JoMamma and Ali McGraw

The Coveted Amtrak Seat

I boarded the Amtrak in Emeryville at 10pm.  I asked the conductor for a window seat in the hopes of catching one good night’s sleep, or at least a block of time for dreaming while traveling to Eugene, OR.  As I approached seat number 3A, my excitement grew.  Not only was I looking at a window seat, but the front row!  This is the coveted Amtrak spot for those who can’t afford to travel by sleeper car (and no, I’ve never traveled by sleeper car).  You have no one in front of you and extra leg room, enough to keep you comfortable and in your seat for hours at a time.

Boarding the Coast Starlight in Emeryville

Boarding the Coast Starlight in Emeryville

As I reached my seat, my excitement vanished.  In MY seat, was a large man settling in and I spent 15 minutes debating on whether I should be that person who demands their seat.  This is a politically sensitive move- I could feasibly be sitting next to this person for the next 11 hours- so any situation should be handled with the skills of a diplomat.

Luckily, the conductor walked by a few minutes later and asked to see the man’s ticket where the conductor had written his seat number.  His english was not very strong and he had read the seat number incorrectly.  I had hit the lottery, not only was the coveted window seat mine, but the other seat was empty!  And for some reason, the conductor made it a point not to seat anyone there for the next several pick ups.  So, it was quite possible that I may have one of the best nights of sleep on the Amtrak in all my years of riding the rails.

The Whoosh of JoMamma

Still reeling from my good fortune, I pulled out my fuzzy Brookstone inflatable neck pillow and eye cover (an absolute must for anyone who travels by train or flies long distances overseas) and my Kelty Hostel sheet (a sleeping bag liner that resembles two sheets sewn together) turned on my Ipod and settled in for some sleep.

I was startled about an hour later by this sudden wave of overpowering perfume and a babbling tiny little woman who threw herself in my coveted empty seat.  What was this disturbance and why was my wonderful Iron & Wine playlist being interrupted by a woman in a bedazzled baseball cap whose breathe was inundated with cheap beer?  She just started talking.  Rapidly.  Like I was listening.

I slowly pulled out my ear-buds, trying politely to imply that I was otherwise trying to sleep and listening to music for reasons of remaining undisturbed.  “I can’t find my seat,” she proclaimed rather loudly. “I’m gonna sit here for a minute.”

I nodded and let her talk.  And talk.  And talk.  In the span of 20 minutes, I learned that she boarded the train to return home to Vancouver, Washington, she had been visiting her father, who was going blind, her dead-beat brother john had been living with her father for about a year and refused to clean up after himself and she was going to sell all of her belongings when she got home and move in with her father as well, and much more.

“My name is Jo, but people call me JoMamma. And I’m an alcoholic.  And I’m fucking drunk right now.  You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?”  Her exact words.  She then went on to enlighten me on how a tiny little white woman in her late 60s got the name JoMamma.  The details are a little hazy, but it has something to with the regulars at the bar where she hangs out and the nickname they gave her.  She seemed very nurturing, in her own way, so maybe the name was derived from that trait.

JoMamma spent the next two hours talking at me.  I do mean at me.  She would ask me questions, then ten minutes later ask the same questions again, then remember she already had those answers and then smack herself in the face or mouth and reprimand herself for being drunk.  She told me about losing her husband.  She told me about her estranged daughters.  She told me about losing her mom.  She told me about putting felt on the numbers on her dad’s phone so he could call people when he needed to.  She told me more about herself then I thought possible.

“If I were your mother, would you be embarrassed by me right now?”  JoMamma asked.  And she wanted an honest answer.  I tried to evade and dodge this answer, so I was noncommittal and said, that depends.

What do you say to that?  Do you say yes?  Would that put this fragile woman in an uncomfortable place or is she too drunk to care?

“You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?”  In fact, I get that often from people of a different generation.  Sadly, I once had to hit the Google to see the resemblance, I didn’t know who she was.

Finally, the conductor came through and asked why she was sitting there.  She couldn’t find her seat, so he told her when the train stopped again, he would help her find her way.

At times like this, I try to find the inner Buddhist that I am convinced lives within me (I’ve been to the Dalai Lama’s temple- I should have acquired some sort of sentient inner being by osmosis- in theory) and tell myself to not be selfish and listen.  Obviously, this woman has something to tell me or I have something to learn from this encounter or else the universe would not have placed her before me.  So, I listened.  I held her Budweiser while she shuffled her things around.  And I listened some more.

When she finally went to her own seat, I hate to say it, but I was relieved.  I made a mental note of the encounter and then returned to my playlist and my fuzzy pillow.  Just as I started to drift off, I smell the wave of JoMamma and hear the whoosh again.

“They took my stuff!”  She hands me her Budweiser- again- and proceeds to tell me that they took her things.  Who ‘They’ are is rather vague, but she believed ‘They’ had committed a crime against her.  She went to have a smoke and came back and her bag and coat were gone.  I really couldn’t help her, so I let her sit and regain her bearings.  And reassured her that ‘They’ did not take her things, she just had to find them.

JoMamma taking a smoke break the next day

JoMamma taking a smoke break the next day

“You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?  They’re gonna throw me off this train for being wasted! ”  And well, I didn’t disagree with her, that outcome was probable. She regrouped, grabbed her Bud, and went to the next train car.

Train Coffee

Sleep was finally mine.  As the sun came up and the outer landscape had gone from pacific coastline to snowy mountain range, I followed the aroma of train coffee and made my way to the lounge car.  Sitting in a booth beside the snack room was JoMamma.  She was munching on some noodles and reading a book.  I guess she had made it through the night after all.

She recognized me as I was heading up the stairs and she said, “there’s the lovely girl I kept up last night.  Doesn’t she look like Ali McGraw?”  I gave her a warm smile and went on about my way.  We had shared enough time the night before.  I sat in the lounge car, sipping coffee and staring out the huge picture window as the world sped past.  I contemplated on what JoMamma’s life had been like prior to our meeting and the events in her life that brought her to the lonely Amtrak, drunk, on a late December evening.


  1. uncle ed says

    hi crystal! I read your email. Found it interesting and will look forward to reading about your journeys! Keep us in mind. love–Uncle Ed

  2. mom says

    very interesting and enjoyable reading. I love “traveling” with you and maybe one time, I can travel with you in person. Let’s get Ladybug and George settled somewhere and we can take off together. Oh boy!!! Love you and miss you.

    • says

      Thanks mom! You’re one of the reasons I started this little blog, you’re always wanting me to share my stories! Would love to go on an adventure with you! Maybe Kelly can keep the animals, Ha! Love you!