Metrolink708: On The Trail Of Gold
Shelley J Alongi


Friday night I leave late, catch my 10:05 connection and make it home in time to get up on Saturday morning and attend a Toastmasters meeting. I am elected secretary of the club that day, my term starts in July. It has been a quiet week but it has been an eventful one. I am, by my own admission, on the trail of gold. What a trail it is! Wonder what gold mine I’ll discover next week! We will see! In the meantime there’s gold in that there engineer and Shelley’s out to find it and have fun all at the same time. It’s all good. It’s all gold!

“the thing about cancer,” says the railfan sitting on the patio at the table on Friday May 21 “is that the treatment works most of the time for about eighteen months and then you have to switch treatments.” His name is Jack and he has been around a while watching trains like the rest of the patio faithful. He is one of the cogs in the smoothly operating wheel that is the Fullerton train station. He’s lucky, he says. He found a doctor who is treating his melanoma, a rare one he insists, successfully, though “the side affects are nasty.” I don’t’ ask him what they are. His batteries on his hearing aids are going out so it’s hard for him to hear, he explains to me as Dave the Trucker walks away, going home to take his wife to Hometown Buffet for soup and salad. He complains about it. He could go to “that restaurant on the corner” an get spaghetti and meatballs for six dollars. He’s talking about a lon time occupant of Commonwealth avenue called Angelo an Vinci’s. His wife, in a wheelchair, apparently having all kinds of troubles, doesn’t want spaghetti and meatballs. She, at age 77, wants soup and salad at Hometown Buffet. He always complains about what she wants, and then he goes out and gets it. She wants tacos or sandwiches and tonight she wants soup and salad. Even with the senior price it’s expensive, he informs me making his way out to the parking area at the front of the station.

I sit here now, my black and gray bag at my feet, having successfully completed another week at work, not putting my name on the early release list, not calling out, not taking attendance points. Twelve percent of Californians can’t say they have a job. I’m going to keep mine. It’s been a bit of a strange day with me putting myself on call work accidentally for 75 minutes and staying on personal for fifteen minutes and my manager has to remind me to tone down the wearing of the bells, but it has been a good work week, a good work day. I’ve booked a lot of Disney packages today, some of them quite significant and so my favorite engineer in the whole wide railroad world would be proud of me. I’m watching my early releases. There’s no reason to e r anymore. Glen isn’t here. He’s somewhere else plying his engineer magic. I’ll get him someday again, just be patient little star struck railfan, but for now, here I am on the patio listening to a man tell me about how lucky he is that he’s found a successful treatment for cancer. I have a job and he’s found a successful treatment for cancer, oh and I’ve met a bunch of engineers and a really cool one. I guess we’re both the lucky ones.

Day after day this week, trains slide effortlessly to a stop here at the three or five car markers, and then there are times when stillness stretches out interminably and all the signals are red. Line ups for westbound or eastbound freights heading forLos Angeles, San Bernardino or Barstow, green signals for Amtrak Pacific Surf liners, and Metrolink trains heading for Los Angeles, Riverside and Ocean Side punctuate the stillness, the cool, gentle breeze, sometimes pleasant, sometimes chilling to the bone cools the ardor of the fans who talk politics and automobiles, airplanes, city government, plans for a new setup at Fullerton, and, yes, sometimes, trains. It’s all a gold mine, the stories, the people in a hurry to sit in traffic for the rest of their commute home, the engineers waving and talking to me, and even the ones who don’t. Rectangular box-shaped cars with worn interiors, scratched or shining exteriors, squeaking brakes or flanges that don’t rub the rails just right causing ear-splitting shrieks as they pass, disgorge passengers, or hurtle through with loads of petroleum gas or steel, all the things that a recovering economy needs to operate successfully. Some days this week there are freights that come through here at amazing speed, sometimes one after the other. Whatever there is, there’s always gold in that there engineer, a trail of gold dust leading to the next adventure.

“There’s gold in that there engineer,” I say once in a good mood to Dave Norris.

