The Last Hoorah
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Washington D.C. Union Station.
We arrive right next to the legendary high-speed Acela train: very sleek, very modern. It can reach speeds of up to 150 mph, traveling on dedicated lines with concrete ties. I notice my bag unloaded from the Capitol Limited. Its handlers tell me that it is going to Florida.
From Union Station, I see the nation’s capitol. Next-door is the Smithsonian Postal Museum.
The entrance to the museum is Washington D.C.’s old post office, with polished marble floors, gilded cages and thousands of little post boxes.
The guard goes through every single piece of my luggage with an acrylic wand, and I submit graciously. The museum is fascinating, recording the history of the mail service. At its entrance stands a marble sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, father of the post office, who shares my birth date.
From the moment I enter, I am bombarded with hundreds of little factoids. Did you know that New York City once had a pneumatic postal system that propelled letters through tubes at 35 mph? I learn about sled dogs, train service, and air mail.
The highlight of my visit is Owney, the mutt, a stray adopted by the Albany post office that guarded the mail in the train cars. If a bag fell off the car, Owney would leap off the train and stand by the mail until it was collected. If Owney was guarding the mail, you were assured that it was safe and secure.
Owney, an overnight celebrity, was on tour in Europe for a while. Wherever he went, he would be given a little metal mail tag and when he had accumulated more than he could carry on his collar, they made him a vest that distributed the weight on his body.
Being a sucker for a good dog story, I read all about him and then raced to a phone to tell Frida all about Owney.
Frida was away so I had to tell the answering machine instead with joyful sobs. I got a postcard picture of Owney and took a picture of the poor stuffed mutt.
At the postal museum store, I see a stamp that celebrates the life of Thomas Wolfe, the author of “Look Homeward Angel.” I used to consume his books voraciously. Thomas Wolfe wrote in a highly elegant, detailed style, similar to Tolstoy and Dickens, but was distinctly American in subject matter and expression.
After exploring every nook and cranny of the museum, I head back to the station and catch dinner at McDonald’s thinking I might save a little money. I remember my Uncle Jack once said he had traveled the world over and never got sick eating at McDonalds.
Since I don’t generally eat there, I ask the lady what super-sizing means and why super-sizing an order would only super-size the fries and not the drink. It turns out the drink looks to be a half gallon and the fries the size of a bucket. The Big Mac, on the other hand, is not especially big. And when everything is said and done, I am hungry.
I notice a “meal deal” advertised on a poster: two fish sandwiches for $2.22 and order them, figuring I could not possibly be hungry after all that. Also did so in honor of my Dad who would never touch a burger but gravitated to the fish sandwiches.
I wolf down all the food in five minutes and grab a Washington Post at a nearby newsstand for 26 cents. I lose valuable time searching for that extra penny and was amazed that there are newspaper vendors who will demand it. I mean, what is a penny actually worth these days? Nothing.
I make it to the train just in time.
4:50 p.m. Train #91 to Miami, Florida. “The Silver Star.” Absolutely packed train, arriving late in Washington from New York. I am unable to get a window seat. The gentleman next to me seems friendly enough but keeps to himself, which is just fine.
As the train leaves Washington, I see the George Washington Monument and a church with the symbol of the freemasons on its front lawn.
6:10 p.m. Settling in for the long haul. There’s a lot I don’t like about The Silver Star.
The cars are moving fast enough, but I can feel every little bump and roll, unlike the Southwest Chief, which is heavier and more stable.
The stinky bathroom is huge but poorly laid out. Scalding water comes out of the faucet and it’s difficult to get paper towels out of the dispenser. The toilet practically sits beneath the sink and yet there is lots of totally unused space in front of the john.
But the thing that disturbs me most is the old lady seating directly to my left side, across the aisle. She just won’t stop talking except when she’s shoveling food into her mouth. Being disabled, she gets the attendant to deliver her meal to her so she rarely ever leaves her seat.
She has a voice that projects and what she is projecting are stories about her kids and dearly departed husband, making sure the guy behind me knows every fact about her family. I put BB King on the CD, a recording of old gospel tunes. This train is starting to get to me, and I look forward to arriving at my destination.
I can’t see a thing out the windows, but I have an entire Washington Post to read, so I stay entertained. I wish I could say that Sept. 11 had tightened security on Amtrak, but with the exception of boarding in Albuquerque, there appears to be no attempt at security of any sort except to check tickets at the tracks.
As a matter of fact, there is more security at the Smithsonian Postal Museum than there is on Amtrak.
Wed., Dec. 19, 7:20 a.m. I just woke up and am now eating breakfast in the lovely dining car, painted in gentle pastel colors with comfortable seats and pinpoint lighting that looks just like stars on the ceiling.
I order French toast - fairly meager pickings, nothing compared to the fare on either the Southwest Chief or the Capitol Limited. Service is good but somewhat gruff. My companion is pleasant, a cadet on vacation from Military School who educates me on what it takes to become a marine.
Did you know that cadets can eat just about anything they want during the weekday but that they only have 15 minutes in which to consume their food? Also, did you know that when it comes to drills the entire company is punished if just one person screws up?
And that once you sign up for the military, there is no way out? I tell him to think carefully before he commits himself to such insanity.
The train, although running an hour late, is speeding through a new sort of country now. The skies are blue, tinged with a bit of pink from the rising sun. I see swampy lands on both sides of the train, with trees growing out of the water. Could these be the legendary Floridian swamps we all read about? I have no idea, but it is very lovely.
