I spent a lot of July 1996 on a train, trundling across the vastness of North America with my best mate Nelly. It was the perfect way to reflect on a long and tortuous year that began and ended in Austin. But I was also worried about what lay in wait when it was time for me to return to Scotland at the end of the summer.
As a teenager, I’d always dreamt about doing a road trip across the States in a convertible car. But then I realized how expensive it was to rent a convertible, so I shelved that dream and decided to take the train instead.
This was towards the end of my year in Austin as an exchange student at UT Law School in 1995-1996. I’d saved up a bunch of cash from working in Casino El Camino for a few months and, despite all the heartache I’d been through that year, I was determined to try and enjoy my summer in America.
Nelly and I planned to visit Chicago, New York, Boston, Toronto, and Mexico, spending about a week in each place. We didn’t really budget for accommodation though. Instead we had a list of phone numbers, basically of friends of friends, and we thought we’d figure it out on the way.
Nelly arrived in Austin late June ’96, a couple of days before we were scheduled to leave. I’d seen him briefly around Christmas in Scotland, and before that in October ‘95 at my brother’s funeral. We had a lot to catch up on.
I met Nelly, real name Neil, for the first time in August 1987. As two of the new arrivals at Glasgow Academy, we were sat beside each other in a classroom full of boys that had known each other for years. Initially we bonded as outsiders, as two kids from public schools taking a stand against the upper class snobs of the private school system. We played football, they played rugby. We were into films and music, they were into clay pigeon shooting, and barking orders at their servants. Or at least that’s what we first imagined.
Nelly and I remained friends throughout school and then we both went to Edinburgh University to study law. We were assigned to the same halls of residence in college, and we played in the same football team. We sat together, on the back row, for every lecture during our first two years of law school. He’d seen me happy, he’d seen me depressed. He’d been there to celebrate with me when things were going well, and he’d been there to pick me up when I’d fallen on my arse. No one knew me as well as Nelly.
And so, it meant everything to me that Nelly was coming to the US to visit me that summer. The death of my brother had been terrible, but it was the fact of being apart from my friends and family that had made it so unbearable. I wanted Nelly to see this amazing city I’d discovered called Austin. I wanted him to know what I’d been through and why I thought I was ok. But I also knew that I couldn’t bullshit him.
So Nelly and I got on our first train departing out of Austin station early on the morning of July 4th, 1996. Our first destination was Chicago. I remember we were so prepared for that first trip. We had made sandwiches to eat, we had bottles of water to drink, we had books to read, and cassette tapes to listen to on our Walkmans.
We knew it was going to be a long trip, but we hadn’t realized how long it would actually feel. It was a 28-hour train ride from Austin to Chicago with nothing much to do except talk to each other or look out the window. 12 hours after leaving Austin, we’d finished all our food and drink, I’d read an entire book, I’d listened to most of our tapes, and the train was still in Texas.
The train was fairly comfortable though. The seats reclined a bit further than airplane seats and there was a steadiness and a rhythm to the train as it rolled across the tracks. As long as I got there before Nelly, the toilets were not too disgusting, and there was a café in one carriage that sold cheese and ham bagels.
The trains were not too packed either, although there was almost always someone snoring nearby while we tried to sleep. That wasn’t the most annoying thing though. Nelly had bought some new trainers for the summer. It was the only pair of shoes he had brought with him. They looked normal on the outside, but on the inside something weird was going on.
We’d had a couple of hot days walking around Austin before we got on the train, and I think maybe one day he wore them without socks. But the smell that emanated from those shoes was not a normal stinky feet smell. It was unnatural. There was a part of the smell that was like typical bad body odor, but there was a head-jarring sharpness to it too. Like a very, very, very smelly cheese. It also had a deep, complex meaty smell. Like rotten wet haggis left outside in a hot trash can. And it was concentrated. When it was released it lingered and lingered for hours like an unwelcome ghost. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before or since. Even Nelly himself, who is usually quite proud of his own smells, found it hard to bear.
The worst part was that when his shoes were on it was ok. But if he started to take them off it would immediately wake me up, and probably everyone on the train too. So he had to keep them on. He had no choice. He wore them constantly. Which of course only made it worse.
