What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

SURREAL adj /səˈrēəl/   1) marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; 2)  unbelievable, fantastic

<surreal sums of money>

The NJ Chamber of Commerce “Walk to Washington” just wrapped. I’m usually good at finding the right language or metaphor to describe complicated, elusive concepts. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to NJ politics – especially this particular event – that’s vexing to articulate. 


All Aboard

To call the trip surreal is an understatement. To ask “what was so bizarre? misses the point.  What wasn’t surreal is more like it. It was, for better or worse, the strangest trip I’ve even taken. And at $699/ticket, perhaps the most exclusive as well.
 
Let’s begin with the journey down, on board a 15-car-long Amtrak train chartered for the occasion by the NJ Chamber of Commerce. Yes, the “Walk to Washington” is actually a train ride where, presumably, you’re walking up and down the aisle the whole way down. Walking, schmoozing, drinking. And no doubt (inadvertently) shoving your ass in a fellow traveler’s face (sorry about that Senator Scutari!) 
 
That’s the nature of the trip. Clearly, if you’re claustrophobic or averse to crowds, this is not your scene. Crowded AF the kid would say.
 
Boarding in Philly, the train was already brimming with riders from Newark & Trenton. My ticket & press credentials to cover the event never arrived in the mail so I hopped on unsure where my assigned seat was. That part was slightly worrying on a train this crowded. 
 
“Elbow to asshole,” quipped one rider to his traveling companion. Both were clad in military garb and took the crammed conditions in their stride.

Mercifully there was a random empty spot in the front of the 3rd car beckoning. A huge relief, especially for a slightly jittery first-time rider like myself. Those butterflies would pass thank goodness. Within 10 or 15 minutes that same crowd, at first slightly menacing, suddenly felt like something to embrace. Which is pretty lucky considering the journey ahead.
 
I drink alcohol two or three times a year and this quickly became one of those times. When in Rome, right!?
 
“Free cocktails in car #16!” read the incoming text, luring me to the back of the train with the promise of free booze. As an added inducement there was an entire hospitality car, lavishly catered by members of the NJ Restaurant Association. I probably embarrassed myself by not-so-furtively gorging on the homemade chips-n-guacamole from Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park. 
 
In the next car, I overheard some tips how to discreetly cheat on your wife at an event like this.

“Hire a hooker for that,” a shameless rider advised his wide-eyed cohort, citing the practical concern of discretion. “What’s the chance your wife’s gonna know someone like that!?”
 
This was not the first (or the last) time I’d pinch myself and wonder if this was real. Or was I just being punk’d? That’s the textbook definition of surreal, right?
 
Onboard political chatter centered on this November’s NJ elections. Is Troy Singleton poised to replace Diane Allen in the NJ Senate? Will Chris Brown replace Jim Whelan? Plenty among this crowd seemed to think so. 
 
By the time I finally reached the back of the train to fetch my free Absolut-on-the-rocks, we were almost in Washington. This prompted a mad scramble to return to my seat. The hike back to the 3rd car (and my luggage) was much easier thanks to a jolly building trades type who burrowed through cars 6 & 7 cleverly yelling “HOT SOUP! LADY WITH A BABY! COMING THROUGH!” to clear a path down the crowded aisles. Did I mention he was inhaling a helium balloon the entire time?
 
Whatever it takes, y’all!
 
The minute those train doors opened, I dashed to grab a cab. I wanted to file a quick column, smoke a joint (it’s legal here), and grab a 20 minute disco nap before before getting my game face for the main event. 
 
Congressional Dinner. Or whatever
 
So that nap never materialized. And frankly neither did the Congressional dinner. For me anyway, but more about that later. Thankfully I had a trusted sources at the Congressional Dinner who was kind to describe each (of the four big speeches) in 15 words or less. 
 
  • Senator Bob Menendez: Boring & aimless. Something about the Super Bowl. No one cares, gone in 2018.
  • Senator Cory Booker: Some soaring moments but too emotional, a bit stilted. And much too long.
  • Governor Chris Christie: He’s trying to polish his legacy. Nothing about Christie’s big new thing: opiate addiction.
  • Congressman Chris Smith: Good speech about human trafficking. Knew his audience. Well paced.

Again, these are second-hand impressions.
 
Here’s why I never made it to the Congressional Dinner: just moments before the appetizers rolled out, I was cornered by a slightly tipsy legislative aide. Did I want to crash a party at the Irish Embassy? Hell-to-the-yeah I did!
 
Seconds later we’re in an Uber and I’m lamenting not wearing green. Sadly, we arrived too late. The party had just ended. 
 
“HOLD THAT BUS!” my friend, the aide, suddenly hollered, startling me. 
 
“OMG Where are we going!?” I hazard.
 
“Hurry! Run!” he replied tearing toward a mystery bus idling impatiently in the embassy driveway. 
 
It took a minute for these eyes to adjust to the darkened motor coach. That’s when I realized I was standing on a bus full of NJ legislators who, like me, decided to ditch the dinner and hit the town instead. And speaking of dinner, guess who’s famished by now?
 
So here I am, munchies flaring, trapped on a bus with lawmakers, forced to behave while friends taunt me with pictures of their NY stripsteak from Ruth Chris Steakhouse or their 5 lb. lobster from The Palm. 
 
“It’s free, bro! Come gets yours!” they beckoned, citing more (free) lavish hospitality. That’s just the nature of this trip. And there I was ready to settle for a food truck! Or better yet room service. 
 
I was back in my hotel by midnight but not before checking out Tim Eustace & Reed Gusciora’s 4th Annual “Walk to Washington” After Party. I made one pass through the lively crowd before heading home. I did notice Assembly Herb Conaway’s fancy moves in the pool table before I left. Herb’s my favorite legislative punching bag for shamelessly setting the table for NJ’s heroin crisis. I was tempted to call him out publicly. Alcohol has that effect, you know. Thankfully I just made my way toward the door in into the crisp, February night instead.
 
Walk of Shame
 
A few parting nuggets from the ride back to NJ. I slept most of the way. 
 
My friend Angelina described the return journey perfectly on Twitter: #chambertrain back to #NJ is like a 3 hour long walk of shame #njpolitics
 
For their part, Amtrak doesn’t love us. According to a crew member, our chartered train leaves an inordinately huge footprint during this yearly romp. Apparently once our big train rolls into the station, it sits there – in place – until we leave the next day, “which really sucks to be honest.”
 
This arrangement mucks up logistics for the entire station with all other trains working around a 15-car-train that’s ostensibly double-parked for 24 hours. 
 
The mood was infinitely mellower than the journey down. No surprise there. Lots of folks in sunglasses. No catering. Very little booze.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker was sitting close by. Hey, isn’t he a scientist or something? Surely he could spare a clever quip to sum things up? I was too hungover to find the right physics metaphor.
 
“Quantum mechanics says that you can never know a particle’s position and momentum at the same time,” Zwicker told InsiderNJ. “I think that’s also true for people on the chamber train.”
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  • Bertin Lefkovic

    Fear and Loathing on the Chamber Train this most certainly wasn’t, Jay. Way to straddle the third rail between trying to stand for something and standing for absolutely nothing.

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