I took the train from Boston to New York. I haven't travelled alone for years, and I forgot how lonely it can be when you're in a city surrounded by locals who look past you.
Striking up a conversation might mark you out as crazy, so for accommodation I've mostly been raiding Couchsurfing.org and staying in hostels. With the former, politeness and curiosity about my region's Lord of the Rings locations forces my host to talk to me, and at the latter, there's always someone else hoping to head out for a beer, some live music, and the fleeting pleasure of finding out you cried at the same moments in Game of Thrones.
I was hoping to chat to some other empty-pocketed travellers on the train too, and looking forward to a relaxed morning's travel. But it never occurred to me to be actually scared of rail until I got to Boston's South Station an hour too early, and spent the time waiting for the 171 by watching a repeating series of mini security videos informing me America's intelligence network sees the railway as a target for terrorists.
"Stop and ask yourself this question: why should I feel safe riding Amtrak trains?" a voiceover said. Well, I don't now, so thanks very much.
"If you see something, say something," the video continued, before telling me what I needed to look out for in my fellow passengers. Nervousness, revealed by excessive perspiration, seemed to be the main giveaway. But I must also look out for abandoned packages with batteries, wires, or cellphones attached, or those that smell, are leaking fluid, or are emitting a cloud, mist, gas, or vapour.
I am guessing a bundle of red sticks attached to an alarm clock and a big red number panel counting down to zero would also be dangerous, but they didn't mention that one. Instead they showed dramatisations of a woman leaving a handbag in a station and swiftly walking away, as well as a man activating an electronic device on a bag and shoving it in the back of a car.
But fear not these shadowy dark-haired characters: Amtrak counters their anti-American malevolence with dogs, "the best technology we have out there". They're trained to detect bombs and even suicide bombers, and are, the video explained, able to sniff out an unseen trail of explosive materials, in just the same way that you might follow a bag of freshly popped popcorn down the office hallway.
Dogs "make it harder for the people who are trying to hurt us", the video said. "Next time you see a bomb detector squad at Amtrak's stations, let them know you appreciate all they do for you."
If you wanted to create a constant low-level climate of fear among your populace, I can't think of a better way to do it. Still, the warnings must be working and good American citizens are obviously weeding out the dissidents lurking among them, because the 171 was terrorist-free on Wednesday morning, for which I was grateful, because I was keen for a nap.
I wish I could travel only by train from now on. Amtrak was unexpectedly soothing and luxurious and afforded excellent views of the backyards of American industry: collections of UPS vans and school buses, fleets of concrete mixers, rows of portaloos, schools of yachts. I grew up on a diet of TV shows featuring those yellow school buses stopping at dangly traffic lights, watching people who lived in those tall shingled three-storey houses with attics and fire escapes. If England was the cultural home of my grandparents' generation, America must be the touchstone for mine.
I did nap. But I met no-one; everyone was plugged into earbuds. The only one who wasn't was a guy across the aisle, who sat with a laptop resting on his belly, surrounded by a flotsam of peanut M&M wrappers and Pepsi cans. But he wasn't in the mood for a little discussion about Westeros. He seemed to be talking to his real estate agent.
"It needs to say ‘Classic Estate'," he said.
"No! ‘Classic New England Country Estate'. Or ‘Farm'.
"No, you can't just throw around the title of Farm; this is a Rolling Farm. A Classic New England Rolling Country Farm. Or Estate."
That was it for my potential conversation partners, and I stared out the window instead. Still, he was visibly perspiring, which is one of Amtrak's signs of a nervous terrorist, so perhaps it was for the better.
- © Fairfax NZ News