When we were not discussing his feet, Nelly and I talked a lot about my brother’s death and the aftermath. He asked me questions about how I’d felt at the funeral, about what I’d discussed with my parents, and about what I was going to do get over it in the long term – questions that no one had asked me before. I was able to share with him how I’d coped, or how I’d tried to ignore it. It was the first time that I’d allowed myself to think about some things. I thought that perhaps I might not be as messed up as I had feared. But I don’t think Nelly was convinced.
After 28 hours on the train, and hardly any sleep, we got to Chicago late on a Friday afternoon. We had the phone number of one person, a girl called Cindy who had been a friend of Marc’s years earlier in Kansas City. I’d spoken with her once to let her know we were coming, but we hadn’t really discussed our plan to stay with her for a week. When we arrived we couldn’t even get hold of her.
After walking around Chicago aimlessly for a while, we decided to just spend the night on the beach. Eventually we found our way there and we huddled down under some benches. It was a bit sketchy because we had all our stuff with us, including all our cash for the whole trip. However, I was somewhat reassured that the smell of Nelly’s trainers would scare off any potential assailants, and eventually the sun appeared on the horizon and we watched Chicago come to life.
We finally got in touch with Cindy that afternoon and she said we could crash on her couch for a night or two. Cindy was awesome. She had her own apartment in the Lincoln Park area and she seemed much older and more mature than us. In reality she was probably only about 25 years old, and we were just very immature 20 year olds.
Cindy introduced us to a lot of her friends and we ended up staying with her for the whole week. Nelly’s trainers, however, were not allowed in the apartment as they had now reached hazardous levels on the national air quality index.
It had been another teenage fantasy of mine to do a ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. That’s why we decided on Chicago as our first stop. Nelly and I fell in love with the city that week. We went to Wrigley Field to see the Cubbies twice, we went to the museum that Ferris visits, we went to fancy restaurants, and we stood with our heads against the window at the top of the Sears Tower. We even got driven around in red convertible by Cindy’s friend Suzy for a day. It felt like we were in a movie – an awesome, exciting, feel-good movie.
After a week in Chicago, we got back on the train and headed for New York City. That was another 22 hour journey. We had three phone numbers of New Yorkers, given to us by friends, but I’d not been able to get a hold of any of them. When we arrived at New York’s Penn Station we still didn’t have anywhere to stay. I remember I called the number to a hostel from a payphone who told me they had some room. So we took a taxi to the hostel, but when we arrived they told us that there were no beds left. We didn’t really want another night on the streets, and it was too expensive anyway, so we decided to skip New York and head straight to Boston. I figured I’d probably visit New York again someday.
Nelly had a family friend called Beth studying just outside of Boston. It was late when we arrived, a few days earlier than scheduled, but Beth and her roommate Natalie seemed pleased to see us. They probably were not too happy to wake up to the smell of Nelly’s trainers in their living room, but we had a great week with them.
I remember the four of us went to Martha’s Vineyard one day, an affluent island off the coast of Massachusetts, and we hung out on one of the beaches near where Jaws was filmed. A well-to-do older guy, who was a friend of Beth’s parents, had picked us up from the ferry and driven us for about 30 minutes to the beach, but for some reason the conversation in the car had been difficult and uncomfortable.
While at the beach I told the others that we needed to invent an anecdote that we could use on the way back, so that we could have something to talk about with this old guy. The others thought this was the stupidest idea ever, but Nelly and I spent the afternoon making up a long-winded story about a couple that played mixed doubles tennis together, who one day had a small misunderstanding over the word ‘partner’…with hilarious consequences.
Sure enough, the old guy picked us up late in the day to take us back to the ferry, and we were all sitting in the back of his SUV in awkward silence. Then we passed a tennis club and I asked him if he played tennis. He said “no”, but then I launched into our made-up anecdote anyway with a completely straight face. The others already had their heads in their hands trying not to laugh, but I got through the entire story and the old chap loved it. I’m pretty sure that story is still doing the rounds among the tennis clubs of Martha’s Vineyard.
