Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The train to Washington and back

I went to Washington, D.C. last week, a trip I like to make at least twice a year to visit a friend. I take the train, of course, my preferred method of travel. The seven-hour trip goes by very quickly if I have a good book, a little time to sleep, a window seat, and no chatty seat mates. I get to see big cities like New York and Philadelphia, big waters like the top end of Chesapeake Bay, and interesting bridges, like the Hell Gate Bridge, which crosses over the treacherous waters where the East River and Long Island Sound meet up.

Hell Gate Bridge under construction, 1915.
The trip down was a gem, as 99% of my trips on Amtrak are. The trip back - not so much. In Union Station, our departing train was posted as on time, even though the message boards ominously noted that both north and south trains could be delayed due to extreme cold weather. Indeed, the screen listing train departures was littered with yellow DELAYED notations; our train, however, was happily noted as on time. A half hour before departure, we were herded into the boarding area, where we stood massed together, while all eyes shifted between the clock and the door through which the conductor would arrive to start the process of boarding. By two minutes before departure time, the door remained shut, no conductor was in sight, and in a twinkling of an eye, the yellow delayed sign appeared where we didn't want to see it. We waited. Twenty minutes later, not a bad wait, in fact, all signs changed; the conductor appeared, took our tickets, and we were on our way after a frighteningly but gratifyingly short boarding time. Northward we went, only half an hour late. It was a sold-out train, so I had a seat mate then, and again, and again, and again.

Passengers have developed bold techniques to maintain an empty place next to where they sit. The main trick is to deposit coats and suitcases on the empty seat. The more the better. And - put a bottle of water in the pouch in front of the empty seat.Sometimes the passenger sits on the aisle seat, lowers the tray, and piles it with a computer, coffee, sandwiches, and cords,  while piling personal belongings in the inside seat, thereby erecting a veritable fortress that prevents another heavily-laden passenger from asking: Is this seat taken? But, one by one, each defended seat eventually falls to a wandering passenger. When directly asked, the person claiming both seats always appears totally dumbfounded that there is an extra seat by them, clears the seat, and one more roaming passenger is seated. One middle-aged man, tired of wandering the aisles, finally asked the young person behind me: Is this seat occupied by your coat taken?

Of course, I always hope that the unseated will take one look and consider me an unsavory neighbor, pass by my pristinely empty seat, and pursue a better offering in another car. However, I was taught by nuns, and  they would have considered it rude, if not downright stingy, not to offer hospitality to the wayfarers, so it never fails, I am always among the first to have a seat mate, which will make it difficult to get up and out for whatever purpose - a stroll, some water, or a visit to the (on this train) unappealing restroom.

Preserving open space.on the train

My immediate neighborhood was serially taken up with a variety of talkers: Two young professionals earnestly consulting across the aisle - he the mentor, she the eager learner;  they got off in Philadelphia.Two young people striking up a fevered new relationship, talking breathlessly for miles, exchanging telephone numbers and vowing to be in touch. They got off in New York. A very talkative middle aged man aiming to impress a sweet young thing, expounding on matters such as the pleasures of the French language vs Italian, a beautiful Italian women he knew who died of liver cancer, and trichinosis. She got off in Stamford and he was last seen entering a restroom. Somewhere along the line I spilled a whole glass of diet soda down my pant legs, while my bulky neighbor in a puffy winter coat sat imperviously, with her hands on her purse, staring intently at the back of the seat ahead of her.

And my fourth seat mate, a young, slim woman, spent miles reading a tabloid article titled "I have the bigggest butt in the world."

I won't even go into the last leg of the journey: a hundred passengers were disgorged onto a freezing platform to wait for a connecting train, which usually is ready and waiting across the platform but wasn't there this particular night. Short version: it came, we boarded, we arrived at our destinations.

All told, it could have been much worse, and the restrooms did actually work.