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Chicago June 2, 2010

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Chicago is awesome!  I loved living there back in the 80’s and if I had to pick a big US city to live in it would be The Windy City.  The only downside is the weather but when it’s nice it’s near perfect.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears)

Trump Tower

Merchandise Mart

The El crossing Wells St. bridge

Looking south

Reflections

Tribune Tower

Wrigley Building

Three weeks – Three cities May 24, 2010

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New York City

Part one of my travel escort marathon has ended—three cities, over 300 kids over 13 days. May is the big month for school trips and this month has us all over America. Seven different schools crammed into less than 30 days. New York, Washington and Chicago were on tap this year.

The Capital

I will admit that DC is becoming my least favorite city. With Obama’s big government agenda in full swing the city is exploding with the fruits of his insane deficit spending. Every politician and organization is there with their hand out wanting to get a piece of our pie. The city is physically grid locked and getting worse. Add the tens of thousands of school kids who visit each week during May and it quickly becomes tedious.

While standing in line to go through security (which is practically every building you go into now in DC) at the Reagan Center we were alerted to something big about to go on at the building.

Hillary arriving at Reagan Center

Big black SUV’s with strange antennas protruding from their roofs and a string of DC bicycle cops roared up to the side entrance where we were queued up waiting to enter for lunch. Out jump a small army of obvious secret service agents followed by K-9 police. They establish a perimeter from the cars to the adjoining entrance doors. About 2 minutes later a heavily blacked-out Escalade pulls up almost onto the curb. The door opens and out pops Hillary Clinton and an entourage. I was blocked by some of my students to get off a picture but Dave Matthews, Prime Tour president, managed to squeeze off proof the former first lady was just 20 feet from us.

Hillary ducking in the side door

I have to admit it was exciting to see someone so famous, so close. I was torn with wanting an autograph and slapping the crap out of the liberal witch.

Anyway it made for an exciting extra the kids will never forget.

Hillary

Lady Liberty

New York and Chicago were much less stressful and a lot more fun. The groups were smaller so it was easier to manage. Plus I got to see Wicked at the Gershwin in New York.  Front row seats thank you very much! (I’ll blog more on this a bit later).

Some in our New York group were lucky enough to have a few star sightings. While waiting for our bus to pick us up at the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center, Betty White emerged from the building after rehearsing for her hosting of Saturday Night Live last week.

Rockefeller Center

I missed her because I was searching for a missing kid but most of the group got to see her. Earlier in the day while we were waiting in line for the NBC studio tour, a producer for Oprah Winfry tapped one of our teachers on the shoulder and asked if she and three friends would like to attend a taping of an anniversary special in 20 minutes. I have never seen adults get so excited so fast. Those four teachers bailed on us before we could find out what time to pick them up across the street. Oprah usually tapes in Chicago but dumb luck put us in the right place at the right time. I of course took all the credit.

Chicago didn’t produce any stars but it was great to get back to the city I spent two wonderful years in back in the mid 80’s. The city is a vibrant as ever.  New buildings, parks and attractions make the city a really fun place to visit. The weather was perfect too. My group saw Billy Elliott at the Oriental Theater one night. It was a nicely produced musical with a fine cast of very talented children. A young lad by the name of Giuseppe Bausilio starred in the role as Billy on my night. The Playbill listed three other actors who play the role.

Chicago

I can see why they would need backups. The role is very demanding both vocally and dance-wise. I can’t imagine one 12 year-old performing the role five or six times a week for the run of the show. One word of caution—lots of profanity including the f-bomb. Even though it’s said with a British accent it may not be suitable for younger ears.

All in all it’s good to be home, even if for just a week. I have another group back to Chicago next week. Pretty much the same itinerary; Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier, Hancock Observatory, Lincoln Park Zoo. This next group will see The Blue Man Group and dine with their hands at Medieval Times.

If you have a group of students or adults who would like to tour one of our great cities, call Prime Tours today. We’ll put together an unforgettable trip at the lowest price possible.  Prime Tours  954-931-4358 . We also do Europe! We’re Italy and Ireland specialists.