From Boston we went up to Toronto for a few days. Our third 24-hour plus train ride together. Those were long days on the train, but we had enough to talk about. Nelly filled me in on all the Forest Pump gossip and what had happened in Edinburgh over the past year. He also told me about the cultural changes back home, about the emergence of Britpop and Cool Brittania. I was desperate to hear all about it and to learn about the new TV shows like TFI Friday, about the movie Trainspotting, and the hysteria around Euro ‘96. All these things had happened while I was away.
Nelly had brought with him some tape recordings of Chris Evans’ BBC breakfast show too from the past few months. More than anything, that gave me an insight into the way that the UK music scene had evolved. Hearing indie bands like Space, The Longpigs, Ocean Colour Scene, and The Divine Comedy, being played and championed on a morning radio show was surreal. I still love all that Britpop music, but weirdly I still associate many of those songs with riding on trains across America.
Highlights of Toronto included a visit to the Shoe Museum and seeing the premiere of Trainspotting. Another night we went to see a baseball game at the SkyDome. I remember we had a few beers with some other Scots we’d bumped into, and then we started a conga line that wound it’s way through the mostly empty seats in the upper section of the arena. The Blue Jays were losing by 10 runs so eventually the camera operator of the massive Jumbotron started showing us having fun on the big screen. Someone told me that the TV screen was actually the biggest in the world, so naturally when the camera panned across the conga line to me, I pulled my shorts down and showed my arse to the good people of Toronto. We left quite quickly after that.
After Toronto, we took another train to Chicago for one more night out with Cindy, and then we were back on the train to Austin. By that time Nelly and I were pretty much talked out, and I had grown accustomed to the smell of his trainers. It was just another piece of our luggage: passport – check, money – check, bags – check, deathly shoe smell – check.
We had a week in Mexico after that but it was pretty uneventful. I did buy three necklaces there. One for me, one for Stu, and one for Lisa as a small gesture to thank them for how much they had meant to me that year.
Nelly went back to Scotland in mid August. The day before he left it occurred to him that he could buy some new trainers. So he did. And when he left Austin the shoes stayed behind. I think we buried them somewhere.
I had about another week in Austin to pack up and say my goodbyes. Lisa had been back in Scotland for the summer, but she arrived back in Austin just before I left. I saw Kristy too and I promised her that I would keep in touch.
The last few days in Austin in August 1996 were a blur, but I started to take a lot more photos and videos, as I was pretty sure that I might never see Austin again. My last night was a huge party at the Crown and Anchor pub. I invited every girl I’d met in the last 12 months, figuring that I probably wouldn’t see any of them again either. Marc and I were quite emotional too. We both spent much of the night wearing flags as capes, and trying to play darts one last drunken time. I think we’d still be there trying to hit the bullseye if we hadn’t been kicked out one last time.
I arrived back in Glasgow exactly one year after I had left, and six days before my 21st birthday. I remember just feeling completely disorientated. Everything had changed. I had changed. My family had changed. My home had changed. I couldn’t handle it. I thought that time would have helped. I thought that perhaps I had come to terms with some things in Austin. But I was wrong. I realized that I hadn’t come to terms with anything. In truth, I had been running away from everything. But now that I was home, I couldn’t escape the reality any longer.
And so I made a totally sober decision not to stay sober for a while.
Nelly and I shared a flat together for our final year in Edinburgh. He visited me again in Australia in 1998, and we were both living in Edinburgh when I returned there in 1999.
Nelly has been there for most of the big moments in my life. He could probably have written these stories, although he would have done a better job. After working as a lawyer and as a journalist, Nelly now runs some Texas BBQ restaurants in Melbourne, so I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like. But we text a lot, and I can always rely on him to be honest.
He was honest when he told me his thoughts on my ex wife. He was honest when he gave the best man’s speech at my first wedding and repeatedly remarked, in front of my whole family, about how ugly I was as a child. And he was honest when I told him that I was going to be a lawyer, despite all the times we’d discussed how much we hated lawyers. But that’s why I love him. He is Nelly and I wouldn’t have him be any other way.
And as for that final year of law school, beginning August 1996, when we shared a flat together with Craigy on Clerk Street in Edinburgh, well, not to be dramatic, but I don’t know that I would have made it through that period in my life without him.