Our train left Union Station in Chicago on time, 8:10 p.m. on Sunday night. The Amtrak Hiawatha bringing its weary cargo to Milwaukee. We had been to a trade show. The usual assortment of shoppers, backpacking overnight visitors from all walks of life filled the train cars to about half-capacity.
The unseasonably warm weather had turned much cooler, it was clear. As we cleared the train yards and industrial zones of Chicago, we could see that the moon was out, and some bright planet I should know the name of was very bright, within a few degrees of the moon. By the light of the overhead fluorescents, and the mini-spot reading lamps over the seats, I went over the purchases of the day with my wife - she runs a women's apparel shop in Milwaukee, and we had just finished the stocking orders for Fall.
And then the lights went out. All the lights in the entire train, except for a two dim battery-operated emergency lights in each car. There was an unexpected sudden breathless silence. The train kept rolling, but all we could hear was the rolling of the wheels on the track. No engine - thankfully the horn still worked, as we approached the Sturtevant station - one of the scheduled stops. And then the train stopped. The air was not filled with gasps of panic. There was no frantic buzz of texting, and outgoing cell phone calls from jaded travelers pretending to be indignant about the inconvenience that railroad menials had caused them. The passengers just sat still in the dark, silent, sealed car. Very still. It was so very quiet in that car, A whispered conversation from the other end of the car could be clearly understood. Without the engine and fans going, it was an experience I can only compare with walking up the stairs of an escalator that isn't moving.
After what seemed an eternity, a cell phone broke the silence - a hip-hop song fragment, and someone began speaking on it, in Spanish. Under this cover, everybody else with a cell phone started calling someone. It always seems that people with cell phones never speak to the people they are with, only to people who are elsewhere. Shortly after the resumption of breathing, a PA announcement - (the PA must be on the same emergency power as the horn), explaining that there were plans to resume our trip as soon as the engine could be restarted. And, a smelly half-hour later, the rail service resumed, the lights and fans came on, the engine started and the train resumed its route.
Altogether, we were about 45 minutes late in arriving at Milwaukee. I'll always remember that silence. For a brief, uncertain moment, everybody in that car was faced with the possibility, and it remained only a possibility, that they might be expected to participate in personal social interaction. Think about what you would say if the lights go out.
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