Diary of an Escort – The End January 15, 2010

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I was really dreading having to spend more time in my coach seat and I decided I would stay up in the Lounge car as long as humanly possible. I had fully charged my phone which served as my Ipod so I knew I had plenty of music. Besides I also needed to start thinking about my duties when we arrived in L.A. I was after all escorting this tour and needed to get my charges and their baggage off the train and onto a bus when we arrived.

2010 Rose Bowl Champs

Knowing we were at least three and a half hours delayed, I was worried about our bus rendezvous at Union Station. The nice thing about working a tour in a major city is most everything works 24 hours. The bus company we had contracted with had 24-hour dispatch so I was able to call and give them the heads up we would be later than our scheduled arrival. My biggest problem was finding cell service. At this point we were crossing no mans land west of Phoenix and I hadn’t seen a bar of service on my phone for over two hours. It was somewhere between Kingman and Needles I found service and was able to make my call.

The terrain had now flattened out and I could see on the map that we were heading for a long stretch of straight. I figured we would make up some time through the night since the run looked fast and the track was smooth. I settled back in a booth in the Lounge car and dozed off to some Lucinda Williams crooning in my ears.  I ended up sleeping a couple of hours sitting mostly upright in the booth seat, wedged against the table and the window. It was just after 1am Pacific time when I finally relented and headed back for my seat next to Pat. We had been scheduled to arrive at 8:15 but I knew we wouldn’t see L.A. until at least 10:30.

Pat was awake and talking on the phone when I arrived. What a surprise. I had thought by now someone would have muzzled her late night talking. My annoyance was short lived when I discovered her son was not doing well and was in the emergency room in intensive care. His fever and convulsions were serious. It was hard to be mad at someone who was enduring such stress.

I ended up sleeping for almost 4 hours. I had to make a return call to the bus dispatch at 5am to give them an update and Greg had announced he would be opening the snack bar early so coffee would be available by then. I had brought along a Garmin GPS courtesy of my boss and had been playing with it off and on through out the trip. I was able to track our journey and it did give me a rough ETA based on traveling the nearest roads. Once up, I headed to the Lounge car and got a hot cup of Greg’s joe. I fired up the GPS to get the latest estimates on our arrival and made my update call to dispatch.

The GPS guessed we would arrive at 9:30. I knew that was awfully ambitious seeing we were over three hours behind at one point and it was not factoring in our scheduled stops. In addition it had us cruising along the highway we were roughly following to L.A. One of the cool features the GPS has is maximum speed attained during a trip. It seems during our overnight run through the desert we topped out at 92.1mph!

I did some math and guessed our arrival would be more like 10:30. I would have to wait for the formal announcement from the Conductor, later in the morning, for an official time.

Even with a cup of coffee in me I managed to slip back into unconsciousness while in the Lounge car. I guess I had become accustomed to the art of sleeping while sitting. When I awoke the car had started to fill with other early risers. I wondered if they too had issues with their coach seats or maybe their seat mates. Persephone now joined me. Still wearing his Navy Pea coat, buttoned to the neck. His hair a bit more disheveled than usual but then we all were ready for showers. We talked and played cards and stared out the windows watching the sun coming up. We both knew our journey’s were nearing their end.

The Conductor had waited till almost 8am to make his announcement. We were now scheduled to arrive L.A. at 10:45. We still had several stops to make including Fullerton which would be the stop where Pat would get off. During one of her hundreds of calls, she had talked to one of her sisters who lived there and asked her to pick her up. Her plan was to then drive to see her son in the hospital in L.A. She assured me she would be in L.A. long before we were.

The final 2 and a half hours went by quickly. I packed up my little world in and around seat 19 and made sure my people were ready to depart. I wished Pat and her son well as she departed at Fullerton. Persephone and his mom had packed up their stuff too but they were only switching trains in L.A. They lived in Alameda, outside San Fran, and wouldn’t get home till after 6pm. I stopped at their seats and offered a formal goodbye. I sincerely enjoyed their company and made a point to tell Mom what a good kid she had. I could tell Persephone was a bit embarrassed but also a bit proud.

Our journey finally ended at almost exactly 10:45 on track 11. Our bus was waiting for us in an uncharacteristically cold, Southern California drizzle. We arrived at our hotel, greeted by the rest of the Prime staff and my bunch of Buckeye’s now melded together with the other 140 that had arrived in California by other means.

