Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dinner on the Hudson

[Writer's note: I just spent the day in Chicago and will be boarding the City of New Orleans train in about an hour to head south for the weekend. This post is from about 24 hours ago; phone was giving issues with posting, hence the tardiness.]

I already love the train. Granted we’re almost two hours behind schedule, but where else can you drink vodka, be served surprisingly good food, laugh with fellow passengers, and come back to your room to take a dump if you need to—all while moving to your destination? Certainly no fucking hotel. And then there are the vistas; and we’re still riding the Hudson. But then again, one could consider this a hotel on wheels, or some sort of transient bedroom. Oh, that sounds sexy, transient bedroom.

Anywho, I digress. I had a lovely dinner. I was supposed to have one of the later reservations, but 6:30 rolled around, I was a few deep whilst enjoying some cheese and crackers and I decided maybe I should eat. I thought we weren’t far from Albany, where we’d loose power for a while, so why not. Well, I was wrong. We were still over an hour from Albany. But that made dinner all the better. I was sitting at a four-top booth, alone. I was on the western side of the train, the riverside, if you will. (Note that my roomette is on the eastern side of the train (we’re traveling north), so I was forced to look at suburban riverfront sprawl—condos and mass-produced blueprinted homes—hence the reason I opted for the riverside of the car.)

The waiter was fabulous. Attentive yet not overbearing, savvy and funny, it was the type you’d expect to see on a cruise ship. I don’t mean that degradingly; he’s been doing Amtrak service for quite some time—he wouldn’t give me an exact date. Anywho. I ordered the only thing a veg could: fucking pasta. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was fresh, tasty, and flavorful. After some time, the woman, of the couple sitting next to me said, “Did you get the pasta? How is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s really quite nice.” They were both on their second Scotch from the time I sat down, and she was glad I helped her make up her mind. That was our launch pad. Suddenly, we were off, off into obscure yet delightfully personal conversation about our respective lives.

Me and my job, studies and travels, them and their marriage, travels, and previous fields of work (both in medicine: he an orthopedist, she a nurse.) I learned that his name was Frank. Not because he told me, but because she kept saying it. They had opted to take the train over the plane because of how annoying airports are. They live in Minnesota. They went from MN to Boston, then to the City to visit their daughter who lives in New Jersey. Like me, they are loving their first long distance train trip. Though they are on the return of their voyage, so they’ve sat through one way already.

We continued chatting. A few more people sat down around us, including the conductor. You could tell he was a bit tense. We were on our third engine and an hour and a half behind. He ate amongst his passengers and answered all the questions I had while sharing personal stories about his life, too.

There is something about the train and the stories that are shared. Intimate, almost inordinate stories that just get thrown up all over. Last year, a travel writer for the Times did a piece about his cross-country train voyage; it was a great piece. Also last year, yet only read this week, was a piece about why train travelers are train travelers. We talk to eat other and welcome the conversation. When you are sitting next to someone on an airplane and you ask a question, most times, they pull the paper they’re reading higher over their face. It’s quite the contrary on trains. People embrace questions and look forward to the discourse. Christ, even healthcare came up!

Well, we left Albany about an hour ago. The train from Boston attached to us, so we’re five longer than we were before, and one of them is the lounge/snack car. Cards, anyone?

Or maybe just some more stories. Cheerio

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Goodbye NY, hello Train Ride

Hello from train 49, Amtrak’s "Lake Shore Limited" train, connecting New York and Chicago, and a split in Albany allowing those from Boston to make their way to the windy city.

It’s a beautiful day for traveling, even more so on the train. I will be making my way to the Crescent City, New Orleans, Louisiana, via Chicago on a two-day train tour of 8 states, making 37 stops. I have about an 11-hour layover in Chicago and I’m most excited about it. I’ve been talking for some time about never having been to Chicago. Sure enough when I started looking into the various ways of getting to New Orleans, the route through Chicago killed two birds with one stone. It helps that I’m not paying for my train or plane ticket: I’ve accumulated quite a few points for my travels between New York and New London, with random trips to DC in-between, allowing me to redeem a one-way ticket, all the way to NOLA, with Roomette accommodations; for the flight back I used some frequent flier miles. And because of it, I finally get to stay in a hotel—not a hostel while traveling alone. VERY exciting!

We pulled out of Penn Station promptly at 3:45. Traveling north under Manhattan Island, as opposed to heading east towards Queens for the trip to CT, allows for a view of sky scrapers through the random rail cuts as the train snakes north in between 9th and 10th Avenues.

A few minutes into the ride, an older gentleman came to collect my ticket. I asked him a question and he said that was something my room attendant could answer for me. Fine. A few more minutes later, a chipper lady with a big smile in a bright red apron came to talk to me about dinner. I asked for the latest reservation—I’m a New Yorker and ate a late lunch—to which she advised was not a good idea. By 8:00pm, the last reservation, sometimes they can be wiped out of certain things. This made me nervous as a veg, so I settled for 7. She said that was a great idea.

A few more minutes later, my room attendant came by to introduce himself, do an overview, and answer questions. He also passed out today’s Times (idiot me bought a copy at the station), timetables, and route guides. His name is Ainsley.

Over the Harlem River crossing, continuing our climb up New York’s famous Hudson River (celebrating its 400th Anniversary this very year!), thick smoke blew past my big windows. I didn’t think much of it. A few minutes later, we were at a total fucking stand still; we still are and it has been nearly an hour. They just announced that we blew an engine. Yes! Not even 20 miles into my adventure, and we’re already delayed! This should not have come as too much of a shock:the "Lake Shore" is famous for its poor punctuality.

They said a new locomotive was being brought down from Croton-Harmon, 18 miles to the North. Once they take off the dead guy and put on the newbie, we should be rolling.

Oh well, such is life.

A minute ago, another uber polite gent just came to let me know I have the option of eating earlier. When we get to Albany, we loose power for 20-30 minutes when they hook up a lounge car and new locomotive car. (it’s 5:20 and we’re moving!). I said I have no problem waiting until after we leave Albany to eat. I came prepared: I brought my picnic cheese board and knives, a block of cheddar, crackers and peanut butter, Veggie Booty, health nut bars, and peanut M&Ms. And libation supplies: seltzer, lemons, and vodka.

Speaking of Vodka…it’s after 5. Time for a cocktail—bottom’s up.