My husband and I are taking a five-year anniversary trip courtesy of my father-in-law’s Amtrak rewards. It’d be faster to fly from Harrisburg to Boston, even drive, but a free ride where passengers can sleep, read, eat, stretch is an easy choice.
Everyone is plugged in thanks to free WiFi. Heads are buried in phones, tablets and gaming gadgets. Tweens wearing Kentucky University tees text each other. They laugh in synchronicity. I wonder what’s so funny, but I probably wouldn’t understand their coded text-speak. I’m way too old. If you’re not attached into the dual, 120-volt plugs then you’re a snoring grandpa, Sudoku granny or a boring mommy enjoying the scenery while scribbling in a notebook.
I believe there are few better, more satisfying and relaxing places to write than on a train. Constant inspiration with movement is unbeatable. Flow—it’s impossible not to race along with the speeding locomotive, jotting down as much scribble as fast as possible for fear of losing even one thought to the tracks behind you.
The conductor routinely passes, inspecting tickets. He never makes eye contact or cracks a smile. Maybe his malformed right ear has made his life hard, and he’s detached because of it. Or maybe, like most people, it’s Friday and he’s ready for the weekend and has no desire to be on the job. He scans my e-ticket, places it above the seat, and sluggishly continues down the aisle.
The click and clack of the nine-car vessel against the tracks lulls some and invigorates others. My husband, Chris, is sleeping or pretending to. The window seat holds my attention. I can’t doze or drift, only briefly looking away from the changing scenery. Picking up speed as we leave the Paoli station, my eyes strain to focus. The horn blares, a warning call for anyone or anything in our path. Heading east, the sun breaks through the fog, revealing changing leaves hiding the subdivisions and used car lots. Maples, oaks, asters—I download an Audubon app to decode the varieties of trees and flowers I might see along the eight-hour trip. That makes me the biggest nerd on the 642.
Closer to Philly, graffiti holds my attention instead of trees. Random tags remind me of childhood. Trips on the Metro downtown with Grandaddy and Abuelita, to the Smithsonian. Eating in the members-only restaurant was muy especial. Abuelita always commented on the ugliness of the graffiti, but, to me, it was a voice to the voiceless. Art to be appreciated. Maybe not to the same extent as the fine works in the museum but art nonetheless. Philly graffiti is bright. There’s even a colorful tag of Amy Winehouse hanging with Stevie Wonder. I’d believe they’re friends. I can’t decipher most of the meanings because they look like my daughter’s crayon scribbles.
Massive freight trains pass, carrying materials that build or destroy our country. As we pull into Philly, the myriad of wires overhead seem within arm’s reach. How do all these wires stay above the lines? Maybe I should wake the electro-mechanical technician to my left. I won’t poke the bear. He deserves some extra shuteye, working 10-hour days and often mandatory overtime on top of that. This trip is supposed to be relaxing for both of us.
After a brief stop, we leave the 30th Street Station, heading to New York City. The ATF agent and his K-9 occasionally stop next to unsuspecting passengers, scaring the crap out of young and old alike. Chris is happy he opted not to bring anything. I told him that, with the added ISIS threat, there’d definitely be more security. Damn those militants, harshing everyone’s buzz.
West Philly looks like a war-torn, post-apocalyptic nightmare. It could be the backdrop for an episode of “The Wire,” reminiscent of South Baltimore in the early 1990s, just waking from a crack-fueled slumber. I see seemingly endless blocks of deteriorating row homes, empty lots filled with used tires, burned sofas and dogs roaming for scraps. This section of Philly could be Baltimore, the District, New York or Boston. Traveling at ground level offers close-up views of the real situation, which in this case is poverty.
The gentrified suburbs re-emerge but only for a few stops. A slick suit sits across the aisle with greasy, thinning hair, loafers without socks, and a deep tan. He’s conversing with his much younger associate about a 2 o’clock meeting in Midtown. I don’t care about quarterly earnings reports or break-even tables. Dear woman sitting behind me, please stop smacking your gum! It could only be worse if she were biting her fingernails, too. I wonder if maybe we should move to the quiet car.