The rest of the tour came off flawlessly including an Ohio State win over Oregon for their first Rose Bowl victory in 13 years.

A truly memorable exploit made better by the experience of meeting such wonderful people. I thank you all for the cool adventure and wish you all a wonderful life.

If you have a group that likes to travel by train or any other method, call Prime Tours today and let us put together a trip you’ll never forget.

877-289-5554

Diary of an Escort – Part V in a series January 14, 2010

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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

I was sitting in the Lounge car enjoying the mountainous scenery as we climbed up through the pass that would take us to the other side of the Continental Divide. I had just finished remarking that I thought we literally crossed over the top when the power went out again. I lightheartedly said it was a good thing we had made the summit before the one engine died and several of my Lounge-mates jokingly agreed we could coast the rest of the way.

Unfortunately my first thought was back to the heads. No power, no flush. They were already pretty ripe and this would only make things much worse. In addition, I was planning on taking dinner tonight in the Dining car and without power, my epicurean adventure would be dashed.

Lounge car view

We continued to roll on under one engine and after about 20 minutes we almost forgot we had no power—even in the late afternoon there was still enough sunlight that we didn’t need lights and the car was plenty warm. As in any crisis, people tend to congregate so to deal with the crisis collectively. Human nature I guess. It must be the strength in numbers axiom proving itself. As such, the Lounge car had filled to capacity. The car has large windows and arching skylights so there’s plenty of light. Even as the light began its fade to dusk, the extra large window area made the Lounge feel less claustrophobic than the Coach cars.

Several times over the last hour the Conductor had come over the PA system to inform us that the engineer was working on the problem and hoped to have it solved soon. The announcements elicited snide comments from the riders each time and we all shared a laugh at the expense of Amtrak.

Lounge car

Ever the optimist, our Dining car steward also came over the PA announcing he would be making his way through the train taking dinner reservations for tonight. A welcome bit of news.

Almost as if the train Gods had decided we passengers had endured long enough, the return of power was announced by the whir of the air handling system cranking back up. A brief cheer erupted and the exodus to the heads ensued.

The return of power coincided nicely with the setting sun and all seemed right again.

When the steward passed through the Lounge, I asked for and received a 7:30 seating. I was eager to experience dinner on the train. An earlier conversation with another passenger had informed me of the fare I could expect. He was returning home to L.A. after spending Christmas in New York and raved about the steak he had ordered each night on the first leg of his trip. It was so good he said that he couldn’t wait to order it again during this, his return trip. Unfortunately he reported the steak he had eaten last night was in no way in the same league as the previous ones. He cautioned me to order at my own risk. I thanked him thinking I probably wouldn’t order the steak anyway because there were some other interesting items offered as well.

My 7:30 reservation was looking more like 7:45 and I chalked it up to the power outage. I surmised the hour and a half malfunction had put a serious crimp in the Galley’s prep for dinner. When our seating was finally called I queued up outside the Dining car excited to finally get my experience. My exposure to dining on the rails had been limited to watching the classic movies when America traveled by rail and white glove service was standard. This would be something a bit less formal.

The Dining car seated approximately 60 at a time. The tables were all 4-top booths. The room was separated by a prep/serving station and the stairwell that accessed the galley downstairs. I announced myself as a single and was seated with a group of three strangers who I had not seen before. It would become evident why, in short order.

After brief introductions I settled in to examining the menu and eagerly planning my meal. Before I had a chance to decide, the steward passed by announcing to all the tables that the kitchen was out of the Chef special, the fish entrée and the chicken dish. The available entrees now included a vegetarian medley, a shrimp dish and the steak.

My dinner companions were obviously miffed at the abbreviated menu and really started in on Amtrak. I quickly surmised that these three were seasoned rail travelers and I assumed they were traveling together due to their familiarity with each other. What a surprise it was to discover that they were in fact not traveling together but instead reuniting, two for the third time, by happen-chance on the Southwest Chief. The two women and one guy (I’ll call him ‘New York’) were regular riders who eschewed air travel. What I found interesting was none of them were older than me with the guy probably in his late 20’s. He admitted to one horrifying turbulence experience that swore him off airplanes for good. He said he took the train each year to visit his family back in Long Island.  This was his seventh or eighth L.A. to New York run. The gals didn’t share any other reason than they preferred not to fly and enjoyed the train.

