Monday, May 24, 2010

Jane Fishman: Ride the Rails and Close Your Eyes

Jane Fishman: Ride the rails and close your eyes
Journey on Amtrak yields interesting conversation

By Jane Fishman

You don't have to take off your shoes to be seated. You don't have to hear, "The security level is orange" a million times. You don't have to worry someone's going to take your toothpaste if you pack it in your carry-on bag.

There's a good chance you'll meet people who like to play pinochle or canasta or gin.

Most times (in Savannah, at least) there's free parking at the terminal and a parking lot that's right next to the station.

You get to see ravines, rivers, roofs, miles of marsh and straight into people's living rooms.

No one is nickel-and-diming you about an extra piece of luggage. Some stations even sell trail mix or rice crackers. The aisles are wide. The food is not half bad.

In the end, you only need three things to travel by train: time, patience and the good sense not to ask what's going on, why aren't we moving or how long are we going to be sitting here. You've got to give all that up.

When you ride the rails, you have to close your eyes and be Zen about it all.

"A cow is crossing the tracks," the conductor says. "You can't hurry a cow now, can you?"

"The power's out. We're trying to find out why."

"Flash flood warning. Had to slow down to 35 or 40."

And the most common: "CSX. A freight train." A lumbering, bumbling, bullying freight car with all the time in the world. Why? Because CSX owns most of the tracks. Amtrak is the poor relative. We, the people of Amtrak, get the crumbs. We have to beg. We have to wait.

It's a love-hate relationship, riding the rails.

3 hours in New York

Last week, en route to a gardening workshop in Milwaukee, I rode the Silver Meteor, the Lake Shore Ltd., the Hiawatha and the Capitol Ltd. For some of us, boarding a train with a name not a number is a deal-maker, almost as good as watching someone use a pencil to assign a seat. No incessant keystroking. No government I.D., either.

When I got back, I learned that you can go to the Amtrak website to see the on-time performance rating of each train. While mine were on time, the average ranged from 78 percent to 90 percent. Best not to look.

During a three-hour layover in New York City's Penn Station, which shares the block with Madison Square Garden, I walked down 44th Street, then Fifth Avenue, pulling my luggage (more wheels; we love wheels) to have Japanese food with my cousin, Laura.

In Chicago, where I decided to spend the night with an old friend (no extra charge for getting back on the train), I emerged in Union Station, where the waiting room, called the "Great Hall," is 110 feet high. Still pulling my luggage, I walked through Millennium Park, went to the Art Institute of Chicago and then took the Brown Line to Addison.

If I were a resident of Chicago, I - a senior citizen - would be riding all public transportation free, thanks to the disgraced and now deposed Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who instituted the policy when he was a candidate, something no one will ever have the guts to revoke.

'Flying is for the birds'

Between Chicago and Milwaukee, I opted for the "quiet car," where cell phones are not allowed. But even in the other cars, where people are on their phones and watching movies on laptops, the noise is muted.

By the time I was facing my fourth overnight segment, I gave in and asked about sleepers. They had one vacancy out of 50 on the train. It cost $500. "Think I'll get some Jim Beam instead," I said. There are cheaper sleepers in the $125 range (which covers breakfast, lunch and dinner), but they go fast.

Just when you think you can't sleep sitting up - though the seats are much roomier than plane seats and there are foot and leg rests - you open your eyes to a whole new vista and you remember a dream, so you must have slept.

On the return trip, between Chicago and Washington, D.C., (there are no direct routes in train travel so get that idea out of your head right now), I rode the classy double-decker Capitol Ltd. with the roomy and modern "Sightseer Lounge Car."

In this car I shared a breakfast table with a man from Wyoming representing the Louisa Swain Foundation. Miss Swain, I learned, was the first woman to vote in a general election - in 1870 in Laramie, Wyo. Who knew? The last time he flew was in 1988. "Flying," he said, "is for the birds."

We shared the table with a couple from New Jersey. They were traveling with their daughter who didn't want to fly because she was five weeks shy of giving birth.

Later on, I met a Palestinian man from Montreal, an art dealer, who thinks of trains as stress-relievers, and a lawyer who uses the time between Morgantown, W. Va., and Washington, D.C., to work on briefs.

He represents coal-miners and was reading "And We Are Not Saved: A History of the Movement as People."

I could be wrong, but I don't remember having these kinds of conversations on planes. Then again, I don't remember anyone giving me a red carnation, either, which is what the waitress in the lounge car did after breakfast.

I'll take the train again. I'll read. I'll talk to people. I'll look out the window. I won't be in a hurry.


Ms. Moon said...

Dang. Now I want to get on a train. I rode one once on a Girl Scout trip from Winter Haven to Tallahassee. It was awesome.
The Amtrak hardly ever, ever goes past my house that I know of. It's always those big bully freight trains. But I love them too.
Jane Fishman- another reason to love you so, Ms. Bastard-Beloved.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Ms. Moon,
The Moms and I think we all ought to have lunch--you, me, Moms, and Jane Fishman. I think we'd get along splendidly.

Love you.

Mel said...

I love Jane Fishman, thanks for introducing me. I love the train, and everything she said is right. Flying fills me with such dread, I've taken to driving anything under 12 hours just to avoid the inconvenience of it all, and the puddles of sweat in my palms.
I want to not be in a hurry somemore. I'm taking the train into Chicago in a week or so and will remember not to mind the stops or the wait.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Enjoy your trip. I love trains. My Uncle Harry was a train conductor.

Love you lots.

Syd said...

I have thought about riding the train for future trips. It sounds interesting.

Mel's Way or No Way said...

There's something to be said for just sitting back and enjoying the ride.

I love to travel but can hardly stand to fly anymore. I go away to de-stress, finally relax and then the damn airlines piss me off so much it ruins my good time and relaxation.

Next: I have to learn to slow down and enjoy the ride. Now that may be a challenge.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

It does sound fun, doesn't it? I've always wanted to stay the night in a sleeper car. I think it's because of the movie North By Northwest. Also, if I could have a gentleman who looks exactly like Cary Grant in the car with me, it would be just great.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Melly Mel,
I don't like to fly either. It sucketh mightily. It's a control thing. Namely, when flying, I have NONE.

Love you lots,