Entering Jersey, my Irish family is in the front of my mind. “Hardscrabble” is the term of choice Nanny used to describe her Northern Irish immigrant parents and her 11 older brothers and sisters. The Connellys lived hand-to-mouth under the shadow of Campbell’s Soup and NJ Power & Light. Five of Trudy’s brothers and her father were county linemen. I see their silhouettes in the glare of the train window. Two died the cruelest deaths imaginable, including patriarch Pat, by high-voltage electrocution. What a way to meet St. Peter. Fifty dollars from Power & Light was all the family received in compensation, and, sadly, there was in-fighting over the small sum. Nanny speculated it’d be spent at O’Malley’s down the block by her “grieving brothers.” Their wives would be happy they’d be drinking someone else’s paycheck for a change. These were the days before mandatory life insurance for high-risk industries and advertisements for worker-injury attorneys vying to help you “get the compensation you deserve.” Newark, you pit of disparity—wasteland, dirty depressing midway point on a journey to somewhere else—somewhere better. Closed warehouses with broken windows and overgrown lots lost to time litter the landscape as the 642 gets closer to Penn Station.
Penn Station at last. A brief, 90-minute stop, then on to Beantown. We decide to leave the train for the layover. Air. Not fresh air, as we are in the guts of NYC, but it’s better than train air and the sun’s out. We book it to Lenny’s across from Madison Square Garden. Chris has never been there, and I want pastrami piled high with coleslaw and Thousand Island on fresh rye bread. And pickles, lots and lots of pickles. Count it as the first official pregnancy craving for baby Smolinski II. After shooing away the aggressive pigeons, we reluctantly head down the gigantic escalator where another four-hour train ride awaits. We’ve decided that, for this leg, however, we will ride in the quiet car.
A young Spanish couple and their toddler follow us to platform W10. We load in a somewhat orderly fashion. “Single file,” squawks the conductor. “86 to Bah Stun now boardin’.” A middle-aged woman snaps at the couple just as they place their stroller in the overhead bin. “This is the quiet car.” They don’t speak English, or not enough to make a confident reply. My heart sinks. Should I repeat the phrase in Spanish? Chris tells me to stay put and keep quiet. They leave the quiet car.
The horn blares and train 86 emerges slowly from the bowels of NYC. The clicking of cell phone cameras overtakes all other sounds as we catch a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building. We snap some because the light is great and it’s NYC. The high-rises fade, skyscrapers of industry capitalists are long gone as the scenery mutates, revealing uniform apartment buildings. Still stretching high, these neatly spaced modern tenements showcase a vast array of international flags, laundry and other paraphernalia lining the barred windows, microscopic patios and open-air hallways where children play. Raising my children on a farmette in Lancaster County, I just can’t imagine living in those conditions—especially with children.
The quiet car is aptly named. Most people read, snooze, watch and re-watch episodes of “Friends,” “Girls” and “Modern Family”—even tackle the occasional Sudoku. We stare out the window, moving farther away from our child, Lucy, by the second. Leaving a child for the first time for more than an overnight—what were we thinking? She’s not ready, we’re not ready. Nanny and Pappy aren’t Mama and Daddy. This damn quiet car is too quiet. I need some non-recirculated air. I need a refill, but if I go to the cafe car again, I’ll have to use that horrible blue chemical potty—no thanks.
We pass the beautiful seaside towns, and then Providence and Pawtucket are in the dust— we’re almost in Boston. I can’t wait for the street clatter and the posh hotel room of the Hilton Back Bay.
We leave the train, and we’re almost skipping as we reach the corner of Dalton Avenue, where the hotel’s 26 stories beckon two tired travelers. A smiling face greets us as we take our hotel room keys. “Swanky. Dad doesn’t disappoint,” Chris comments as we take the elevator to the 25th floor. A charmed view of the city emerges as we gaze out the panoramic windows. Getting comfortable isn’t difficult. Taking off our train traveler clothes, we laugh, because life with a toddler limits our amount of alone time.
Just as we fall into bed (it is our anniversary getaway)—there’s a knock at the door. A man with a thick accent says “room service,” as I leap to put on the robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door and Chris hides underneath the covers. The clean-cut young man wheels in a cart with red wine, chocolates and fresh fruit. Turning a deep shade of red, the server doesn’t make eye contact or attempt to leave the cheese tray but books it for the door. As soon as the door shuts, we burst into laughter. I put the do not disturb sign on the door handle and draw the curtains over the panoramic windows. Chris remerges from underneath the sheets to say, “Happy Anniversary.”
Alison Smolinski is a graduate student in communications at Penn State Harrisburg.