Our waitress arrived to take our orders. She was young, looking like any college age waitress working at The Olive Garden. The guy ordered a glass of Merlot and was visibly upset when told the only wine by the glass was a Shiraz. He protested saying he saw several bottles of Merlot lined up at the prep station. She explained that they could only sell the Merlot by the bottle. The gal seated next to him offered that she’d prefer the Merlot too. They ended up buying the bottle.

I was feeling a bit uneasy at the way my dining companions were acting, their attitude was a bit superior and they had treated the sweet waitress with too much disdain. Then it dawned on me. During our initial introductions I learned the three were all in first class sleepers—thus the reason I had not seen them before. Included with their accommodations are meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all included in the hefty price they paid for private rooms. I now understood why they were miffed by the missing menu items.

When it looked like I had the chance to enjoy a sleeper for a part of this trip I checked out the price. The roomette price, which is half of the full sleeping car price, was $700 in addition to the coach seat fare of $256.

Our waitress returned with the wine and we guys ordered the steak while the gals tried the veggie plate and shrimp dish. I ordered my steak medium rare while New York ordered his medium well. We were served right after we had finished our salads. My sides were baked potato and a small vegetable medley. The meal was acceptably hot. The potato was of the steamed variety; I prefer a crusty skin and the vegetables were angelic—they had had the hell cooked out of them. My steak was actually cooked to order, warm red center and seasoned nicely. New York immediately started bitching about his and at one point actually accused the waitress of giving him my order. I quickly sliced off a nice red hunk and held it up for inspection stating I think I got the right one. The steak was ok, certainly nothing to rave about and at $21, I do much better at Longhorn.

By the third glass of Merlot, New York had settled down a bit and we finished the meal without further drama. I have to say the Key Lime cake, yes cake, was by far the best thing I ate that night. I’m sure it wasn’t baked on board but it was excellent nonetheless.

Running behind schedule and with one more seating left, the Steward and wait staff wasted no time in clearing our table as soon as the last forkfuls of dessert disappeared down our gullets. I said my adieus as we departed in opposite directions and I couldn’t help chuckle at that metaphor.

I was feeling very satiated and glad I experienced the Dining car. The jury was still out on whether I would pay the serious premium to travel in a sleeper and enjoy the free meals that came with that ticket. However, I did still have another night of sleeping in coach, wedged in my ¾ seat that also served as a phone booth to help me decide.

To Be Continued…

NEXT: Union Station LAX

Diary of an Escort – Part IV in a series January 13, 2010

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2010 Rose Bowl Champs

Between the excitement of the arrest and the new drama developing in Pat’s life, I ended up spending only another hour in the seat before I escaped to the Lounge car with a few magazines and my phone/Ipod. I figured the sun would be up in 3 hours and Greg announced the night before he would be selling coffee in the snack bar by 5:30.

I wasn’t the only one who found the Lounge a more hospitable sanctuary. There were at least a half dozen other souls in various stages of consciousness scattered about. I settled into a booth and actually dozed. When I awoke I could see the beginning cracks of light rising above the silhouetted mountains behind us. On this morning I would be treated to a beautiful Colorado sunrise.

Colorado Sunrise

After two cups of Greg’s coffee I was feeling fairly spry and was really enjoying the scenery. The sun was now up and Persephone had joined me in the Lounge. We shared some conversation and delved a bit deeper into our personal lives. I shared with him I had a sixteen year-old daughter and thought she would like him. I discovered he was an only child and his Dad had left when he was three. His mom, 35, who I had yet to meet, was traveling with him. When, at last we finally met, I would have been able to make her as Persephone’s mom in any line-up.

Ally Sheedy

She was an Ally Sheedy look-alike straight from the character in The Breakfast Club. Complete with wooly ski hat pulled down over her ears, floppy long sleeve sweatshirt—two sizes too big and a beautiful smile that lit up her face. She joined us briefly that morning and I discovered she was a vegetarian (no surprise) and very proud of her son.

Another hour of conversation passed when the Conductors voice announced our stop in La Junta, Colorado. This would be a ‘smoke break’ stop or one long enough for passengers to get off, stretch their legs and get some fresh air. Little did we know this was going to be a bit longer than usual.  I was eager to get off the train and get some air so I was back at my seat donning my fleece and jacket when the lights in the car suddenly went out.  I didn’t think much of it assuming they turned off everything since the engines had stopped too.

