I Should Have Been Nicer to Amtrak

If you were vying to be the spokesperson for Macy’s or Dillard’s or Nordstrom’s, you’d say nice things about the retailer in your job interview. Common sense.

That’s why my approach to win the Amtrak job was so stupid. In my interview, I told a true story.

It all started because I wanted to win a free ride. Amtrak was searching for journalists to share their travel experiences, and promote ridership. The program, called Amtrak Residency, would turn bloggers loose on long-distance trains to tell tales of travel and adventure. The railroad would give each writer a rolling office in a sleeper car equipped with a bed and desk. Amtrak would pick up the tab.

“We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure!” Amtrak said in its call for journalists. Sweet deal. See America. Tell stories.

Of course, Amtrak assumed the bloggers would say nice things. And that was my downfall.

Even though the promotion would attract thousands of budding rail bloggers, I thought Amtrak would appreciate my honest insights. Regardless, I figured my odds were much better than Powerball. I love Amtrak, and could tell a trainload of positive stories. But I stuck to my strategy. I would win the job by fearlessly telling an BY JOHN DRAKE ROBINSON EMMY-WINNING TRAVEL WRITER unvarnished story about Amtrak travel. It was a stupid mistake, I admit.

This is my story: At Centralia, Illinois, Cheryl and I jumped aboard the City of New Orleans, headed south. (Cue the music in your head). At Memphis, a group of fraternity spring breakers joined the trip and settled in the club car for a night of partying and bobbin’ in their coolers for cold Buds.

The conductor came through our coach, said they were looking for somebody to play the piano back in the club car, where the students had begun to yodel and howl. Well, shoot, I knew the chords to “Wooly Bully.” I volunteered. We had a rollicking time, drinking and hollering out songs. Somebody put a tip jar on the piano, and by the end of the night, when the last frat boy had fallen as the City of New Orleans rolled through the darkness, I wandered up the narrow aisle through a gauntlet of snores back to my seat, where I soon fell asleep in a semi-recumbent position.

When I awoke, the train was stopped. Broken down. It was hot and stuffy, and the dead-calm air was tainted with the peculiar odor that happens when conductors won’t let fraternities with hangovers step off the train. The City of New Orleans became a long skinny aluminum cannelloni with three hundred people stuffed inside. We spent six hours on a siding outside Grenada, Mississippi, waiting for a repair train to reach us and restore power so the electric toilets would flush again and the air conditioner would come back on and blow away the urine smell. The club car snack bar was closed since they had no electricity to microwave cellophane sandwich packages, or take a debit card.

The day was Mississippi hot, sticky as a Tennessee Williams stage play. I looked out the window into a swamp where a dozen unmistakable bumps with alligator eyes poked just above the water.

We sat there for hours, sweating buckets while our New Orleans time slipped away like Willie Nelson promised it would. The train ended up breaking down two more times, and when it finally rolled into New Orleans, we’d lost a third of our short weekend.

Needless to say, my story didn’t win me the Amtrak job. Wonder if TWA or the St. Louis Rams are hiring? Read more road tales in John’s two books–A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart and Coastal Missouri–available at Left Bank Books. Read more of his stories at http://johndrakerobinson.com.