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.
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.
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.