Metrolink111: Finding The Gold Nuggetts
Shelley J Alongi


Train Meet

The morning gets off to a rocky start only because somehow Iíve awakened with a lot to do and it seems not very much time to do it. I donít oversleep, instead I spend the morning going over my story with Glen as the railroad engineer, not Metrolink Glen, someone else, Glen Streicher, my creation based on the Chatsworth engineer Robert Sanchez, though Iím sure it is not nor is it expected to be an exact replica, nor would I want it to be. It seems I need to make an emergency trip to the bank for a cashierís check since the rent check was returned, a long story, but it got covered and thatís whatís important. I shower, skip breakfast, make sure the cats have food and decide after contemplating the situation to bring the laptop with me. Iím carrying the bright yellow bag with my book and other essentials and the laptop today on another trip out to Ventura County, Simi Valley to be exact, then a two hour lay over before I talk to Gary again hopefully, and then go back to Fullerton on Metrolink train 608. I manage to get the check, print a note to Glen the Metrolink engineer, go drop off the check on a one minute whistle stop at the rental office, and get to the station in time to eat breakfast and breathe before getting to the station. I even have time at the station to get my first Metrolink ticket from Chatsworth to Simi Valley and to have a nice breakfast with time to spare. When the train pulls in I walk too far to the back, looking out over track, figuring out that this is the back of the last car. Interesting. Iím sure itís interesting but it doesnít look too exciting. Wish I had time to explore. Instead I walk back to the car opening and meet Cathleen and Jim and get on the train. Cathleen wants to put me next to Grace but no, I say, I need a plug for my laptop. No car attendant is going to dictate where I sit unless I donít have any particular need for a laptop plug. I get seated, Cathleen is much too attentive, somehow I manage to extricate myself from her helpfulness.

Notes from the Rails
11:36 AM
Now Iím on the train in business class as usual, though the service doesnít seem to be very good on this particular day. The attendant Cathleen said we didnít have any diet soda, she offered to give me one of herís an dif I wanted to give her a tip that would be nice but the person who asks me for one is the one who doesnít get one. She did say we had apple juice or coffee but I didnít get any, asking for it, she came through and asked if anyone asked for something but she didnít bring it yet and I havenít seen her for a few minutes now. Usually the service has been very good. Guess you never know what youíre going to get on the train. It is very noisy in here today this kind of full and weíre about to stop in Los Angeles. Cathleen just appeared to say that the coffee was coming. Itís a busy morning it seems.

Today Iím off to Simi Valley then back to Chatsworth and back to L.A. as I said. See you then. Iíll keep you posted.
When we start again in Los Angeles, the soda appears, and so do the snack packs. These are my big pleasures in life. I must be short on pleasures. No I think it just means that small things please me. Cathleen tells me she hurt her femur bone but she had to come to work anyway because she needed the money. Grace comes to me and says when we get to Simi Valley sheíll get Cathleen to help me. Iíve told her twice that wonít be necessary. Someday you just have to laugh. Like I said earlier, or like Chris said at NoŽl wood, every train trip is an adventure. That seems to be the case here. Each train trip Is an adventure. The engineer just pulled this train forward maybe too fast it seems, the car kind of clunked against something, how romantic. Weíre off from Burbank Airport now, on our way to the Metrolink memorial. Wonder what will happen between here and there. Iíll keep you posted.

Visit to a Memorial

Finally, we arrive in Simi Valley and Iím here to do what Iíve been wanting to do for a few weeks now. A very nice conductor tells me that the memorial for the accident is at the end of the platform to the left. Indeed it is located only feet from the tracks, a stone bench, a garden-like setting with a winding walkway lined with name markers, and eleven basalt columns. Maria Villalobos, out angel forever says one of them. Ron Grace, teacher, embraced life. I donít spot the memorial right away, in fact I think that I pass it. Walking through the parking lot, a little hesitant, I wonder just how far Iíve gone from the tracks. There are no trains to guide me when a woman pulls up in her car. She slows down and asks if she can help me. Now here is a situation in which I really do need assistance and the question is greeted with thanks and gratitude. I suppose some people just know how to ask if someone needs assistance rather than just assuming one does. I explain to her that Iím looking for the memorial and she knows exactly what Iím talking about. Getting out of her car, Nancy who happens to be hard of hearing, directs me toward it and proceeds to explain it. She explain the garden-like setting, reads some of the inscriptions. We look for the name Sanchez but we could no find it. The design, according to reports from the April Ventura County Star include twenty-five markers, eleven basalt columns, one for those not from Simi Valley and ten for the ten Simi Valley residents killed in the September 12 crash. Others killed in the crash came from Camarillo, Moorpark, newhall, Santa Paula, and La Crescenta.

