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Taking the Acela

As I get older, I sometimes treat myself to an upgrade when I travel— a slightly better (though far from luxurious) hotel than the motel I usually go to; or business rather than coach class on the train to Chicago. It was a bit more of a leap than that when, for the Washington-New York leg of a trip east, I bought myself an (expensive) ticket on the Acela. (This is an older blog, but I suspect it still reflects the difference between taking the coach and the Acela)              

I had first seen this marvel of a train one summer when I was boarding the Lakeshore Limited in Boston’s South Station on my way home to Detroit. The first leg of that trip involves a slow haul over the Berkshires at maybe twenty miles an hour, huffing and puffing all the way like the Little Engine that Could. But there, right on the other side of our boarding platform, sat an engine crafted out of gleaming steel, looking down at us lesser travelers with a long, streamlined nose. It was reputed, I remembered, to accomplish what in France they term TGV—“très grande vitesse”—a speed of 120 miles an hour.  ” I’m going to take that someday,” I promised myself; and so I did.

I was traveling to New York City after a heart-warming visit to an old friend in Richmond, so I had to take the  regional train that runs between Newport News and DC to catch the Acela.  The coach seemed pleasant enough; I found an empty seat and settled down next to the window, gazing at reeds blowing in the wind in a broad, misty marshland. As the conductor approached I got out my ticket and noticed that this train continued on to New York. Ever nervous about my travel arrangements, I said

“I see that we go all the way to New York City. Can I stay on if I miss my connection to the Acela?”

“No problem, if we have a seat for you. Worst case scenario, we put you off in DC and you catch the Acela when it comes through.”

I sat there doing mental arithmetic, which I was never good at.                1.They put me off in DC.   2. The Acela, much faster than this regional, comes whistling ‘through.’  3. If both get to New York City at 5:45, won’t the Acela accelerate itself past where I am put off before we get there? 4. This depends on how late the regional is. Recalling puzzlers like “Train A goes at 60 miles per hour and train B goes at 120 miles per hour. If a little old lady is put off of one to catch the other, how many minutes can train A be late to allow her to catch train .”  Answer comes there none.

At Fredericksburg, I acquire a seat mate.  At Quantico, there is an announcement that the train is now full. I resume my calculations on time/motion train A vs train B problem, but still to no avail.  At Woodbridge, I climb over the knees of my seatmate, only to discover that the toilet is out of paper.

The Prospect of Catching the Acela Becomes Ever More Alluring

My favorite meal on Amtrak is a Hebrew National Hot Dog so full of sodium that I wonder what would happen to me if it raised my blood pressure and triggered a stroke? Nevertheless, I would really enjoy one just about now.   

Announcement resounds though the car that the café is out of 1. Sprite and 2. hot dogs.

I would like to take out my knitting, but the seats are so close together that I might find myself elbowing the nice but rather capacious lady sitting next to me. There is a lot more talking now, some of it quite loud, and children are skittering up and down the aisle. The car is beginning to feel close packed and stuffy; and what is that smell?  

“We are sorry Ladies and Gentlemen,” comes the announcement, “We are out of toilet paper.”

At Alexandria, I look at my watch and discover that it is an hour before my confirmed ticket on the Acela, so I decide it will be well worth the effort to make the switch and enjoy my treat after all.   I haul my suitcase into Union Station with plenty of time to lug it to the bookstore where I buy a Wilson Quarterly, a journal so full of wonky articles and well reasoned book reviews that it is always good for a train journey. 

Union Station DC- Acela Gate

 I am sitting in the waiting area absently scanning the announcement board when time/motion problem is solved:board lists hourly Acela departures. It must have been the next one I was supposed to “hop on” to, though how to achieve that without a reservation is not entirely clear. Perhaps these luxury trains never fill up entirely?

I love walking down the platform alongside a train, refreshed by air so much cooler than inside. This time, there is the gratification of glancing up at the gleaming, streamlined engine I had so envied in Boston. As we get underway through the rail yards and begin to pick up speed in Maryland, we move along the tracks like a knife through butter, so different from the regional’s bumps and grinds,  Soon everything is going by so fast that I don’t have a chance to identify the duck on a particular pond or what crops are at what stage—the landscape seen from an Acela is more prototypical than particular, affording the general idea of meadow or forest, like a kind of Platonic ideal. The seats are capacious and comfortable, with a surfeit of leg room and plenty of space between, though I am without a seat mate at the moment.

