill for me to take the bus when it was their idea, but I worked diligently for other travel opportunities. I was very good at saving all of my money from babysitting, doing chores, and selling my baby gerbils back to the pet store.

It was the 70s and there weren’t nearly as many mentally ill people who abducted young girls. Let’s just say I was “safe.” On the bus I would sit with a stranger who looked well-meaning, typically a woman, and she would look out for me on the bus and during the truck stop bathroom breaks. She was probably thinking she would give my parents a talking-to when they picked me up.

My mother is from Toronto and she sent me to my summer camp and to visit my grandparents. They had long since divorced, and I would see my grandmother and her husband in their little house. It smelled like mashed potatoes and pepper, as well like things which old people have such as old sofas and carpeting which likened to mothballs and chicken broth. I would just stay there a night or two. My grandmother had an organ, but I don’t remember that she played it. My grandfather lived in an apartment near the northernmost subway stop on the Yonge Street Line. I already knew how to use the subways and busses because I visited often. I loved the freedom it gave to me travel within a big city safely. He took me mini golfing and to eat at Swiss Chalet, a fantastic chicken chain restaurant. I loved it.

When I was a little older, I attended McGill University in Montreal. I also went back and forth from New Jersey a few times a semester. The train from New York City to Montreal was about a 10-hour trip. I would get a coach class ticket and could sit anywhere I liked because the train was almost empty. Somewhere around Schenectady the train would slow down significantly not just because it was going through a town but because there was state prison and escaped convicts would end their lives by jumping in front of the trains.

In my seat, I would read a magazine or a book and sometimes bring a bag lunch. When I got bored, I would go back to the food car which was selling exactly 3 things: a pre-bagged hot dog in some kind of foil that the train car operator heats up in some weird oven, same foil-wrapped hamburger, and potato chips. I think this was pre-microwave. There were also beer and sodas.

I got a beer and no one carded me. With feigned confidence I sat in a booth and lit up a no-filter Camel cigarette. My girlfriends and I were obsessed with the book Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. Robbins asks in the book, “How do you make love stay?” I desperately wanted to know. Apparently by studying the cigarette pack, one can decipher a message from the red-haired Argonians. I smoked and looked at the cigarette pack and at my book, hoping with earnest effort I would perhaps learn the secret. Despite how wretched no-filter cigarettes are, there I sat and smoked, getting tobacco leaves on my lips and mouth. After I washed it down with my beer, I would go back to my seat and wait for my arrival into the Montreal station.

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6 Responses

  1. Wait, did you do the cigarette and beer thing when you were ten? I don’t think I was that young when I started it, but I used to steal my old man’s beer and cigarettes (he smoked Camel unfiltered also!), and have them in the garage or the basement. And, I loved “Still Life With Woodpecker”! So, we have even more in common than we thought!

    1. I was 16 or 17 by then, when smoking/drinking on the train. I loved his book! I think I read some others but they just weren’t as good. Jitterbug Perfume? Thanks Mike.

  2. My first experience with trains was when I lived in Germany and travel in southern Germany for October-fest driving was to dangerous with the drinking I was experiencing and all the drunks out on the road from October-fest. I carried Camels because the German’s recognizing I was American military (haircut)and always hit me up for a smoke (military have cigarette rations) I gave up smoking in highschool it interfered with biking and mountain climbing, I noticed I needed all the O2 I could get
    Seattle to Portland was my other train experience, I worked for a year in Portland OR as a Electrical Project Manager and met a young women on the train out of Portland and she asked me to join her in the women’s rest room for a smoke and to sit with her for lunch and hang out with. When we got off the train in Seattle, she met up with her boyfriend with her looking back one last time as they got in his Chevy Corvet

  3. The search for love is compellingly detailed here, Danielle. I lingered over these lines, in particular: “…I would see my grandmother and her husband in their little house. It smelled like mashed potatoes and pepper, as well like things which old people have such as old sofas and carpeting which likened to mothballs and chicken broth. I would just stay there a night or two.”

    You learned so much on these travels, and made decisions on your own. Excellent journal!


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