“Ugh, this train smells of piss!” whined the woman, struggling to get her case into the overhead bin. “Well, what did you expect?” her companion snapped at her. “It’s Amtrak, of course it smells of piss”.
He whipped off his sunglasses, the sudden movement nudging his flat cap slightly over one ear. Gripping the headrest of the seat in front of him, almost trepanning its unfortunate occupant with the side arm of his glasses, he thumped down in his seat with a heavy growling sigh, in case the rest of the passengers in the carriage hadn’t realised that he was there against his will and was in no way happy about travelling on a train, for fuck’s sake, with other people. The woman edged into her seat next to him, twisting round awkwardly to brush the seat theatrically with the side of her hand before gingerly allowing her bottom to descend, her face crumpled with disgust as if she were about to sit on a cushion made of damp testicles.
From my seat across the aisle, I leaned over towards the couple. “No, sorry, actually that’s me. I smell of piss. Not the train. Me. Yeah, sorry about that. Heavy night, what you gonna do?” Like a small child who has dropped the phone down the toilet on purpose, I pulled that OOPS, SORREE! face as they gaped at me, their faces like doughnuts as their mouths opened into giant O’s.
I’m joking, of course. I didn’t really say that. Instead, I shook my New York Times loudly and stared crossly at them, willing them to look at me so I could pierce their souls with my shame-inducing death-glare. But they were too busy muttering darkly to each other to notice anything outside their spiky little world.
I like travelling by train. I don’t like arsehole passengers who insist on bursting out of their arsehole closet to infect all those around them with their gushing spray of arseholery. And, by the way, the train did not smell of piss. Any lingering sour smell was emanating from the seats of Mr and Mrs Arsehole across the aisle.
I was returning to DC after visiting Harvard and New York during the long Presidents Day weekend, a federal holiday originally conceived to celebrate George Washington’s birthday but which over time has morphed into an occasion to honour the office of the Presidency itself.
Thus it seemed fitting to kick off the holiday weekend in the famous centre of learning whose alumni includes eight US Presidents. Harvard is located in the town of Cambridge (named in honour of that other famous university), a small country town not unlike many in England. You can’t fail to be impressed by the imposing Georgian academic buildings, the Charles River where rowers glide by the joggers on its banks, and Harvard Yard where you walk the paths knowing that the Widener Library’s fifty-seven miles of bookshelves stretch below your feet. Sitting in a shabby-chic cafe, surrounded by serious-looking students peering at their laptops, Portishead echoing languidly in the background, I felt the cleverness seep into me like milk through bread. But as we all know, fierce intellect does not often a stylish person make, and beards and blazers punctuated the stream of passers-by.
On to New York and yet more blazers, this time draped over turtleneck sweaters and complimented with scarves and satchels. I saw one man wearing a poncho, and not ironically. Unlike Mr and Mrs Arsehole on the train, I try to save my mocking disdain for a much smaller audience, preferably over lashings of alcohol. Which I did, quite a bit; New York has some fabulous restaurants and bars, hence my heightened-by-hangover irritation on the train back to DC.
Sometimes I think if you were to cut me down like a tree, you’d find the words ‘gotta mock” running through me. Luckily my friends are of a sweeter disposition. One friend in particular sees the best in everyone and dismisses the thought that anyone could be an innately miserable twat, just begging for mockery. I vividly recall trying to emulate her goodness a few years back when talking to a chap in a bar in Argentina as we watched a tango lesson:
Me: “So, are you travelling?”
Bloke: “Yes, for a year, but it’s my last night”.
Me: “Poor you! Travelling round the world?”
Me: “What has been your favourite bit?”
Bloke: “Yes. I don’t do questions like that”.
Me: “Ok”. (thinking, what a prick)
Later … trying harder …
Me: “The tango teacher looks a bit like the lead singer from Hot Chocolate”.
Prick: “I don’t do famous people”.
I gave up after that. As you’ve probably noticed.
And so, after my short sojourn up the coast, I returned to a calm, cosy DC. I always feel a sense of quiet relief when the train pulls into beautiful Union Station, and the view from the taxi window seems wider, lighter. DC’s construction rules stipulate that no building may be more than twenty feet taller than the street it faces, and so the sky opens up as you drive through the city, blowing away that hemmed-in feeling you get in Manhattan and, for a brief moment, all the mockery from my soul.
And, by the way, Amtrak rocks.