Perfect, I realize, for knitting! I am working on a little yellow baby sweater for a friend’s first grandchild and need to get on with it as I am hosting her granny shower right after I get home, so I take to knitting and purling in blissful comfort.  That is, until I notice rows of finely tailored trousers relaxed between seats and elegant shoes on foot rests all around me. Good heavens! My car is occupied by men in elegant, well fitting (bespoke?) suits, who must be Very Important People. I recall that the Acela is much frequented by Senators and Congressmen—Joe Biden and all that—and isn’t that Brent Scowcroft sitting across the aisle, glancing at me with mild surprise before politely averting his eyes? It must be unusual among this dapper crowd to spy a lady in red blazer, pink blouse, and pearls carrying on with her knitting.

I don’t feel unimportant to myself—Full Professor, Feminist Founder, Academic Author and all that—but I must look unimportant to them. I wonder if there is a car full of well-dressed, powerful women somewhere on this train, or can they afford it? Never mind—there are those lovely pastures streaming by and the intimate windows of cities to glance (fleetingly) into, so I turn my sweater to a purl row, though I am beginning to get awfully hungry.

Walking through the cars to find something to eat, I pass an enclosure with armchairs and little tables and a sign affixed to the glass that identifies it as a “Quiet Room—no Cellphones or Children.” There are elegantly suited women working busily at their laptops, and a dapper executive’s legs stretching out from his Wall Street Journal. I am surprised to find that the dining arrangements are the same as on the regional, just a café with no Hebrew National Hot Dogs on offer but adequate if plain sandwiches and good strong coffee. Returning to my seat, I notice right at the beginning of my car that a tiny lady, probably in her sixties, is perched on a stool  busily tapping away at her laptop while urgently telling someone at the other end of her cell phone how to prepare the room for a speech she is going to make at the Hilton.

When I settle down with my Wilson Quarterly I  notice that, as always on a moving train, I am suddenly capable of grasping concepts that otherwise elude me. Soon, however, I need to visit the bathroom (Toilet Paper! Clean Sink! Scented Hand Soap!) and on the way back walk slowly enough to read over the urgently busy lady’s shoulder. The masthead of her stationary reads 

                        REPAIRING THE WORLD!

Good for her, I say to myself,  she is restoring the world  like in  Tikum Olam, that marvelous creation story where God sent his light into the world with such power and glory that it broke all the jars he had set out to contain it, their shards scattering all over the universe,  leaving us to repair the world by gathering the thousand thousand things and returning them to their containers.

Good for the tiny lady  repairing the world with her laptop, I reflect,  and good for the women working on theirs in the quiet room and for all of these busy, dapper men as well, if they are of honest intent.

 And good for me too, traveling far and wide to renew the warmth of friendship. And so we streak through the wetlands of New Jersey at more miles per hour than I have ever experienced on a train, until the towers of the city where I was born rise in all their splendor out of the New Jersey marshes.

Catching the Midnight Sleeper

  “You went to Washington how? By train? I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”                           

What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited. The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?” And he would reply, “In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.” 

From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the  Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.

I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my  pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler.   If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:

“Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around. I want you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”

My day (that is, my night) is made. It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington. The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.

The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.

At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”

However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process. These days, I never leave the side of a conductor until he points out my sleeping car attendant waiting down the track.  Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.

“Berth for Pratt!”

“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart.  The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.” I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives.

These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a fold out table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee and orange juice out in the corridor.

 At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a square of chocolate-covered mint. There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness.

I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience that wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort. “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*

That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries.   I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that same bay gleaming pewter in the dawn, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.

It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals (free with your sleeper ticket) take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers. “One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to  stare sullenly down at their napkins) into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.

We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says “Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!” He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence, we eagerly plunge into theological discussion. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.

I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves with astonishing ease.

The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time, where there will be no a tedious wait for my baggage  followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport.  With a last triumphant wailing whistle, the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station,  within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building and, I am pleased to note, my own hotel.

*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24