“I’ll have to remember that.” He is clearly amused. We sit on the platform I on my little perch, “so I can see better” I explain, and wait for one of those trains. The conversation centers around how I like to talk to engineers. “She’s an engineer stocker,” he informs a passenger earlier waiting for number 4 to come and go. I laugh. “I am not a stocker,” I insist. I text Glen once in a while, I might leave a message for him, I’ve only left one message for him this week, and I do go with regularity over to Bobby and Cary’s trains, but I wouldn’t say I’m an engineer stocker.

Maybe the engineer on the 708 thinks I’m a stocker. Standing over by track 3 waiting for train 606, Cary’s Metrolink train, I determine to get engineer insider information. Remember earlier in the year Cary told me where Glen was, and then Glen told me that Frank was out of service. If the engineer on the 708 won’t tell me who they are, or doesn’t know I want to talk to them, I’ll ask the engineer on the 606 who the 708 engineer is. Was that confusing? Simply put, the engineers are going to tell me about the other engineers. Cary already told me he’s going to say hi to Glen on the radio for me. I hope he doesn’t do that! I think glen gets my messages. I want to keep my connection with the rails if he’ll let me talk to him. I don’t’ want to scare him away. I’m the luckiest girl in the world having the phone number of a man who has run trains forty years. I’m not going to lose that number or that privelege. What Cary can do for me tonight though, Wednesday, is tell me who is on the 708.

“Hi, young lady,” he says after switching off that gentle bell. It’s the right one tonight, the FP59, the EMD sweet engine purring. Oh it’s my favorite engine bliss! Cuddled in the arms of my favorite engine I look up at it’s engineer. The usual greetings pass.

“how are you?”

“Good,” says Cary, or something like that.

“Who is on the 708?” I now ask. I still only have two minutes. Cary doesn’t make my heart pound like glen does; it may just be that Glen is my first engineer love. No matter. He has information. “The one behind you?”

Cary pauses for a moment.

“You mean the 608?”

I’ve made a mistake. Trains are like third graders, remember when you had to stand in line and wait your turn? Train engineers, crews, they’ve never gotten away from that elementary school practice. They still patiently wait in line, and maybe sometimes not, Dave Norris says. You have engineers, he says, that whine for the green signal and dispatchers who wont’ give it to them. Wander if Glen ever whines in that classic expressive vocally rich way of his. I don’t know. I only know that tonight Cary wants to know if I mean the 708 or the 608. Technically, the 708 is in front of him, the 608 is behind him. He takes me literally.

“The 708,” I say, “the one in front of you. I’m sorry.”

Here I go apologizing to the engineer again. Why is it that I only apologize to locomotive engineers? I don’t’ know that either, I only know that somehow since meeting glen I’ve done nothing but apologize to locomotive engineers, either that or ask questions, or chase them. My mother would be so proud of me! Finally, I’m on my knees begging, humbled, put in my place, saying sorry to engineers. So sorry!

“It’s Veronica,” he says, “usually.”

So there is gold in that there engineer, he has told me the name of the 708 engineer and if Veronica isn’t there then there might be an extra, someone else to meet. But I don’t get to the 708 this week. Monday I arrive later, after 6:00 pm. The 708 is hard to make with my schedule. Either I get off early enough to make it or I don’t. There’s really no in between. It’s why I had such success and still do with the engineer on the 608. The ironic thing is that the gold on the 608, my first engineer love, if he were still on the 708, would not see much of me these days. Sometimes I’m just getting to the station as the 708 pulls in; there’s not time to make it from the bus docks to the railroad tracks. It would be the same thing. I would miss Glen’s train and have to call him. Whether he’s in Lancaster or here doesn’t matter. These days with my schedule I would hardly see him. And yet, sometimes I tear up, missing him is so intense that it surprises me with its sharpness and sudden appearance. Sometimes the very thought of a past interaction with him brings back the freshness of those memories and the razor-edged sharpness of those emotions. It’s enough to stop me in my tracks, sometimes. And yet it would be the same either here or there. It’s the strangest thing, ever. I’ve never missed someone that much for such a brief interaction. Did Chatsworth change my life that much? Most of the time I’m fine. I’m in the acceptance stage of my loss, I think, but it’s still intense and it still hurts, and the 708 still comes and goes. Sometimes I make that train, and sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I don’ make the 606 either. Tuesday I don’t make it at all. Monday, I make it there and get so caught up in my conversation with Jeff about trains and the like that I look up and realize I’ve missed my 8:55 bus and so I must wait for my 10:05 connection. I don’t have to be at work till 9:30 on Tuesday so it’s fine if I stay out a little bit later tonight. The rest of the week goes smoothly though. I make my schedule, visit the station for an hour or so between buses and occupy my perch. We talk about train music on one night.

