This is a guest post by my dear friend Shelby Monita. Shelby is an adventurer, writer, zine-maker, and artist – among so much more. A creator and dreamer to the core, I am honored to share her stories with my readers.
Check out more of her adventures at http://shelbymonita.squarespace.com/ . Enjoy!
When I got on the train in Chicago, I checked my ticket; seat number 13. I thought it was a joke. I’d had nothing but the number 13 so far on this trip: room number 13, taxi number 13, $13 for lunch… it was always 13. For my sanity I could only take this as positive reinforcement. I was given seat number 13 on the overnight train to Memphis. While walking down the aisle to my chair, I looked ahead to see who my seat-partner was for this 10-hour ride, hoping I would be alone with enough room to stretch out and sleep. I took to my seat with no one next to me. In front of me was a middle aged, thin man with a blue sequined sailor hat, attempting to store the two shopping bags that he was using for luggage. He seemed a bit odd, but it didn’t bother me; I wasn’t sitting with him and wasn’t forced to interact with him. Just as I was thinking about how fortunate I was to have two seats to myself, two young men approached and informed me that I was in their place. I’d misread the numbers, accidentally taking a seat in number 11. Number 13 was directly next to the odd sailor-loving man.
I went to sit next to him and gave him a friendly smile, hoping we could sit in silence. I was exhausted. During one of my moments of brilliance earlier in the day, I thought it was a great idea to have breakfast, check out, leave my luggage at the hostel and walk the 1.5 hours to Millennium Park. I would try to kill an entire day, wear myself out, and hop on the train at 8 o’clock at night. Not a bad plan; not at all. I walked all the way down Milwaukee Avenue, getting lost a few times, but found my way. I wandered around the park for a while, only to realize how much time I still had before catching my train. I took to the Art Institute of Chicago and walked for hours, taking in everything I could. This is one of the most impressive arts establishments I’ve ever been in – it’s huge, never ending and filled with masterpieces. Since being there, I haven’t been able to go to another gallery. Despite one of the biggest in Canada being located just down the street from where I live, it’s not The Art Institute of Chicago and it’s not in Millennium Park. Being so caught up in all of this, I never sat down and ate – not for eight hours. I simply walked and took in the last bits of the city before I left. So, as you can see, by the time my tired feet got to rest on the train, I was exhausted and no mood to talk.
It seemed like nothing was going to go my way from here on in, and so this faux-sailor started talking to me. I discovered that his name is Palmer and he lives in San Francisco, but grew up in a suburb of Detroit. In fact, he grew up on the same street as the Lisbon family, the family famous from the book, then movie, The Virgin Suicides. He didn’t know much of the girls and no one in the neighborhood really spoke about what happened, even when the suicides had taken place. It was obvious that he didn’t really care to speak of it. Palmer was on a journey of his own. He was taking some time off work to go back home to Detroit to visit his family for a few days. After he was done there, he bought an open pass for the train, which allowed him to hop on and off as he pleased. He didn’t bring any luggage, just two large burlap shopping bags that held few clothes and some food. He was doing this for two weeks, tracking every mile and every state. Palmer was fascinating. He never booked a room in any city, taking an overnight train where he could sleep. He would then take off in the morning, asking the customer service desk at the station to hold his things for the day. Cruising around on a pair of roller blades, he would explore whichever city he was lucky enough to see that day. Palmer fed me tips from his extensive knowledge of train travel: For instance, if you purchase one of the inflatable mats for sale, you can go to the observation car in the train and lie there for a good night’s sleep. He actually did this partway through our trip. Also, it’s best to bring hard-boiled eggs and 3L of water on the long rides. Public swimming pools are great places to shower, and wearing flashy things (like a blue sequined sailor hat) is a great way to grab attention and make conversation with new people. When I told him that San Francisco was my last stop, he took my journal that I had been filing and used a page to draw a map and write down every place worth seeing, like a focaccia bakery in North Beach that is famous for the amazing Italian bread and also the mother/daughter team that bicker like none other. I ended up visiting this bakery on my last day in Frisco and Palmer didn’t disappoint – the bread was spectacular and the mother and daughter loved to hate each other.
