Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Part 1: Getting there

1. Most of the time, I'm a sensible adult woman but where trains are concerned, I'm a three year old boy. No matter what I'm doing, if a train passes, I have to stop and watch it. If, on my morning run, I happen to be on the Belmont Bridge at the exact moment that a freight train engine is rumbling underneath, I consider that the height of excitement. This doesn't happen very often, but during one memorable week, it happened three times.

2. I've been toying with the idea of a trip to New York for a long time.

3. Brigid is planning to apply to some art schools in New York.


We packed light: one small carry on bag plus one small backpack for the two of us. The Charlottesville platform was crowded. I hadn't realized just how popular train travel is until a few weeks ago when I drove Brigid to the station in Lynchburg where she was meeting friends for a Gov School reunion. I was expecting a deserted shed with pigeons roosting in the rafters. Instead, it was like a scene from a 1940's movie when the troops come home from the war: a cobblestone street, a quaint little station, hundreds of people milling about, joyful reunions, stacks of baggage all over the platform, and the train sliding silently away with the uniformed conductors standing in the cars' doorways. It was all very romantic and I was highly impressed. I immediately bought Brigid a ticket to Charlottesville ($15) so I would not have to drive all the way to Lynchburg to get her after her weekend away.

In Charlottesville, we waited on the platform and I noticed a woman whose back pack was actually a small pet carrier. A little dog was visible through a mesh screen in the side. Even if my dogs were small enough to fit in a backpack, I can't imagine taking them on a train. Luna would be liberally and continuously train sick and Sancho would bark hysterically every time someone walked up the aisle and would eventually chew a way out of the bag and start biting people's pant legs. This dog seemed content to peer quietly out of his little mesh window. When the train came, the dog woman sat across the aisle from us. She took up all the available space around her with her large suitcase, her snacks, her books, and her dog, as if that Amtrak seat were to be her home for the rest of her life.

I was mesmerized by the the view, which is totally different from what you see from a road: back yards and laundry lines, houses deep in the woods with fifteen junked cars piled on the lawn, and farmers' back pastures. In Culpeper, two countrified gentlemen with hee-haw accents got on and sat directly behind us. They were going to Boston to visit one man's daughter, who may have been feeling ambivalent about her father's visit. At least, when the man spoke to her on his cell phone he had to ask her three times to tell him her exact address. They were adorable and giggled like two boy scouts off on their first adventure.

In Washington, a woman wearing a sari sat in the seat in front of us and immediately embarked on a long and indignant conversation in a language I didn't recognize. After a long spell of almost unbroken speech, she paused and said in English, "That's what I mean," before continuing in her original language. I noticed her tone now changed from indignant to instructive. The Dog Woman made periodic visits to the bathroom, with the dog. Had she trained it to use a toilet?

In Philadelphia, the train filled up and the aisles were crammed with disconsolate people, dragging their bags and looking for seats. Dog Woman refused to move her bags and whenever anyone asked to sit next to her, she would tell them to find a seat in the next car. I was tempted to lean across the aisle and ask in a loud voice if she'd bought a ticket for her DOG. We were deep into New Jersey before everyone was seated and the man who sat next to the woman in the sari in front of us began to aggressively proselytize her. She told him politely and firmly that she believed in tolerance for all religions and that she had her own beliefs and wasn't about to change them, but he would not let up. He took on a condescendingly gentle tone, imploring the woman to please feel free to contact him if she had any questions about what he was telling her. He said he would feel much better if she would accept Jesus Christ as her savior and then he said that he was anxious about being able to meet her in heaven one day. At that point I would have put my fist in his face but this woman had a remarkable supply of self control. It finally ended with the man saying he would pray for her, and the woman saying, "Yes, we all pray for everybody."

If only the proselytizer had sat next to the dog woman! That would have been a scene I might have enjoyed.

We arrived at Penn Station in New York after about six hours on the train, and blundered about trying to find the metro, which we did, eventually, but not without difficulty. It isn't much fun taking a suitcase--even a small one--on a crowded subway, but I remembered the subways in Rome where you'd be literally pressed against six people with hardly room to bend your wrist and someone would still try to stuff their way on with a baby stroller or a tuba.

Our hotel was in Chelsea, we got there with no trouble and were soon settled in a room that was precisely the width of a double bed, plus two inches. We literally had to vault over the bed to look out the window but it was clean enough and surely what we didn't know about the carpet stains wouldn't hurt us.


  1. Hearing the witnesses at work like that always makes me cringe. But a train trip like yours? I'm swooning with envy!

  2. I love train travel, sadly it's very rare and expensive in Canada, unlike the entire rest of the world. I love the views too, but that Jesus guy would drive me bananas. Mind you, I'm not shy....