“In The baggage Car Ahead,” says Dave Norris, “is a three hanky song. It is sad.” Wally joins us one night, talking about Jimmy someone who sings train songs. “The Old wreck of ,97” just to name a few, the few I can remember. These are things I have to look up online, along with things like signal terminology and engines of the Southern Pacific. There are so many things to learn about trains that I don’t’ think I’ll ever tire of them. It’s all gold! Train gold! Engineer gold! Larry, the one who sits on the patio and teases me mercilessly about talking to engineers, asked me in July if I was a gold digger. I guess I am. I’m finding plenty of it, that’s for sure.

“You said once that I collect engineers,” I tell Dave Norris.

“Yes,” he agrees. The signals are all red so there’s plenty of time to talk. Apparently the jell that forms the color of the light in the signals is working without any trouble and so we just sit and wait, Dave’s pen at the ready. When headlights approach, and the engineer considerately takes his or her hand and dims those lovely lights, the click of Dave’s pen signals the eminent arrival of our latest event of gold.

“I have two Southern Pacific’s and two Santa Fees,” I explain. “Now what I need are some Union pacifics.”

“If you can collect one more of each then you’ll have a full house,” he says.

A full house of engineers? I don’t’ think I could stand having a full house of engineers! Rob Sanchez what have you done to me! A man I never met inspired a passion he’ll never be able to fully understand because his chances are gone. But oh the people I’ve met since that horrible night when a preoccupation with a cell phone led to such tragedy. It’s enough to make one feel guilty at times. Tonight I’m not feeling guilty. I’m sitting here, outdoors, enjoying the spectacle, waiting for gold.

“On the trail of gold,” Dave says. I can’t remember what I said to inspire that comment but it works. I am on the trail of gold. If one has a beard, a moustache and glasses, one is a tall guy who has a bike in his cab, and one has gold-rimmed glasses and looks, curt says, like a stock broker, it’s all so much more gold. I have gold in my phone. I have gold on the patio. I have gold. It’s all gold and I’m looking for it.

“We broke down last night,” Bobby on the 608 tells me. He has the right one. It’s Wednesday and he’s the only train I make today. In fact he’s my last engineer of the week. I greet him with my customary “you’ve got the right one tonight.” We talk about the difference between the ph and the phi. The ph locomotive is the one with the bull nose, it has the EMD engine but he likes the phi model better, the one with the independent cab. This one, the bull-nosed locomotive, bounces, it’s a rough ride he says. When it comes to the Mpi, though, the dreaded Boise Locomotive Company engine, he thinks it breaks better than the EMD.

“They load slow,” he says. I think he’s talking about the computer. All of my engineers have their preferences. Most don’t like the MPIs. I guess Bobby likes them. There’s more gold, more engineer preferences. The younger engineer who has been running trains for fifteen years prefers the newer engines. And last night, he says, Tuesday, they broke down in Stuart mesa out of Ocean Side. We don’t get much time to talk about that because it’s time to go and he leaves me to go home to his wife and hopefully doesn’t break down along the way. Glen has never told me that he’s broken down on the 608. I’ll have to ask him about that.

What I also miss on Tuesday, though, besides the engineers, is the howling man. A man waiting for the Pacific Surfliner, train 589 to Los Angeles, stands on the safety line howling at the empty tracks. Curt, my engineer spotter, known as octaboy because he’s the eighth of a dozen children, or Scoots, or Scooter Boy, pulls the man away from the tracks. He has a ticket, Dave Norris says, he’s just one of those guys who looks like he might have been let out of “1050 day care” People at the train station who watch trains have their own ways of putting things.