The markers start at the edge of the concrete and wind through a path on the southeast corner of the station platform. A fence behind the stone benches, is lined with crosses bearing the same names. Included in the memorial are the four who died in the Glendale accident. Gregory Lintner who gets a lot of attention in the press was killed in the Chatsworth crash. He was also in the Glendale crash and it is reported that he carried a picture of the man who parked his truck on the railroad tracks causing that train to derail. It is a good day today for viewing a memorial, if any day is good for such a thing. A gentle breeze, soft sunshine, comfortable temperature make it easy to reflect, remember, plan. A few tears slip silently down my cheeks, but I am calm. More tears appear just before I get off the train in Simi Valley. Iíve passed through this place on all the journeys northward and southward, toward and away from Los Angeles; technically thatís east and westbound traffic. I only spend about half an hour there. I figure Iíll come back later and take pictures, maybe stay longer. I want to find that marker with Robís name on it and take pictures for a book. A memory book maybe with my essays in it.

Sitting here on the bench perhaps fifty feet from the tracks, Iím calmer than I would have thought possible. I go to the places where people interacted with those who died in order to obtain a stronger connection with them. Those who died sat at this station many times; perhaps they bought Metrolink tickets here. The engineer waited for his signal here. Before metrolink was in existence this very station served the Coast Starlight route and still does. If he operated the train this far he sat here as a much younger engineer. Iíve passed through this station on my trips on the Coast Starlight. I was on a train with my mom once through here in 1977, when Rob Sanchez was still a child, just like me.

This is a place where I can bring flowers, even if they are for an engineer who appears by all media accounts to have been reckless and contrary. Iím not convinced he was reckless and contrary though probably he should have received more than a wrist slap for some violations. Iím interested in seeing those violation reports if there are any. Apparently, according to the L.A. Times, whose sources I often take issue with, he was above average in calling signals correctly. I do remember hearing that when listening to the hearings online so I wonít dispute the paper in that regard. Bob Hildendbrndt, the man I met on the September 11 trip apparently did not fail a signal calling test in the last two and a half years. Chris told me the time before this when I was in Chatsworth that Bob has been a conductor with Metrolink, Amtrak, and Southern Pacific when it was around. I guess if youíve been at it that long you should be able to call signals correctly. That was the assumption on September 12, 2008, that all signals would be called and observed correctly. Apparently, controversy or not, reckless behavior or not, and for whatever reason, failure to call and heed them, human error, safety violations, or even just a railroadís political or moral failure to upgrade technology, something went wrong and now here we are. I get up and gather my bright yellow bag with black piping, the one that says RAILROAD TRAINS ON THE WEB and head back to the platform to continue my journey. This part is done for now, but you know Iíll be back. Iím already planning to return and Iíll keep you posted.

The bell sounds, signaling the approach of metrolink train 109. The Metrolink 109 will drop me off in Chatsworth today. The entire trip I spend in conversation with Rita who worked for fifteen years at the Francis Blend School for the Blind in Los Angeles. On September 12, 2008, she was going to take the Metrolink 111 somewhere but couldnít because she had to pay the balance on a cruise. Iím not quite sure I understand her reason for not going, maybe she had to pay it that day or had to postpone payment till that day. She escaped riding on the Metrolink111. She tells me there is a cross now at the entrance to the first tunnel after the curve where the two engineers saw each other perhaps five seconds. Did Rob Sanchez see that engineer? Itís interesting weíve not heard from the freight engineer. I wonder if we will ever hear from him. The NTSB may have heard from him but I havenít read anything. Perhaps I havenít dug deeply enough, or heís just not saying anything. I can still purchase the documents and hearings on a cd from the NTSB. I will do that eventually; maybe Iíll learn more about him. Did he see the Metrolink engineer? Reports indicate that he hit the rakes. I suppose, in my very rudimentary understanding of thins, he could have plugged the train. I think, however, that even this action would not have done any good. Hats off to that freight engineer for trying to hit the brakes. Someday maybe Iíll get to talk to him.

