November 7, 2017
I am on the Trinity Amtrak train #30, car 3001, cabin 9, headed east to Washington DC for the Unity Conference. Unity is a conference sponsored by the National Council of Churches.
I boarded a greyhound bus in Ann Arbor last night at 8:00; arrived in Toledo at 10:30 after stopping in Livonia and Dearborn to pick up more passengers, and in Ecorse to refuel. The Toledo station greeted me with a poster stating that it is one of the busiest Amtrak stations in the United States. Its bigger attraction was the Subway, which was still open, and I was first in line. Pretty much every person who was between a bus and a train trip got in line behind me. We ate our 6″ Subways with assorted cheese choices in a quiet contentment. Train stations are, like trains, a place set apart; they have a culture all their own. It is like hiding, in the best sense of the word.
Being on the train itself heightens this sense. The rocking motion is soothing beyond what I can describe. Not only can I sleep on a train, but I can hardly stay awake.
3:10 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of a demanding woman with a caustic English accent blaming Querin for not telling her when to get off the train. Querin is the fine porter who had helped me get set up, transforming my seat into a bed, and showing me where to find the light and temperature adjustments. I was relieved when he said to her, “I need you to not talk to me like that anymore.” And again, when she continued, “I need you to stop talking like that to me; I will get the conductor. You can take up your concerns with him.”
I wanted to stick my hand out from behind my curtain and give Querin a thumbs-up.
3:40 a.m. I woke again to hear a gentle call saying we had arrived at Pittsburgh; Demanding-Brit disembarked there, and the bliss of night on a train returned to our car.
7:30 a.m. We are somewhere in the mountains between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The beauty that is Autumn moves steadily past my window, framed by a river below, mountains behind and gentle raindrops tracing the glass through which I see the world move by. It is mesmerizing.
7:45 The dining car is two cars down; you have to wear shoes in the dining room – my socked-feet were rejected at once. I passed the nicer sleeper cabins on my way to the Dining car. They are marked “First Class,” and, as on an airplane, they make one long to be part of their inner circle. The sleeping cabins in first class are bigger with big windows, a larger table, a sink, a toilet, adjustable lighting, places for luggage, and a real door with a window in it. They are seductive cubbies.
I too have a sleeper cabin, but it is called a Roomette. I have windows, and two seats that convert to a bed; in fact, myspace can actually sleep two people, one in the bunk bed above my seat. There’s a coat hook, and a small fold-out table, and a curtained door that secures closed with Velcro. It is enough, but does not stop my coveting the larger sleeper cabins.
8:05 I am back in the Dining Car with my boots on. For breakfast, I order a continental: oatmeal, fruit, a croissant, yogurt, coffee, and bacon. I pour syrup on my oatmeal and it is surprisingly good. The waiter treats me like I am in a fine restaurant. He is tickled by my joy at having breakfast on a train. He brings me an extra slice of bacon. Nothing is served on paper or plastic, except my coffee, which is in a cardboard cup with a lid on it. Steel poles at the end of my table form something like a corral; it holds condiments, sweeteners. and napkins. It reminds me that we are moving and that while the way is smooth now; lurches are common.
Guiseppe, a German man, joined me at my table. It seemed odd since other tables were vacant. He was somewhere over 70, fit, well-groomed; he wore a button on his crisp oxford shirt that said: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Hilary.”
I wondered briefly if Democrats were more likely to take the train than Republicans.
Guiseppe and his wife take the train as often as possible. She has the Amtrak Visa card, he said, so they earn points for free trips. It made me realize that while a first-class train ticket seems indulgent, given the fact that I no longer have a car, several train tickets would still not amount to what a car payment, maintenance, and insurance would cost me.
I allowed myself a moment of triumph and decided to get the Amtrak Visa.
Somewhere near Cumberland, Maryland, we stopped for a “smoke break.” Passengers can get off to smoke. After a few minutes, I ambled to the door to see what else this break might offer besides fresh air and cigarettes. A stout Irish blonde waited impatiently near the doors. “The’ usually open the doors by now. They do. I’m goin’ t’ see whot the hold-up is. This is the last smoke break, good Lord, we can’t miss it!”
As she walked away, the train lurched forward, the doors never opening, and I heard her mutter, “well damn it all then.”
11:59 We will be in DC at 1:19 – just 11 minutes past schedule. Querin stopped by to check on me and chat. He will start picking up trash from the cabins; getting the linens to wash. He lives in Baltimore and has worked for Amtrak for 18 mos. I asked him if he likes it. “Do they treat you well?” I asked. He said, “It’s good. That lady from last night? Most people aren’t like that. I had to remind myself to be professional. If she had treated me like that back home, in Baltimore, it could have gotten ugly. Not even by me. Everyone is on edge. I keep reminding myself that it’s not worth it.” He sounded both sad and relieved to say this aloud.
I can’t stop taking pictures. To ride the train is to see the world through a new lens. The lens of backroads, small towns, leaves, rivers, bridges, houses, bikes, outdated political flyers tearing away from telephone poles, birch trees begging to be touched, chipping paint on abandoned barns, hidden hunting stands.
1:06 Now we are hearing instructions for what to do when we stop in Washington DC. They emphasize: be prepared, get off the train, let’s get this done efficiently people.
Politely, of course.
1:45 Union Station in Washington DC is the most like an airport of any train station I’ve visited yet. It is big, and marble, with sweeping, curved staircases and small, grey elevators. Classic architecture wraps around trending retailers: H&M, The Art of Shaving, Swarovski. I walked first to the Information desk; they did not know the best place for me to catch a Lyft. I asked 3 more people at various helper-desks before I found one who knew: Massachusetts & First.
2:10 It is raining, steady, not so hard as to make me duck back inside, but hard enough to concern me that the clothes I brought might not be sufficiently sheltered inside my Hard Rock luggage carry-on.
Immario picked me up in a grey Chevy, winding his way through three parallel lines of red Taxis. I hopped in front. Immediately we began to exchange OMG’s about politics, the current administration, guns, the reasons some folks hate us – the reasons some folks hate us that few people know about or understand. It was a rollicking, like-minded vent. The next passenger we picked up, a gay Millenial, gladly jumped in the dialogue, statistics blazing.
Before I got out, Immario had convinced me to give a listen to WPFW, and I promised to pray for his 26-year-old son, who was leaving for Iraq soon. “You know what gets me?” he said. My son, he’s so ready to fight for goodness. He’s so committed to his sisters and brothers in the military beside him. And he’s so informed, studying, continuing to take in information steadily and process it against other information. And he told me that the hardest thing he will be asked to do, is to stand at attention when Air Force One lands, and look the commander in chief in the eye.