Hello from Austin where I’m stubbornly refusing to attend the SXSWi conference while still taking advantage of its audience for my own profit. Yes, I’m launching the US edition of my book, The Upgrade, here today at 5pm with a reading at Bookpeople.
If you’re in town, you should come! You can’t even buy the US edition (with an extra bonus chapter) on Amazon yet — and I’ll gladly scrawl some profanity on the inside cover for you.
Either way, here’s an EXCLUSIVE extract from the book. The month was March 2008. The previous week I’d travelled from SXSWi to Dallas for St Partick’s day and was now boarding a train from Dallas to Chicago. American trains, it turns out, are pretty remarkable…
* * * *
Chapter 600: French Toast in a Bowl
The Texas Eagle service from Dallas to Chicago takes twenty-six hours and the range of books available at Dallas’s Union Station made the average airport newsagents look like the Smithsonian. Instead I bought Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and every other magazine I could ﬁnd that wasn’t porn and didn’t promise ‘ﬁve hundred tips to drive your man wild’.
Even having applied the porn ﬁlter, the woman behind the counter – who couldn’t have been older than thirty-ﬁve – looked at the cover of GQ, with its photo of model Adriana Lima, and raised both eyebrows.
‘You want a bag for this one?’
No, I felt like saying, I’m just going to ﬁnish off here.
As the train rolled out of Dallas, I wandered down to the viewing car and sat in one of the swivel chairs that line both sides. Sooner or later during the journey, everyone on the train would have to pass through where I was sitting: the viewing area was above the bar and next to the dining car. What better place to people-watch and hope for adventures?
Riding on the Texas Eagle the previous day I’d assumed that the idea of the observation car – what with the ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows and all – was just to allow passengers to look outwards – to see the Capitol building in Little Rock (a replica of the US Capitol in Washington, DC) or to take a photograph of the station at Tex- arkana where the train pauses brieﬂy with half in Texas and half in Arkansas, or to marvel at the views of the mighty Mississippi, as we passed over it . . .
But if that were the intention then the service wouldn’t pass all of those places in the dead of night. In fact, as I began my second Texas Eagle journey I became convinced that the huge windows and the pitch darkness outside and the bright lights inside had exactly the opposite purpose – to turn the entire observation car into a giant inward-facing mirror. A custom-built environment for people-watching.
Certainly, in contrast to the barren wastes and sleepy towns passing by outside, a huge variety of human life could be found in the observation car; marines returning home from Iraq, young teachers grading piles of paper while their pupils slept in the adjacent coach, students on their way to spring break, the old, the young, the black, the white, the rich, the poor. And, with nothing to see but each other, they couldn’t help but talk. I met a teacher – she couldn’t have been a day over twenty-three – who was taking a carriage-load of kids on a school trip to somewhere or other, on her own.
The respect she commanded from her charges was astonishing, and we talked for a while about the differences between education in the UK and the US. She couldn’t grasp why I was concerned about her ability to handle such a large group. ‘But they’re children,’ she kept saying, ‘and I’m an adult.’
Over dinner, I made the acquaintance of three frat boys (I forgot to write down their names – but I know at least two of them rhymed) who were on their way back from what sounded like a memorable spring break in the south. We got talking after I over- heard them discussing one particularly successful romantic encounter from the trip . . .
‘Dude, I’m serious – she said I made her come like three times. She said I was the fuckin’ best she’d ever had . . .’
‘Dude! You gonna tell Beth?’
‘Fuck no. But – yunno – fuck Beth. Beth’s fuckin’ frigid, man . . .’
‘Yeah, but she had some sweeeet tits.’
‘True, man. That’s fuckin’ true . . .’
I was sitting quietly, reading one of my half-dozen magazines, for at least ten minutes before they noticed that the waiter had seated me opposite them.
‘Oh shit, sorry, man . . . that was pretty rude.’
‘No problem,’ I replied. ‘I dated Beth for a while. I know what you mean.’
‘Ha – you’re all right man. You Australian?’
* * * *
Back to the observation car – having paid $21 for my three-course meal, including a New York strip steak – I decided to settle down for the night rather than heading back to my proper seat. A group of college kids, drinking half-bottles of house26 wine, had produced an iPod and some speakers and it wasn’t long before the carriage was rocking to the sounds of the Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.
For the rest of the night I listened to a succession of iPod play- lists – the Beach Boys turned to Soulja Boy turned to Cher turned to Snoop Dogg – and met even more people. I met two cheerleaders on their way back to school in Detroit who hated Hillary Clinton with a passion I expect they’d normally reserve for pre-makeover geeks.
‘If she becomes President then this country is screwed,’ said one of them. ‘You know who’d make a great President? Oprah.’
I met a marine who was traveling home with his wife and nine- month-old baby. He’d been in Iraq for a year and this was the ﬁrst time he’d met his daughter. The three of them – the marine, his wife and the baby, slept across two seats on the train, cuddled up against the cold. They couldn’t afford to ﬂy, he explained. ‘And, anyway, I don’t trust planes.’
I met a guy called Mike who travels the country by railway, making his money from people who are about to have their homes foreclosed by the bank. He explained how his business works: ‘I arrive in a new town and walk around the poor streets looking for foreclosure notices. Then I knock on the door and introduce myself. I offer to buy the house for ﬁfty grand. It’s a fraction of the real value, but by selling to me they don’t get foreclosed which means their credit rating isn’t affected. They can take the money I give them and start again.’
‘What, start again in a tent?’ I asked, amazed by the shitty deal he was giving these poor people.