Station La Junta, CO

This was anything but standard operating procedure.

Once outside I started to overhear rumblings that something was amiss. They had originally announced our stop to be no longer than 20 minutes. I was back aboard by the prescribed time only to hear that the train was officially broken down. The second engine, the one that supplied electricity to the train, had died. Without it we had no power, lights or heat. Not to mention the fact we needed it to get us through the continental divide later in the day.

Early on I figured out most of the older folk liked to use the heads when the train wasn’t moving. There was always a rush when the train came to a stop. This stop was no different and there was a steady line heading for the john during our La Junta stop. The heads on the train were similar to the vacu-flush heads on a plane. An electric motor used a strong vacuum to evacuate the bowl while water was pumped to rinse. The key word here being…electric. With no power we had no flush. For the first people to use the heads during the power outage it wasn’t an issue. They left their issue for the next and they in turn left theirs to the next. Things got quickly out of hand and soon the heads were unusable. I decided to use the bathroom in the station figuring it would be a far better alternative, Ha! La Junta Colorado is a very small town, tiny actually. The station was barely big enough to be manned yet alone handle 400 passengers seeking toilet privileges. To top it off, when I got to the bathroom one of the two urinals was inop and there wasn’t any toilet paper in the two stalls. Luckily a station employee wandered in with a single roll of what was surely to become a roll of gold before the day was over.

We ended up stuck in La Junta for 3 1/2 hours before they were able to get the second engine fired off. At one point things were looking so bleak they started moving another engine into place off a siding to hook onto us and push us to L.A.

The Conductor came over the PA and informed us we would try to make up the lost time by increased speed and shorter stops at the stations with built in stop time. I was just happy to be moving again. Unfortunately, even after some attention, the heads were disgusting the rest of the trip. The power outage had really made a mess.

The rest of the afternoon was the climb towards the Continental Divide.

Crazy rocks

The trip passed through beautiful Arizona high desert complete with elk, buffalo, antelope and lots of cattle and sheep. The approach to the actual Divide was a bit anticlimactic. The grade is not as steep as I had imagined. Obviously the railroad chose the easiest approach for obvious reasons. It was however steep enough to realize when we had reached the summit and started our decent down the other side and it was at that very moment we lost power again.

Too be continued…

Next: Dining aboard the Southwest Chief

Diary of an Escort – Part III in a series January 12, 2010

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I knew our train was sold out and while not every seat departing from Chicago was occupied, I was sure we would fill to capacity as the train moved westward and made it’s stops through the night. Being my first long haul train trip I was excited to see how everything worked. I quickly determined that the seat, while larger than a first class airline seat and equipped with more comfort features, (an extendable leg rest and foot rest and a decent recline angle) was no match for having a 350 pound seat mate.

2010 Rose Bowl Champs

We exchanged greetings and names, I’ll call her Pat, and quickly settled in to making the best of our home for the next 43 hours. There is simply no PC way of describing how unfortunate it was that I got seated next to an extra large person.

Pat was a 40ish Latino grandmother returning home to L.A. from visiting her mother for Christmas. When I first sat down she was on her cell phone. A cell phone that I would come to loathe. Through out the entire trip, Pat would take or make a call to one of her three children or their spouses, or a multitude of cousins, or a grandchild, or her mother and God knows who else. In short order I overheard how her sisters were jealous of her and how she was her mother’s favorite, that one daughter-in-law was a bitch and one was an angel. But most of the conversations were trivial chatter that filled her time. Unfortunately they filled mine too. I soon realized I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat for much of the trip.

I am sure, even as big as the seats were, Pat must have been very uncomfortable and I felt sorry for her. But I also felt sorry for me since she was sitting in about a quarter of my seat. Finding another coach seat was not an option. Time to explore the lounge car.

Our group was in the middle car of the three coach cars. To get to the lounge car you needed to go forward, through the third coach car. The stainless doors between the cars were pneumatically controlled. With the push of a button they slid open giving access to the next car’s door. It was almost Star Trekky how they worked. For much of the first 24 hours the ride was bumpier than I had expected, I would come to learn that the tracks east of Albuquerque were not in as good of shape as the ones west. This was explained by the amount of traffic and the correspondent upkeep they received. Traversing between cars was a bit of an adventure if you happened to be crossing during a particular rough patch of rail.

