Eating Authors: Russ Colchamiro

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Russ Colchamiro

On Thursday, the low temperature here was about nine degrees. The next day, we hit sixty-five and it rained. Saturday, we dropped back to twelve. Yesterday’s high was all of twenty-six. Well, at least all of the previous snow melted and washed away in the warm rain.

Sorry, no segue for this week; sometimes that’s just how it goes. Our EATING AUTHORS guest is Russ Colchamiro, whom I have always known as a short story writer (primarily because we were both in Pangaea, an anthology from Crazy 8 Press). But we were chatting in the Dealers’ Room at Philcon a couple months back, and I discovered I didn’t know the half of it. Russ has a string of novels to his credit, most notably the zany Finders Keepers series.

He lives just over the river in New Jersey, but he’s backpacked throughout Europe and New Zealand, the former figures in what he’ll tell you in a moment, but both experiences provide a context for a lot of his fiction. It’s not enough to say that Russ writes SFF. He actually writes humor and adventure and mystery. It just so happens that he does all that while writing SFF.

LMS: Welcome, Russ. Speak to me of your most memorable meal.

RC: I originally shared a version of this anecdote in my scifi backpacking comedy novel, Finders Keepers, through the POV of my alter ego, Jason Medley. The details below—this time through my own POV—are based on actual events I experienced late August of 1994 when I was 23 years old. At this point in the story—beginning in the Gare du Nord, the main train hub in Paris—I was mentally, emotionally, and physically fatigued, having endured approximately 36 consecutive hours of non-stop hustling between planes, cars, buses, subways, trains, hovercrafts, and more trains, on what was the initial leg of a month-long backpacking trip I took through Europe—my first trip of consequence anywhere. I was traveling alone, and spoke no languages other than English.

The direct train from Paris—where I was—to Rome—where I was headed—was due to depart in less than two minutes. It was also the last train to Rome for the night and I literally had nowhere to sleep—I didn’t know a soul in the entire city—if I missed it. But for reasons unclear to me the track number changed at the last minute, which left me running full bore, a loaded rucksack on my back.

Finders Keepers

I stumbled upon an information booth.

“Excuse me,” I said to the attendant. “Train to Rome. It was supposed to be on track nine, but it’s not. Do you know which track? Do you know where it is?”

He winged his newspaper, creating a distinct barrier between us, preventing eye contact. Smoke floated up from behind the paper.

“Sir! Train to Rome. It leaves in …,” I checked my watch, “… in less than three minutes. Train to Rome. Which track? Do you know which track?”

The cigarette grumbler winged his paper again. He turned his back on me.

“Excuse me, sir. Please. Can you help me? Train to Rome …”

I fantasized about jumping over the counter and clubbing him with a baguette until the right answer popped loose, but instead the clock in my head clanged away like an ancient gong.

10:54:03 … Clang!
10:54:04 … Clang!
10:54:05 … Clang!

The cigarette grumbler looked over his shoulder. “Three,” he said finally, then stormed into the back room. Slam!

Sprinting along the platform I strained to see through the train windows. Compartment after compartment was filled with passengers. Not an empty seat to be found.

An awesome clang! echoed in my head at the tick of 10:55:27. With the train about to pull out of the station, I heaved my rucksack onto the next car, jumped on the metal stairs, but tripped over my bag, denting my shin on the doorframe. Leg now throbbing, I pulled myself up and limped along the narrow hallway. Light came in through the windows. The first compartment was full. Same with the second, the third, and the fourth. I was getting anxious, covered in a film of sweat and anxiety that soaked through my clothes, afraid I would have to stand the entire fourteen-hour trip to Rome.

Crossline

The final compartment was fitted with two padded benches, facing each other. There was just enough room for six passengers, three to a bench. There was one spot available, the middle to my right. “Train to Rome?” I looked to a twentyish brunette in a white ruffled blouse. “Sí,” she said.

I forced my rucksack between the other bags on the overhead rack, then squeezed myself between two strangers. Six sets of interlocking knees now occupied the small common ground between the two sides.

Shrouded in darkness, I ached head to toe, and didn’t care. I hadn’t eaten a solid meal in nearly two days, and didn’t care. I hadn’t showered in just as long, and didn’t care.

I was grateful just to have reached the end of one of the longest days of my life, one that spanned three nations, two oceans, and thousands of miles, a day whose beginning I could no longer remember or even care to recall. I was sitting down. That was good enough for me.

And yet the sleep never came. I pinned my shoulders against the seat back so I wouldn’t invade the personal space of my fellow travelers. But I wanted to feel like a whole person again, to make a connection. “Hi,” I finally said to the guy sitting next to me.

He rubbed his scraggly beard, adjusted his glasses, and then swept the long hair from his face. “Uh … sí, hello, yes. You America, no?”

“Yeah, America. From New York.”

“Ah! New York! Sí, sí. Antonio, Antonio.” Antonio then introduced Sonja, the black-haired beauty to my left, and then facing me Christi, René and Angelina, three twentyish girls, pretty and without makeup, dressed in jeans and ragged shirts, backpackers all.

We then took turns in the bathroom, a tiny closet at the end of the car.

As I stared at myself in the mirror, it was impossible not to notice that my complexion was sickly yellow; I had dark bags under my eyes. But I managed to wash my face, brush my teeth, gargle with peppermint Listerine, and then spritz each armpit with deodorant. The spray was cool. It stung.

Genius de Milo

Perked, but not perky, I walked in on my new friends. They were using their knees as tables, sharing a box of crackers, a brick of chocolate, and passed around a water bottle.

As if drop kicked in the face, I couldn’t believe my stupidity. Among my forty pounds of gear I hadn’t packed the most important item of all—food. Not a cookie, not a sandwich. No candy, no fruit, no drinks. Nothing. Not even a breath mint.

I all but collapsed into the fetal position and started to weep—when Christi smiled at me. “Hungry, yes? Eat. You receive good deed, you do for someone else. Is the traveler’s karma. You’ll see.”

It took all I had from hugging her senseless. You’re an angel. But gratitude aside, the starving coyote in me was ready to rip the throats from anyone who came between me and the sesame crackers. I surveyed the food, let out a short sigh. “Thanks,” I said. “I could eat.”

Bellies satisfied and with the overhead light switched off again, my new friends and I tried to sleep, a jumble of limbs strewn about. The train made several stops, and as the eyelids of the morning sky began to open, we crossed the French border into Italy.

In my mind I thanked my now-slumbering mates for their generosity of spirit. For treating that compartment as their home and for making me their most welcome guest. And as I thought about the days ahead, I wondered if I would meet anyone even half as kind as they were, or share another meal that would ever mean as much.

Thanks, Russ. I have to say, I don’t understand how you can be carrying 40 lbs. of backpack (which presumably includes cooking gear) and not have any food. We clearly have different priorities in life.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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