At the Front of the Line

ďHello Bright Eyes.Ē

I stand at the counter looking up at Chris who has been doing something in the cafť.

ďHello, Shelley. What brings you this way?Ē

As if Chris Castle one of the last people to talk to Robert martin Sanchez has to ask that! But it is a question. I donít tell him that itís Robís blood, sweat and tears that draws me here. No, instead I tell him that I went to see the Simi Valley accident memorial. The memorial, he says, belongs in Chatsworth. The big cross at the beginning of the tunnel is hardly accessible to anyone. How can people remember the victims? I get the feeling heís not too happy about that. I think Simi Valley has been especially generous in putting together the memorial, which, by the way, sources indicate metrolink did not fund. Chris doubts that Gary the locomotive engineer who trained Rob on the lien will talk to me about Rob Sanchez.

ďHe wontí even talk to me,Ē he says. ďMumís the word.Ē

ďWhy?Ē I want to know, and Iím sure I do know.

ďLawsuits. State, federal, county, city,Ē he says.

ďIím used to slamming into brick walls,Ē I say. Seems I usually pick projects that are hard and unyielding. Someday the tide will turn. An then perhaps by then Iíll keep the plaque because if no one wants it now an suddenly they all want it, well, maybe it should just be her in the first place. But for now I donít think it should be hanging on my wall, those attractive eyes (Lilian says Robís eyes were attractive) looking down at me. It needs to be somewhere where people knew him can respect it. A gay bar? A restaurant? A union hall? It seems, for now, not the Metrolink break room. And definitely not the Chatsworth depot.

ďSometimes in digging through the debris,Ē I say, ďYou find the gold nugget.Ē

ďWhat are you looking for?Ē Chris want sot know.

ďSomeone brave enough to take this plaque.Ē

Thatís pretty much the extent of the conversation we have about the accident. I donít know if Gary will talk to me. He hasnít called the number I left on the note for him two weeks ago. Chris the security guard was supposed to help me get his attention out there but he was in the parking lot for some reason and I was at the wrong end when the train came in so I missed him. But itís okay. Iím here and Iíve seen the memorial. I always have to come by and say hello to Chris. Iíll be back.

On a lighter note I ask Chris how his birthday trip turned out. It was fine. They went to Ventura, shopped, ate, and came home. Chris the security guard will be having a birthday soon.

ďWhat are you going to do?Ē I ask. They are going to have a drink he says.

ďChris told me he got you a bottle of Scotch for your birthday,Ē I say to Chris Castle.

ďYes,Ē he says, and if they go and have a drink on the other Chrisís birthday, ďthen weíll both call in sick.Ē

We discuss Obama winning the Nobel Peace prize. None of us are quite sure why he has won this award, it seems there are many out there, and not only his detractors, who feel the same way. However, our discussion is not political.

ďIs there a Nobel prize for causing trouble?Ē I want to know ďBecause if there is, Iím getting in that line.Ē

Then Chris Castle the man who says the station light was green on September 12, 2008, says something that forever endears him to me. Whatever happens and wherever that plaque ends up, this man will be eternally remembered for pegging my personality on the dot.

ďAt the front of the line?Ē he asks with all the meaning in the world.

Yes, at the front of the line! Thatís my spot, holding my plaque of Robert martin Sanchez, itís 12 x 15 span showing me off as the front of the line. Here it is! Oh and there are other things I can cause trouble about, you know, but for here and for now, when I showed up on the station platform, he figured me out. I will definitely be at the front of the line!

