April 23, 2006

Meteor Shower

I wrote this piece last year for the monthly newsletter of my National Railway Historical Society chapter.

Union Station. Washington, D.C. June 3, 2005. Open knuckles rushed together. The draft gear did its best to cushion the rather substantial blow. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think to myself just how flexible an Amtrak customer has to be these days – literally. That the holster misjudged his distance-to-coupling was but one of a handful of bumps along our way up the Northeast Corridor, our bumpy meteor flight over the seaboard.

Celebrating ten years of marriage seemed a fitting excuse to book Acela tickets to the Big Apple. Many months in advance and unbeknownst to my bride, I slipped onto the web and procured our secret seats. For many moons I had wanted to take this ride, and now I had my reason. Everything was set: We’d ride a regional from Richmond to Washington, then hop a new-fangled Acela for banked turns and breakfast on the fly. All this, and NYC before lunch. Fantastic.

No sooner had confirmation hit my inbox than I spotted a blurb in my morning paper: Acelas sidelined. Cracks in brakes. Curses! Cracks in my perfect plans, as well.

I regrouped. A kindly voice on the phone – kinder even than Julie – worked to keep my secret-anniversary-plans intact, rebooking us on another ride. Mr. Gunn’s #98 to the rescue – the Silver Meteor. It seemed a fitting remedy for my high-speed disappointment. We arrived early at Staples Mill to catch our comet from Miami, my wife still in the dark about our celebrative destination. The grand fa├žade dissolved, however, as we both stood agape before the screen. "#98. Silver Meteor. New York City. 3 hours late." I’m not certain, but I think the flashing letters were mocking me.

A kind soul behind thick plate glass received my grief without acrimony. Did I not receive his message at my home, warning of the delay? Alas, we had already left for Richmond. No matter. A no-name regional would get us to Penn Station by mid-afternoon. How about Business Class for free? I suppose. With no diner in the consist, my fancy anniversary breakfast suddenly dissolved from view, but at least we’d be in motion. Our meteor flamed out even before arrival.

I regrouped (again), now underway. A lone P40 made quick work of the RF&P, five cars in tow. In the bowels of D.C.’s Union Station, now mid-morning, I perched myself in the vestibule on the point as a crew pulled off the Genesis and tacked on an electric AEM-7. Lights off. Slam! (The aforementioned momentary jostle.) Lights on. And in short order, we were northbound again. We settled into our Business Class seating, complimentary soda in one hand, complimentary New York Times in the other.

Now, prior to Washington, our Amfleet space had been sparsely filled. My attention was caught only by a chatty lady behind me, sounding like Ethyl Merman, and a shaggy Vietnam vet who nervously paced the aisle. After Union Station, however, things began to fill up rapidly. By New Jersey, a box lunch later, it was standing room only. We returned from the lounge car to find a grumpy commuter had claimed our seats. An aged conductor declared over the P.A. more than once that “overbooking” was not a common problem on this train. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not.

My vehicles of choice had twice been taken out from under me, but even an unnamed regional commuter seemed to fly like the wind on the famed corridor to New York City. The pace of the line assaults the senses: Oncoming meets rock the cars like gangs in a scuffle. Tracks merge and diverge to and fro like cracks in tempered glass. Signals blink by, leaving little time to read their news. And at last – loaded to the gills with riders, most bumped off of canceled Acelas – the bright New England sun gave way to the dark bowels under the Big Apple. “Penn Station. New York City.” We had made it. We, and half of New England.

Two nights and two Broadway shows later, our anniversary celebration drew to a close. The fourteenth platform at Penn revealed another silvery Meteor poised in a southerly direction. We stowed our bags, took our seats, and settled in for our return flight home. A fresh start. This would be a better trip.

Remember: flexibility. No sooner had our movement arisen from underneath the Hudson than it become obvious that the air conditioner in our car had failed. It was muggy, and getting worse. The hosts desperately tried this and that over the next two hours, but to no avail. Our Viewliner was transformed into a Roman bath. Permission was mercifully granted to seek refuge in other places.

From our newfound seats in the lounge car, I nursed a bad habit of eavesdropping by listening to the conductors seated behind me. One was scanning his rulebook for a precise definition on service dogs. I too had noticed the rather rotund lady in our sauna-coach who had boarded holding her miniature canine like a purse. She didn’t look blind to me either. What to do? They pondered aloud.

I decided to leave that ethical quagmire to the professionals. I announced to my bride that I was gong to take a stroll to the rear of the train, see the sights from there. Moving rearward car to car, I entered a vestibule and suddenly realized that the exterior door was wide open! Something about the landscape rushing by at 100 mph gives a man pause. “The children!” flashed through my mind. I had leapfrogged over several loose kiddies on my hike rearward, so I quickly retrieved a conductor to remedy the situation. “These things pop open sometimes,” he remarked, as if that was intended to make me feel better.

From the rear of the train, I spent some time peering through hazy Amfleet glass, watching the slender corridor slip away from us at breathtaking speed, like the twisting tale of a kite. The catenary lines flashed before me like a hypnotist’s timepiece. I began thinking about disappointments, great and small, and about how life is full of them.

The sights along the corridor are not as vital as I imagined they would be. Everywhere, abandoned hulks of industrial plants. Overhead, aged Pennsylvania RR electrical scaffolding, peeling with paint. Station platforms in disrepair, major sections taped off in yellow. The only new buildings I see on the entire line are prisons. Perhaps a few condos. The whole scene has a kind of melancholy draped over - - Whoosh!
The passing of a northbound Amtrak movement – a combined 200 mph meet! – jolted me from my existential moment. Thumpety-Thump. A frog in a crossover turnout delivered a jolt to my vestibule. My hand reached for the wall in reflex. Flexibility, I thought.

Flexibility. Stay loose and enjoy the ride. On my flawless anniversary travel plans have rained meteor showers—cancelled trains, crowded cars, and crippled cooling. But don’t let the disappointments steal your joy. Look for the blessings amid the dissatisfaction. Five cars forward sits the best thing to ever have happened to your life.
An hour later, we sat down to a $45 dinner in the diner. Microwaved frozen chicken, paper plates, canned corn. But then again, I was with my beloved. And we were moving forward.

Flexibility.