“why is it when I’m not here I miss all the fun?” I ask.

That seems to be the most traumatic thing that happens this week. We don’t see Curt much, he’s involved as an accompanist for “Oklahoma” and has dress rehearsals and performances all week. I see him Monday, and he’s there on Tuesday, rescuing the howler from himself, but we don’t see him after Tuesday. We see Ray, intoxicated as usual, early and often. We see Jeff, a man I know but don’t see down here often. We see Dave the Trucker. We see jack the man who has a Rare form of cancer. We see Anna, Dave’s daughter, who regales us between trains with stories of adventures as an officer of the Fish and Game department, finding illegal fish, shutting down restaurants, trying to find elusive vendors fishing illegally. Kathy joins us, I sit on my perch, the foamers down the platform foam.

Brian explains patiently to the adolescent star-struck, engineer chasing railfan (that would be me) what all the calls mean. “Swift” is for the cars of the trucking company, “Hi mat” is for cars that say “Matson”, flapping wings are for the containers that have extended wings, bowing is for the Hon Gen cars, another pointing motion is for another Chinese container. Apparently this group is unique to Fullerton. They bow, clap, and call to the trains as they pass. Applause signals the passing of a manifest train and not a stack train. They’re the ones, Dave says, who will be happy if I come them on new Year’s Eve with chocolate chip cookies. I’m threatening to come to the fullerton station on New Year’s Eve bearing cookies and waiting for the first train of 2011. Why not!

Another one of those events worth noting takes place at the station amid the cool, balmy breezes, the loud shrill voices announcing trains on the public address system. Apparently there is bridge building going on over the Fullerton creek so that the spur line that connects the station tracks to the main line that the trains will be taking to get from Fullerton to Mission Viejo when service starts later this year can be built. Piles of dirt line the pathway a mile out, high railers do their thing, train love grows, and so does discontent with city planning. The fertile railroad track platform is the perfect incubation spot for discontent it seems with so much time on railfan hands, and so much experience behind them. The city planning committee responsible for deciding how the physical characteristics of the station will be changed decides that the current plans now under scrutiny are just unacceptable. Building a bridge across Harbor so that comuters can walk all the way around the tracks and over them to board the trains just wont’ work, they say. No one, especially in the evening, is going to walk that far to board a train. And who needs a new parking structure anyway! Parking has always been a bear, I guess that’s why we have train stations in the first place. Apparently plans are to build a tall towerin structure where the current blacktop now sits, which would allow for more parking and move the buses into the bowels of the structure. Hiding the buses used for public access in the extreme bottomlands of the parking structure ensures, they say, that the “evil bus riding types” are far away from the night clubs that dot the area, a dock or two and a couple of buildings over from where the OCTA buses now regularly pull to unload passengers. One of those passengers, of course, would be me, the star-struck adolescent railfan. The plans are ridiculous, untenable, asinine, they say. Wonder what will come of them. Only time will tell and in the mean time there is much more gol to chase. Gold! Gol! There’s gold in that there engineer! You bet! Educational gold, information, as the Lone Ranger says.

“I’ll have to take a secret recording device,” I tell Dave, “and put it somewhere so I can catch my engineers off the clock; wonder what they do.”

Dave has told me of the scandalous behavior of train crews. It is an illegal but interesting idea, one that may produce much blushing, laughter, or unscrupulous results.

“Hoep you’re not too prudish,” he says.

I expect many things from all my gold mines. Nothing, I fear, would surprise me.

Friday night I leave late, catch my 10:05 connection and make it home in time to get up on Saturday morning and attend a Toastmasters meeting. I am elected secretary of the club that day, my term starts in July. It has been a quiet week but it has been an eventful one. I am, by my own admission, on the trail of gold. What a trail it is! Wonder what gold mine I’ll discover next week! We will see! In the meantime there’s gold in that there engineer and Shelley’s out to find it and have fun all at the same time. It’s all good. It’s all gold!



Copyright © 2010 Shelley J Alongi
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