Got plenty of sleep last night, only interrupted at around 4 a.m. by the fellow next to me who had to use the restroom.
I was tempted to take another pill before I fell asleep, but did not. The talkative lady has finally turned her attention to me, as I knew she would from the very start, and engaged me in conversation about her dead husband.
Turns out he had Parkinson’s disease, like my Dad and my uncle, so we had plenty to talk about. She has an unmarried son and I suggested that they take a cruise together, but it looks like many children don’t share the same enthusiasm for such things as I do. He’d rather go out drinking with his pals. Maybe I am a good boy after all.
She is a lonely woman, and I suppose I can understand the need to talk to a perfect stranger. But my gosh, the things she talks about: her diet, the pills she takes, and now an endless discourse on toothpaste, the funny taste in her mouth, whether or not you had breakfast, and if you did, what you had, did you enjoy it, on and on and so forth.
Thank God she has latched onto somebody else now for conversation. She’s no dummy. She knows when people are tuning her out and then she will go into an endless diatribe on that subject as well. She’s a very talkative woman: Not a bad person, just lonely.
Now I’m seated in the lounge car, warming my ravaged arm with a heating pad. This lounge car is radically different from those I have experienced on other trains. It has much greater aisle space. There are lots of two-seater tables in addition to the four-seaters. Everything on this train in very much lower level seating, which I suppose is the major difference between this train set and others.
This strikes me as being more of a fancy commuter train really, but it does have all the amenities. It certainly has more electrical outlets in the lounge car, which are scattered just about everywhere. The coach cars have very few outlets, however, but they are comfortable. However, I still don’t like their bathrooms
Just finished talking to the conductor. These trains are known as single-level coaches, as opposed to the double level coaches I have come accustomed to on the Southwest Chief. They have to be lower to fit through the tunnels. He says they are older than the Superliners, but I have my doubts.
Each coach has a restroom at the end of the car. There are most definitely not enough for everybody to use during waking hours, and it is not uncommon to see a line forming. The line behind me is now five deep.
If people make their judgments about the quality of intercity travel from this particular train, I can see how they may have their doubts about Amtrak. About the only good thing I can see about this Florida line is the service, and the service people are mightily stressed out by its idiotic design. Even as I speak an elderly woman has locked herself in the bathroom and cannot get out.
The coach car is overheated while the lounge and dining cars are underheated. There is no proper vestibule for the storage of baggage. Everything is in a huge heap at the end of the car. In a way this is convenient because my seat is located next to the heap, but I’d prefer a vestibule to help sort things out and keep them organized. The overhead storage is pretty generous, but they contain a non-functional TV set every few feet that just takes up space.
I really don’t like traveling so close to the tracks, as these single level coaches demand. You can feel the wheels as they mesh with rail. And being so low down, one loses the perspective gained by being further up in the air. It seems like we are going fast, very fast, but that is all an illusion. We are still tooling around at 80 mph.
I’m starting to feel the effects of breakfast on me. Sour stomach. Perhaps the food sucks because the cooks have much less space to work compared with the spacious Southwest Chief.
Outside the region gets greener the further south we go. Scrawny trees are full of leaves and the ground is starting to look less brown.
The sun makes its way up into the sky as we leave the cold climates far behind. I see endless miles of beautiful untouched wilderness and the morning mist rising from the ground. The train passes mysterious patches of cleared land, spruce trees, an eclectic combination of vegetation and occasional trailer parks but no roads.
9 a.m. I am trying so hard to keep myself together in the final leg of this journey, but I have already lost my dental floss (again!) as well as the little plastic bag that holds my “sleep masque.”
Finally I can stand it no longer and decide to take a crap in the putrid over-sized stainless steel bathroom.
Say what you want about the nine square feet of space they allow you on the Southwest Chief, it is a well thought-out space. There is a coat hook and there is a place to change the baby’s diaper, also perfect forplacing one’s things. The Silver Star has neither of these amenities.
So, I wedge myself on the stinky stainless steel toilet that has been positioned practically underneath the sink. And then I have a revelation. I can take a crap and brush my teeth at the same time!
One dubious plus about the bathroom is that it has hot water. No, not hot water - scalding water. To make matters worse, the nightmarish water saving fixtures make it virtually impossible to moderate the temperature unless you happen to have three hands. And if you’re clever and nimble enough to actually get water out of these fixtures, it will splash all over the place, somewhat defeating the purpose and further trashing an already trashed bathroom.
We arrive in Jacksonville, Florida in the northeast corner of the state. I see palm trees and feel humidity seeping through the train. I am so glad I removed my long underwear and will be able to endure the remainder of the trip.
I consume my daily vitamin supplements and am contemplating taking a pill to treat diarrhea, as well. I’m not sure if I have Montezuma’s revenge but would not doubt it after that awful breakfast. Thankfully, after shutting down the electricity for 10 minutes, they have turned off the heat, switched on the AC system and the cabin is filled with cool, clean air.
It is a pleasant 60 degrees outside under what appears to be sunny skies. The train is running about 45 minutes late and approaches Jacksonville, a service stop. The engineer blames the delay on screwed up signals as well as the weather. But there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
This marks the end of the NINTH installment of "The Last Hoorah." If you'd like to start from the beginning, then please click this page.
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