Deep into our conversation, both our sets of eyes were getting tired, and so we decided to sleep. Palmer took his own advice, bringing his mat to the observation car, which gave me both seats to stretch out in. My roomy resting place felt like heaven, even though this midnight train to Memphis never turned the lights down and sleep was near impossible with little lights shining in my eyes. Just as I was finally settling into a slumber, I was woken up by a huge bang. It had been raining virtually the entire time and lightning hit the track, which only added to the odd events of this trip. After the lightning struck, it seemed like no one on the train was going back to sleep – not even Palmer, who returned to his seat to continue our conversation. As we were nearing Memphis, he asked me if I knew the movie Mystery Train. My jaw dropped – this Jim Jarmusch film, set in Memphis, is only one of my favourite movies. The film is made up of three intertwined stories about people on a train to Memphis who all ended up staying in the same rundown motel. It was filmed in the late 80s and stars Joe Strummer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Steve Buscemi and many others. It’s amazing, though – this movie hadn’t even crossed my mind on my way to Memphis until this mysterious man on this overnight train mentioned it. I, of course, jumped up and told him it was one of my favourite movies and that I couldn’t believe he’d just mentioned it. Palmer explained that 20 years prior, he had gone to Memphis on a school trip and ate at the diner featured in Mystery Train. In fact, this very diner happened to be right across the street from the train station, where Palmer planned on eating breakfast. He invited me along. I didn’t answer right away, instead choosing to leave my options open. The train pulled into Memphis an hour ahead of schedule, and I blamed the lightning that had struck the track. At 5:30am, it was dark, rainy, and Palmer was the only soul I knew for miles and miles. Once I realized this, I looked over at him and told him I would love to join him for breakfast.
Leaving the train behind, we crossed Main Street towards Memphis’ oldest diner, the Arcade Restaurant, established 1919. I was excited – I hadn’t had a meal in 24 hours and I was going to be eating in a diner that I’d only seen in scenes from my favourite movie. We tried the door but it was locked, and wouldn’t open until 7:00am. So there we were: two tired, hungry strangers on a corner in a legendary little town. With an unspoken understanding that we were in this together, we walked back into the train station as the sun was rising, parking ourselves on a beautiful old wooden bench for the next hour and a half.
We only had time to get to know each other better. Palmer used to be a claymation artist on a Disney film in San Francisco. I might add this is not the first time I’ve had an odd encounter with a claymation artist for Disney, but that is another story. He worked as an artist on a movie that I never learned the name of, until Disney bought Star Wars and ran out of money for the production. Now he works at a popular coffee chain, Pete’s, across the bay. The rest I can’t remember. From here it becomes a bit hazy; a hunger, sleep deprived daze. At 7:00am, we ran across the street, the first customers to grab a booth. We ordered water and coffee and started to salivate over the menu. They had a “Mystery Train” sandwich, but I went for an omelet. While we waited for food, I looked around the place and learned a few things about it: Jack White loves to eat there since his home in Nashville is only a three hour drive away, Elvis was a regular, and many other movies were filmed there after Mystery Train, (though none of them as good). The original building from 1919 hasn’t been redecorated since the 1950s, and this was obvious. Again, everything became a daze. Palmer told me how he liked to dress in a blue one piece jumper with Obama written down its front and rollerblade around, hoping it would spark conversation. He also spoke about the high housing prices in San Fran, and the tech companies that have moved into the city ruining it for everyone else. I helped him pick out a souvenir shirt from the diner and we split the bill. Then he walked me the 1.2 miles down Main Street to my hotel, passing by the famous Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. When we got to the front of my hotel we said our good-byes. He told me his real name is David.
Photo Source: Shelby Monita