ďI have other ideas,Ē I tell him, ďabout where to put it.Ē At least I have people I can ask. I want to fin the restaurant owner who was supposed to make that roast beef sandwich with no tomato, light Mayonnaise, and salad dressing. I want to know what kind of salad dressing Rob Sanchez thought he needed on that sandwich. By all accounts they talked politics. I only have a first name and not an address yet. But itís on my radar screen as a possible location. If not a possible location then perhaps another lead. My other possibility is the BLET Union Hall and my third possibility is a beauty salon owner who posted a nice comment on his memorial page. In the next few weeks as we do over time and I wave at glen the engineer, or whoever else comes down those tracks, but mainly Glen for now, Iíll be planning my next steps. Iíll be, for all intents and purposes, at the front of the line.

Strengthening Connections

I go outside, the temperature is pleasant in Chatsworth today. The last few times Iíve been here the weather has been hot. Today the nice weather is welcome, especially since I spend a lot of time on my feet. I wander the platform, Chris gives me a general layout of where things are in relation to the tracks. I purchase my metrolink ticket from Chatsworth to Los Angeles. I find Bob talking to a knot of people waiting for a late Amtrak train. It seems that Amtrak has been running a little late today. A boy shows Bob a magazine with animals and explains that the chita is the fastest running cat. The two-toed sloth is the slowest land mammal. A man waits for the train getting him to Grover Beach. That train, we explain, has just passed. On September 12 2008 I didnít even know where Grover Beach was; today I can tell you whether a station is north or south, and I can spell Amtrak.

ďWhereís your scanner?Ē I ask bob. Sometimes he has trouble focusing on people; I donítí know if this is deliberate or intentional. After several repetitions of the question he explains that his scanner is at home because someone tried to steel it last week. Itís a good thing they didnít try to steel it on the day I first appeared at Chatsworth to ask questions. I might still be sitting on that bench eating nectarines and drinking Diet Pepsi. I suppose in some strange way, luck was with me that day. Considering I seem to have hit a dead-end in the memorial plaque department, Iím wondering just how all this will turn out, seeing that I did find so many people with so much information about Rob on that first trip. Oh Iím not discouraged, believe me, I just wonder about things some days. Today it seems is just a day to strengthen connections.

ďAre you behaving?Ē Bob asks when he first sees me. He says something to the affect that heíll make sure I am behaving. Chris the security guard says ďHi ShelleyĒ when he sees me first when I get off the train. He is the one who helps me get my metrolink ticket. Now he disappears and Iím out standing behind bob when the Metrolink 111 appears.

The Death of An Engineer

I donít hear what bob says to Mitch, the engineer, but Iím aware later as I think about it that Iím standing right behind bob and Mitch is sitting right where Rob Sanchez would have been sitting on that day.

ďHave a good weekend,Ē bob says and the ML111 is off and running. This time the light really is green. I think later of the proximity of myself to the cab, I am standing feet from where Rob Sanchez was sitting. Iím starting t get a physical perspective on where the last few moments of Robís life occurred. They help fuel my determination to find a spot for this plaque, even, as I tell Chris earlier as a possibility, if it is out of state. That is a possibility. I have as long as God gives me to find a spot for this plaque.

Now you see why I canít concentrate on anyone else except the engineer? I canít concentrate on anything else because the death of the engineer is so central to my whole experience of the accident. For me, for whatever reason, this I what itís all about. It canít change. It wonít change.

Almost Holding Up the Train

The trip back to Los Angeles is a quiet one. I realize sitting there as a man introduces a woman to the different stations along our route and two African American guys talk trash on their cell phone or to each other, who knows, that I am tired and this has been a long day. Yet I am anticipating this next part of my journey because it is hear that I intend to try and make a connection with a live Metrolink engineer. I will need the assistance of the conductor but first I have to get to the station. We speed along the rails, the two-note horn sounding, the horn that always reminds me of the accident, disgorging passengers and picking up new ones. I gather my bright yellow bag and get off the train.

