Amtrak is many things. It is expensive. It is usually late. It is pretty much the only option if you wish to travel in the Northeast by rail and also not be accosted by drunk people on their way back from the beach. But first and foremost, it is a hotbed for assholes.
On a relatively recent summer Sunday evening I was on my way back from a book reading in the Hudson Valley. My train was scheduled to depart at 6:29, but shortly before it was due, the station manager came on the intercom to announce that it had "pulled over to let another train pass" and would be 25 minutes late. The train originated in Montreal, so I tweeted something jokingly detrimental about Canadians. Then I took a series of failed selfies with some meaningful graffiti:
But the train came eventually. It was fine; it was a Sunday night. I mean, we were all just going home to drink the dregs of some past-its-prime rosé and then binge-watch Inside Amy Schumer, right?
A little before 9 pm, almost to Penn Station, our train stopped north of the George Washington Bridge. due to "police activity." It took about three minutes before the man sitting next to me began intermittently groaning. I wondered at first if he was in labor; the contractions seemed evenly spaced at about two-minute intervals:
Fine, fine, fine--
Nothing, nothing, nothing--
He didn't look more than about four months along, but I didn't want to make any assumptions.
Soon, someone started saying that there was a jumper. As in, a human being who had leapt to their death from a great height.
The immediate reaction was annoyance.
"I don't see anything on Twitter!" the woman sitting in front of me, who I could not see but who I quickly judged to look like some hybrid of Cruella DeVille and Judge Judy, said defensively. "Plus, isn't this like the third one this month?" She was clearly taking points off for creativity.
"Why can't we move?" someone else chimed in. "I mean, the dead body's in the water, right?"
"How long does it even take to move a body?" Cruella DeJudy demanded.
The man seated next to me advanced to transition and began cradling his scalp in his hands.
Within about ten minutes, when the Amtrak conductors could not offer details on the police activity, a man sitting across the aisle took it upon himself to call the police.
"Yeah, I'm sitting on a stalled Amtrak train," he began, in a tone that suggested the train was also located on the Gaza Strip. "They say it's because of police activity, but I want to know exactly what's going on that the train can't move."
Somewhere, I imagined gunshot victims and elderly neighbors collapsing from the July heat waiting on hold, keeping the faith that their call would be answered in order of priority.
"Yeah... yeah... OK. OH. OK, that makes sense," the man across from me said. He hung up and reported to the car, "The body is on the train tracks."
"How is that even possible?" Cruella demanded. "I don't see how that's physically possible."
"That's what they said," the man shrugged.
"ARGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" my companion cried.
"Give me the number," Cruella demanded in her raspy voice. "I'm going to put on my bitchface." Something told me it was already firmly secured.
"Yeah, HI," she said brusquely when she reached the police headquarters. "I'M ON A STOPPED AMTRAK TRAIN." The officer, it seemed, was not grasping the urgency of the situation. "Someone told us there was a body on the tracks.... yeah. Right. So what I need to know is, why can't they just move the body?"
Why can't they just move the body? I know that's the first question I jump to when someone has the gall to expire directly in my path.
"Yeah, but how long does it take?" she asked impatiently. She laughed bitterly and hung up. "One to two hours," she reported. "I mean, seriously."
Just then, the conductor walked into the car. "We're going ahead to Penn Station," she said. "No one was hurt."
One might think this news would bring jubilation, or, at the very least, reluctant optimism. But my fellow passengers only grew more disgruntled.
"No one was hurt?" Cruella laughed. "I think jumping off a bridge onto a train track would hurt."
"Yeah, I think you'd probably be dead," the man across the aisle chuckled.
"Nice conversation," the conductor snapped. After she left, the two began loudly conspiring along with my suddenly-recovered seat mate about how to get her fired through a letter-writing campaign.
As I deboarded moments later, expelled into the steamy bowels of Penn Station, I had a few moments, trapped on the escalator behind a herd of enormous wheeled suitcases and their handlers, to reflect on the questionable progress of humanity.
On the one hand, it's possible to ascertain the cause of a transportation delay within minutes through the use of social media and the shameless harassment of law enforcement officials. On the other hand, people are jaded and horrible and we're doomed as a species.
Except for Canadians. They remain, as ever, fucking polite.