The Lounge car became my new favorite place on the train. The back half of the car was made up of somewhat randomly spaced seats, on angles, that afforded conversation and broader views through the big windows and curved skylights. The front half had booth seating, perfect for playing cards with a group, eating or using your laptop. This was where our group, or at least the rowdies in our group, hung out. In the middle of the car was a stairwell down to another lounge area and the snack bar, our source for lite viddles and beverages. The snack bar was manned by Greg; an affable guy in his early 50’s. During one of my many visits I gleaned he was based in L.A, a relative newbie to Amtrak and loved his job. He also had been a singer in the entertainment biz.

One of the benefits of traveling by train is the opportunity to meet interesting people and having the time to enjoy their company if you choose. I was able to do just that when I met a very unique young man in the Lounge car on the first morning. I was in a conversation with one of our group that involved lamenting the current state of youth in America. I noticed the young man squirming, looking our way and obviously wanting to engage in the dialogue. Finally he could stand it no more and got up from his seat two tables over and plopped down across from me in my booth. He proceeded to nervously make a fairly eloquent speech rebuking my only half-serious attack on his generation.

When I asked him his name his response floored me. He said his friends called him Persephone. I asked him why and he said he didn’t like his given name and asked them to give him another.

‘Persephone’ was obviously very smart and way beyond his years, which turned out to be 15. He immediately reminded me of Harold, the character played by Bud Cort in the 1971 film Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby. The film, featuring slapstick, dark humor and existentialist drama, revolves around the exploits of a morbid young man who drifts away from the life that his detached mother prescribes for him and the ensuing relationship with septuagenarian Maude played by Ruth Gordon.

Not only did this young man act like the character but he was a dead ringer for the younger Bud Cort.

I could tell the poor kid was bored to tears with obviously no other teens aboard. Not that he would have much in common with anyone his age anyway. We would spend quite a bit of time together during the trip playing cards (with a deck of Russian Army issued cards—his), discussing politics and sharing stories. This was my perfect excuse for not having to sit back with Pat.

Oh, I almost forgot the drama we experienced late that first night.

Dinner is served formally in the Dining car each evening beginning around five with multiple seatings until about eight. Since I still had half of my Giordano’s pizza left I didn’t plan on partaking that night. (I would on the second night)  The Dining car is forward of the lounge car which is forward of the coach cars. There is no other way to traverse the train except for walking through each car. The last dinner seating was wrapping up and since I was in the Lounge car reading I could see everyone from coach making there way back after dinner. It was almost 9pm when I heard a slight commotion as several people were exiting the Dining car and coming into the Lounge. I noticed a few people hurriedly heading aft. About 15 minutes later I saw two car attendants and the Conductor make their way in to the Dining car. They reemerged several minutes later heading aft with a purpose. I didn’t think much about it until I overheard another passenger say someone caused a problem during dinner.

I hung out in the Lounge until just before Midnight. I dreaded having to cram myself back into my coach seat but that was really the only place to actually get any sleep. I was barely settled in when the train started to slow for a quick stop in the middle of Kansas. As the train passed into the lights around the station I could see it was snowing. I had no idea where we were. Stops at these remote stations had been very short—barely enough time to hop off and board. As the train came to a stop the Conductor and two attendants came into our car from the car ahead. The car’s lights were dimmed for sleeping but I could see the Conductor had a small flashlight. All three passed by me and congregated near the stairwell in the middle of the car leading downstairs and to the exits. I heard additional voices now and turned to see two uniformed policemen speaking with the Conductor.

Flashlights now arced through the car. They were definitely looking for someone. Even though the train was stopped I couldn’t hear any of the conversations talking place but I could determine someone was in trouble. After a few more minutes the cops had a guy in handcuffs and were escorting him off the train.

The next morning the Lounge car was all abuzz over the scofflaw who thought he could get away with skipping out on paying for dinner.  What was this idiot thinking?  He’s on a train for God’s sake. There’s no place to hide.

Too be continued…

Next: Broken down