I donít know where Iím going. I walk toward the other end of the train, the surroundings are not at all familiar and there's no way Iím missing that train! Not while Iím holding a folded up note in one hand and a Metrolink ticket in my pocket. I walk back toward the engine, a man asks if I need help. I explain that Iím looking for the track that the metrolink 608 is on and he says heíll look at the schedule. No, I donítí need the schedule I explain a little out of breath, I need the track number and I cantí miss that train. Itís not that I canít miss that train, itís just that I donít want to miss it. There is another way home, it involves purchasing an Amtrak ticket but Iím on a mission to touch base with an engineer and I do want t get home and eat and see whatís going on at Fullerton. Mainly though after the solemnity of the memorial, strengthening connections and getting in the front of the line, itís about touching base with my adopted engineer and so I simply cannot miss that train!

We find an agent and show up on Glenís train four minutes early. I have purposed to sit behind the engine. Heís pulling that train, I know heís in front of us. The train settles down, the conductor makes his preliminary announcements and weíre off.

A Schoolgirl with a Crush

I clutch my paper tightly waiting for the conductor. He makes his rounds then comes up to talk to some people he knows. He says that he ate their pizza. Iím not sure what this is about. He also announces while my heart is in my mouth that Metrolink is not running trains to the NASCAR races this year. The trains sometimes depart an hour after their scheduled times he says, and people on the train are already drunk.

ďMaybe they got tired of cleaning up,Ē I said.

The train is pretty much thrashed he says.

ďHey Mr. Conductor,Ē I finally say, leaning forward getting his attention, ďI donítí know your name. Could you come here for a second, please?Ē

he does. I hold out my note.

ďCould you please give this to Glen?Ē

The conductor seems surprised taking the paper out of my hand.

ďCould I give this to Glen?Ē he repeats.

Suddenly I feel like a shy schoolgirl with a crush.

ďItís not personal,Ē I say. ďYou can read it.Ē

ďNo,Ē he says kindly. ďIíll give it to Glen when I see him in Ocean Side.Ē

Thatís perfectly fine with me.

ďPlease donítí distract him,Ē I say. He chuckles.

I explain how that three or four weeks ago the two of them held the train and whenever Iím at fullerton I come and wave hi to him.

ďNow heíll know,Ē he says.

He gets to Ocean Side at 8:28 according to the schedule. I hope he knows. What I hope most is that he remembers. I really do feel like a schoolgirl with a crush.

Note: Read ďIce-cream and the UmbrellaĒ if you want to experience my first reaction to an engineerís wave.

The trip passes uneventfully and then I ask the conductor if his name is Richard.

ďHow did you guess?Ē he wants to know.

ďI know Chris Guenzler,Ē I explain.

ďYou know Chris?Ē

I explained that I told him the story of holding up the train in Los Angeles back in September and he asked me if I knew who the conductor was. When I said no, he told me it was probably Richard, so tonight Iíve made another connection and know one more crewmember.

ďIf you take this train,Ē Richard explains, ďthis is my train.Ē Glen, he says, has been running this train for six months. I hope he stays another six months.

Seems like Chris Guenzler is an open door to train crews. Now maybe he really will give my note to Glen.

The train arrives in Fullerton, the music is not yet set up, I walk toward the locomotive. I almost make it when Glen sounds that bell and I know there will be no private moments with an engineer behind glass. But he may have my note! That will do!
If you are the least bit curious, here is the content of the note I gave to Glen.

Hi Glen, My Name is Shelley I have been meeting your train 608 at Fullerton for the last month saying hello to you. I just wanted you to know my name and yes if you see me there I'm here saying hello to you. I'm blind I can't make eye contact so you might not always see me. You'll know me if you see a bright yellow bag. That's me! :): Sometimes I take your train to Fullerton from L.A. I don't always make it to Fullerton due to my work schedule but when I do I come over to track 3 to say hi. I don't usually make your afternoon appearance on track 1. Stay safe and have fun operating the train. Have a nice weekend.
Shelley queen of Bells!