‘Sure, if they like. The point is, I’m giving them a better break than the bank would. These are people who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford. What did they expect? The way I see it, they’ll lose their home anyway. At least I give them money to start again and their credit is clean.’
‘And then what do you do with their houses?’ I asked.
‘I call the bank. Offer them maybe 40 per cent of the true value of the place. They always take it. No one wants to be stuck with a house with a recession coming.’
‘You think there’s a recession coming, then?’
‘No doubt about it. You know there’s a recession coming when business is this good.’
At around 4 a.m., the train pulled to a halt, I assumed because a freight train needed to get past. The party in the observation car had ﬁnally wound down, and Mike and I were the only two people still there, except for a couple of girls sleeping in the seats opposite. But then a curious thing happened. From the sleeping carriage two cars down, people began to emerge, wearing pajamas or wrapped in sleeping bags, rubbing their sleepy eyes.
From the main carriage, too, passengers who had clearly been asleep were waking up and padding down the train steps, out on to the platform. It was freezing cold outside and the station building looked deserted.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked Mike. ‘Where is everyone going?’
‘We’re at Poplar Bluff. It’s a smoking stop – last one before morning.’
‘They’re waking up to smoke?’ I said, taking another swig of my beer. The bar was closed but I thought I could see a bottle of whisky peeking out of the top of a bag belonging to one of the sleeping girls, so all was not lost.
‘Yep,’ said Mike, ‘addiction is a hell of a thing.’
* * * *
I slept for a couple of hours in total, but kept being woken up by people walking through the carriages. Truth is, I didn’t really want to sleep; I was enjoying watching the towns rolling by outside the window and thinking about how sorry I felt for all the people out there who owned houses.
I thought about what Mike had said – ‘no one wants to be stuck with a house in this economy’ – and I thought about those people who would dearly love to be stuck with their houses, but who were forced to sell them to people like Mike.
The girls opposite – more cheerleaders, as it turned out, heading back to school in Chicago – had given me the rest of their bottle of whisky in return for promising to mention them in my book about great American train journeys.27 I took another swig and settled back for another nap. Breakfast was served in the restaurant car and, to make sure I got a seat, I’d made a booking the previous night for 8 a.m.
Spending the night in the observation car had been fun, but also freezing cold, so I was looking forward to a big American breakfast. I’d even be prepared to overlook their problem with bacon. But as I arrived at the restaurant car, the waiter was taping a hastily handwritten sign on the restaurant car door. ‘Sorry – continental breakfast only (bananas, Rice Krispies, oatmeal, yoghurt and coffee).’
‘Bananas and Rice Krispies?’ I said. ‘What continent is that breakfast from?’
‘Sorry – that’s all there is. We were supposed to get a delivery of plates last night but they didn’t show up. We won’t have any until St Louis so we can’t serve any hot food.’
I sat down at one of the communal tables, across from an oversized man in a red checked lumberjack shirt. He introduced himself as Doug, ‘a steelworker until I ﬁnally came to my senses and retired’. We talked for a while, about Tony Blair – once he’d placed my accent – and how he wanted to thank us for our support of America and George W. Bush. He hoped we’d support President McCain just the same.
I smiled and said all the right things until the waiter came over to take our order. Doug had read the sign about the lack of breakfast choices, but he had a plan.
‘I don’t need a plate,’ he said. ‘I’ll just get some French toast in a bowl.’
The waiter stopped scribbling on his pad. ‘I’m really not sure we can do that, sir.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Our French toast is served on plates.’
But Doug wasn’t budging.
‘Son, I’ve seen most things in my sixty-nine years – I think I can handle French toast in a bowl.’
I liked Doug. The waiter explained that he’d have to check with the chef, and scurried off to do exactly that.
As he left, the school teacher from the previous night came and sat down with us. I was also growing to like the communal seating on American trains as opposed to British trains where only the mentally subnormal make so much as eye contact with a stranger.
‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ she said, ‘and what’s the news this morning?’
‘Doug just ordered French toast in a bowl,’ I explained.
‘A bowl? What’s wrong with a plate?’
‘The plates are meeting us in St Louis,’ said Doug. He didn’t skip a beat. And neither did the teacher…
‘Great. I could use some French toast in a bowl.’
The waiter came back just in time to hear the teacher also setting her heart on French toast in a bowl. The poor man looked like he was going to cry. ‘I’m sorry, sir, ma’am, but the chef says if we give you French toast in a bowl, we’ll have to give everyone French toast in a bowl.’
‘So what?’ asked Doug, raising his voice just loud enough; ‘tell me, son, would society crumble if that happened? Would the terrorists win if every man, woman and child on this train were to be served French toast in a bowl? Because I’d say our freedom to enjoy French toast in a bowl is what makes us Americans. In fact, if the terrorists could see us now, I’d say they’d be taking some measure of joy from our inability to manage to take some French toast and put it in a bowl, wouldn’t you say, son?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, that’s just what the chef says.’
‘Well,’ said Doug, his voice creeping even louder, ‘you tell the chef that Doug Anderson of Hawley, Pennsylvania, has two things to say in reply. Now, you should write these down in your little notebook there so you get them right.’
The waiter kept his pad in his pocket.
‘First off,’ Doug continued, ‘the customer is always right. And second, if all you do is prepare Rice Krispies on the railroad, you got no business callin’ yourself a chef.’
His piece said, Doug ordered the oatmeal, which I couldn’t help but think was unwise given that he’d just insulted the chef. I’ve seen Fight Club. I know what goes on.
I ordered a sealed pot of yoghurt.
Extracted with permission from The Upgrade: A Cautionary Tail Of A Life Without Reservations by Paul Carr, published by Disinformation Company 2012. All rights reserved.