Wednesday, November 02, 2011

My bizarre employment history, or how On the slow train became Home in the railroad earth

In April of 2005 I was living in an efficiency apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, while my wife and son were in Elkhart, Indiana. It was the fourth phase in my career with Amtrak, which began in Chicago in 1984, and contiunes today in South Bend. I started at the Chicago Reservation Sales Office in February, after working for the Franch National Railroads' Chicago office and then for CIT Tours, the agency representing the Italian State Railways.

Kathleen and I lived in Oak Park, Illinois at the time. Our two daughters were born there, and by 1989 we had a third chid on the way. Rents were high in Oak Park, and inexpensive places to live in the Chicago area often came with second-rate schools. So we were looking for a smaller city, where the cost of living was lower. We were hoping for something near Iowa, where we both grew up. I had put in for a voluntary transfer to work as a ticket agent in numerous cities in the upper Midwest. Elkhart, Indiana wasn't one of them.

But Frank Stoy, the station supervisor in Toledo needed an agent in Elkhart. We looked at the town, liked it, and I made the transfer. We bought a house and moved while Kathleen was eight months pregnant. Our son Jim was born October 10, 1989--a little over a month after we moved.
Four years later, after Amtrak closed the station in Fort Wayne, I lost my Elkhart ticket agent job. But because I hadn't yet worked five years under the voluntary transfer, I still had seniority in Chicago.

For ten years--from December 1993 until December 2003--I was back at the Chicago call center, commuting from Elkhart on Amtrak and/or the South Shore (the latter involved a drive to South Bend or Michigan City). In the last few years I had enough seniority to work a four-day, ten-hour shift.
That all came to an end when Amtrak management decided to close the Chicago call center. I still believe that was a mistake, but upper management had made the decision. Even Richard M. Daley's offer of giving us a rent-free lease in an upper floor of the Carson's building did not sway the top brass. I had the choice of staying in Chicago or transferring to one of the remaining call centers.

Given the unstable situation in Chicago, I went to Philly. The girls were both in college by this time, but Jim was still in high school. The original plan was for all of us to move to Philly, but it's not easy to sell a house and Jim really wanted to graduate from Elkhart Memorial. So I ended up commuting back and forth, usually riding down to Washington on the Northeast Regional and switching to the Capitol Limited back to Elkhart. Because the Capitol winds its way along the river valleys of Maryland and Pennsylvania, it was very much the slow train. I had a recording of the King's Singers performing the Flanders and Swann's song, "Slow Train, and I remembered Bob Dylan's rambling poem on the album cover of Highway 61 Revisited beginning, "On the slow train time does not interfere." "On the slow train" seemed an apt name for my blog.

I kept it after I transferred to Bloomington-Normal. Illinois, and began driving every week between there and Elkhart. In the spring of 2009 we were in the process of moving to Bloomington when, after getting indigestion from eating a toasted tortilla with Pace 3 Pepper Salsa, I went to the computer and checked the Amtrak job website and saw a job opening in South Bend. I was supposed to have been notified of the job, as I had a transfer application in. Once I got hold of the station supervisor, the job was mine. Since July of 2009, I've been living in Elkhart and working in South Bend, some 15 miles away. So I haven't been "on the slow train" for some time. I also haven't been blogging much, as other things have taken precedence. Still, I'd like to blog more, and changing the name to "Home in the Railroad Earth seems appropriate. It's a variation of lines from Jack Kerouac's prose poem, "October in the Railroad Earth," which has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it, with Kerouac reading the poem to Steve Allen's piano accompaniment.

Elkhart, a railroad town for more than a century, and still the home to one of the Norfolk Southern's biggest rail yards, is surely of the Railroad Earth.

Of course, the Republican Congress would like me to be unemployed. Not personally, of course, but because I work for Amtrak. And while it doesn't look as though it will succeed in killing my employer, it may very well force Amtrak to cut its long-distance service. I still have seniority in Philadelphia, so I could end up moving back. But Kathleen would be going with me. And with no slow train to ride, I'd have to come up with a new name for the blog.