As Metrolink 608 pulls away, I make my way to the bridge. The Amtrak to San Diego is late again and as I cross the bridge and get to the patio, threading my away through all the chairs and people and getting some verbal direction from Dan one of the guys who sit in that right hand corner, I notice a very large group of people getting off that train and going through the tunnel. I flop down in my spot to Dan, Howee, Laurita teasing me about waving at the engineer.

ďI got off of Glenís trainĒ I said.

ďYes. Are you stocking the engineer?Ē


Iím laughing.

ďI just want friends who run locomotives is that so much to ask?Ē

It is fun to get teased but I really do want to make friends of these people. How am I supposed to do that if I donít try? Well, apparently all I have to do is say Chris Guenzlerís name and that helps but a lot of the footwork I think is up to me. No matter, itís still fun to be teased about chasing engineers.

ďThereís a sign that says no waving at Shelley from engineer cabs,Ē or something like that, someone says. It was pretty funny.

Soon the southwest chief comes on track three. It usually comes on track one. We watch it, the music plays, quietly today, two guitarists and a violinist set up their equipment. Curt comes through with his bike and I wave.

ďHow did you know it was me?Ē he wants to know.

Itís the bell. Curt was one of the first people I met at the station though I didnít talk to him right away. I said I liked his bell and then as he usually does he included me in on his social dance card. Heís the one who knows everything thatís going on at the station. He makes appearances here and there, he brings me an orange, he tells me about NYPD Pizza a restaurant I have to try. Iím not sure what I want for dinner so we go over some possibilities. Thereís pizza, no, In and Out Burger, ok but a little too far for me right now, the spaghetti Factory is out because itís just too expensive. He canít think of the name of a seafood restaurant that a woman tells me about in Chatsworth. Back in Chatsworth she is waiting for the metrolink 118 and transfers to Metrolink 608 getting off in Ocean Side. She tells me she goes to a restaurant in Fullerton that has good food but she canít remember the name of it. She says itís by a karate place. Curt canít place it but hey now I know where NYPD pizza is; Iíll definitely have to try it out.

Somehow we get into a discussion of money. He shares that he doesnít spend much money. All his recycling efforts yield $5.00 a week and he spends it on $.99 cent sandwiches at McDonaldís. He has a stack of gift certificates that go back to 1990 he says. Hey, he has friends! Share the wealth!

The band begins to play. Itís not such a bad band.

ďHey what are you doing here so late?Ē

Anna stands in front of me. Sheís here covering for Jose tonight. That decides it for me. Iím going to go have a double chili cheese burger and the investment is a good one! It is yummy! Jose was right. Last time I was there he told me that the cafť had good chili. Itís pre purchased chili but itís not bad at all! I think it may become a staple on my Fullerton station menu.

Final Notes on All Things Today
About 8:30, the time when glen should be in Ocean Side and hopefully Richard gives him my note, I decide that itís really time to go home. Iíve had a long productive day. Iíve met at least four new people, Nancy, Rita, the woman going to Ocean Side, another woman who is waiting for a late Amtrak train, and Iíve seen the memorial and given a note to an engineer. I think I can chalk this one up to a productive day.

I doní know what will come of all my train trips and went Rob will find his spot, but I do know that on the way to finding a memorial spot for a Metrolink engineer, I will have made a million new friends and racked up a bunch of points for Amtrak travel.

One final thing happens before I go. Sitting at the bus stop I realize that Iíve left my phone somewhere! Hopefully itís in the cafe! Yes, thank God, as I go back through the parking lot, the cars and the cabs, itís there! I pick it up and slip it into the laptop case. This is the second time Iíve left my phone somewhere today. The first time I leave it in Chatsworth on the table where I placed Robís flowers on September 11. I donít intend to lose my cell phone. Greatly relieved I return to my spot on the bench, place my yellow bag at my feet and sigh. Today has been a good day in the train travel department. Solemn tears has turned to good memories, Iíve recommitted to being at the front of the line and Iíve perhaps made contact with my first live, breathing engineer, one that I found on my own. Weíll see how it all ties together. Hereís to it all turning out right.



Copyright © 2009 Shelley J Alongi
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