Vignettes from the Train

FullyFunctnlPhil, Flickr Creative Commons

Monday evening I caught an Amtrak train in Hartford and started my journey down to New York’s Penn Station. I also happened to be reading Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed, which has a whole chapter focused on a train ride from New Haven to Hartford for the dedication of Hartford’s Memorial Arch in Bushnell Park. I’m sure that the beautiful old brownstone train station was quite a sight in those days. 

Every now and then I lifted my head from the pages of my book, and whenever I did it was as if the train gods rewarded me with something fascinating. First there was the elderly couple sitting diagonally across the aisle from me and my seatmate — who also seemed to get a kick out of them. The wife — lets call her Ethel — was so tiny she could stand fully upright beneath the overhead luggage rack. She was loudly informing her husband that she was going to check the seats at the front (you know the ones near the big empty space for your luggage). The husband — lets call him Burt — got annoyed and said, “Then go.” Eventually she did and came back to report that there was no room for them or their luggage. I’m not sure why she was so interested in moving since they already had seats. Maybe Ethel just wanted to keep her eye on her precious bags.

What was more entertaining, though, was when she started talking about how “the Google” wasn’t working. Sometimes, Ethel said, you get an error message and that was happening — or had happened earlier, I couldn’t tell. But I got a kick out of the mental image I had of her trying to Google something on a mobile device…and exasperating poor Burt. It was about this time that she started informing every Amtrak employee that walked by she and Burt were going to require a Red Cap at Penn Station.

All the while my seatmate and I kept giggling under our breath.

Not all the entertainment was on the train, though. There was plenty going on outside the windows.

If you’ve never taken a train between, say, Boston and Philadelphia, you may not know that your journey takes you through the remnants of the industrial age. So I perked up when, behind a low, lifeless concrete building, I saw what appeared to be a pretty little vegetable garden alongside slabs of granite. Just a few days before my friend had been telling me about a lecture she’d attended where the speaker talked about finding small mom and pop shops run by immigrants whenever you’re on the road, because they often grow their own vegetables and make great, healthy food for very little money.  So I like to think one of the  guys working in the granite shop was growing that garden for a delicious dish.

Then I saw something a little less cheerful. What I first thought was just a pile of garbage in the woods turned out to be an enormous pile of garbage bags stuffed with 5 cent returnables. And a few feet further into the woods, in a clearing, was a camp for a homeless person or persons. A big blue tarp formed a makeshift tent near a campfire. Judging by the amount of recyclables stashed in the woods. We were somewhere near Fairfield, I think, which makes this poor soul’s situation even more tragic. I probably could have scraped together enough change from the couches in the nearby houses to pay the first month’s rent on a small apartment, yet this person was camping out by the railroad…hobo-style.

It all got me thinking about a verse from an old Ani DiFranco poem:

shoo away the swarms of commuter planes

and find that train ticket we lost

cuz once upon a time the line followed the river

and peeked into all the backyards

and the laundry was waving

the graffiti was teasing us

from brick walls and bridges

we were rolling over ridges

through valleys

under stars

I dream of touring like Duke Ellington

in my own railroad car

I dream of waiting on the tall blonde wooden benches

in a grand station aglow with grace

and then standing out on the platform

and feeling the air on my face

The last couple of times I’ve been in an airport I’ve thought, “I’m going to start taking more trains.” Cancelled flights, cramped seats, luggage fees…they have all only reinforced my resolve.  Besides, you don’t get to see much from the plane window.

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