If you Google Amtrak train trips, you may be as surprised as I was to read the nearly unanimous testimonials about the “most interesting” people you are likely to meet along the way. I was skeptical, but it was true!
My table mates en route to New York City from Chicago aboard the Lake Shore Limited came from the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. On the Empire Builder, the dining car waiter who served my table was a young black man born in Switzerland who happened to be a native speaker of French. I’ve dined with a somewhat reticent literature professor who entered the dining car clutching a copy of Husserl’s tome on the ‘phenomenology of time-consciousness’. “I like to say I’ve had three lives,” he replied when I asked about his choice of reading material, “I’m a contemplative, a philosopher, and a poet.” He explained Husserl’s thesis in terms I could almost understand, though I was most intrigued by the dangling paper clip that replaced an evidently lost screw from the frame of his reading glasses. We enjoyed breakfast while discussing the nature (or not) of time, memory, and the sad state of adjunct professors in the U.S., a part of academia we both knew something about.
That afternoon I shared a lunch table with a young couple just recently married. The new bride was Japanese and spoke very little English, while the husband was a New York native rock musician. Both of them now work with special needs populations doing art and music therapy, and will be moving permanently to Japan where they had been married. They shared their wedding photos with me and taught me the Japanese tradition for saying “grace” before a meal.
On Amtrak, you are expected to share a table with fellow passengers, and the wait staff seats you according to some scheme known only to them. Sometimes a single traveler is seated with couples, but other times you’ll find yourself with other “ones.” For one of the dinner meals, ‘Mary’ found me a seat next to a young man dressed in work clothes, and covered in magnificently executed, beautifully colored tattoos. I learned that he lived in Spokane and was just finishing up a five year contract working in the oil fields around Williston, North Dakota, which had enabled him to save enough money to open his own construction company back home next year. The tattoos were the work of his artist friend in Spokane, and reflected the life changing experiences he had while serving overseas in the military. On one arm an enormous eagle reached down embracing a brightly colored koi, which then came to rest on the Sanskrit word for life. I don’t imagine I will ever see Afghanistan or Iraq, or necessarily understand what profound changes took place in this young man’s life, but I know Williston where he works, it’s is due north about a hundred miles from Beach, North Dakota, where I lived for a few years during the earlier years of my marriage. I wonder if America today shouldn’t take a cue from Amtrak, enabling and expecting strangers who might appear to have nothing in common to share a meal and the experience of interacting in a real conversation, face to face.
On to New York City
We were due in to New York City on the Lake Shore Limited at 6:30 the next afternoon; a total trip time of around nine hours after leaving Chicago. I slept through the rest of Illinois, and through the cities in Ohio, including Cleveland (where I was born). When I awoke, we were just arriving in Erie, Pennsylvania. The scenic landscapes were gone by now, replaced by one abandoned and graffitied factory after the other, all the way through what was left of lake side Pennsylvania and upstate New York. I did snap a few pictures of my childhood town of Buffalo and neighboring Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Then we arrived in Poughkeepsie for what should have been a brief stop.
Five hours later we were still in Poughkeepsie, having an unscheduled dinner in the dining car while we waited to learn when or even whether the tracks ahead of us would be passable. That brief thunderstorm in Chicago had turned ugly and hit right to the south of us, toppling trees onto the tracks on its way through to the city. The train was backed up to the previous town where there were supposed to be buses to take us the rest of the way. The buses never came, but after a few more hours of waiting and trying to catch some sleep, the tracks were finally declared passable and we finally rolled in to New York at 4am, nine and a half hours behind schedule. Penn Station is even more congested than Union Station, but I did manage to get my luggage up the escalator and find my way out to the street. Even at 4:30 in the morning there was a falafel truck on the corner with an English speaking vendor who pointed me in the right direction for downtown. It was a short cab ride to the Hilton Millennium Hotel across from the Ground Zero Memorial and Museum. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a real bed and a real shower as much as I did that night.