Amtrak Experience Parodies Consumerism
Sanjay Paul

The article appeared in The Etownian, Mar. 20, 2009.

Homer took the train the other day. He was headed to New York for a conference, and Amtrak was convenient. Homer looked up the fares online. $77 for a one-way trip from Elizabethtown. That seemed a bit high. He looked at other times. There was a train leaving an hour later — the fare was only $45. Seeing that arriving in New York an hour later wouldn’t really make a difference, Homer decided to take the later train.

So here was his first saving! By electing to leave an hour later, and even before he had stepped on the train, Homer had “saved” 32 bucks. These were savings that Homer now regarded as pocket money — he could use it to buy an extra meal in Manhattan. Perhaps even eat three times a day!

The train was on time. He found a seat, and opened The New York Times. Ah, there was a new archbishop of New York. And he had already made friends with the hot dog vendor outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Since the Elizabethtown station does not have a ticket counter, Homer had planned to buy the ticket on the train. Soon the conductor came around, asking passengers for their tickets. Homer had his hand on his wallet, ready to whip it out and pay the 45 bucks to buy the ticket.

The conductor asked if Homer had a reservation. A reservation? No, he didn’t have a reservation. Homer had traveled this route before, and the subject of reservations had never come up. Turns out that if you travel beyond Philadelphia, having a reservation can shave a few bucks off the price. Homer listened to this with trepidation. How much would he have to pay sans reservation, Homer asked.

His fears were confirmed. It was going to hurt. The fare would be 79 bucks. Seventy-nine! Homer was counting on the online price of $45, not to mention his “savings” of $32. And here he was, facing this unexpected complication. No more savings. In fact, paying $79 would leave him with a “deficit” of $34, the difference between the new price and the online fare.

All his carefully cultivated plans of taking the later train, the prospects of using the savings to treat himself in New York — they had turned out to be a chimera. Homer had deluded himself. Oh, what a fool he had been! To count on unrealized savings to finance flights of fancy! Homer had in his mind’s eye already spent the surplus. Three meals in New York now looked like a distant dream. With his financial picture having suddenly turned bleak, he would be lucky to afford one! Oh, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Homer thought to himself.

But ere as Homer stared into this abyss of shattered dreams, the conductor spoke. Do you have a cell phone, he asked? Why, yes, Homer did. But his mind was still on foregone dinners, and he must have responded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. But the conductor persisted. Well, he said, you can call Amtrak and make a reservation. Now? On the train? After the train had left the station? Bleak humor, he realized wanly, but his mind was swimming.

The conductor wrote down the toll-free number along with the train number. He said he would back soon.

Homer could scarcely grasp the dramatic turnaround in his fortunes. The depths of despair one moment – hope, resplendent hope the next. O fortuna!

With trembling fingers, Homer called Amtrak. The automated voice at the other end was helpful, but soon it became evident that they couldn’t communicate well with each other. After a few bouts of “Are you sure?” from the Amtrak end and “What the hell?” from Homer’s, the disembodied quasi-human voice put them both out of their misery and passed him along to a real human being.

Things went well after that. When Homer said he wanted to make a reservation for a trip he had already begun, the voice at the other end didn’t seem fazed in the least. Perhaps this sort of thing happened all the time.

Homer was given a couple of numbers, a confirmation number and a reservation code. He would have to provide them to the conductor. Homer jotted them down.

The conductor returned. Homer paid him $45 for the ticket. He thanked him for advising him to make the call. What a gem of a human being, he thought. He could almost hear the milk of human kindness sloshing around in him.

Homer settled down for the three-hour journey. What should he eat when he got in, he wondered? Perhaps a hot dog? If it was good enough for an archbishop...

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