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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Catching the Acela


     As I get older, I sometimes treat myself to an upgrade when I travel— a slightly better (though far from luxurious) hotel than the motel I usually go to; or business rather than coach class on the train to Chicago.  It was a bit more of a leap than that when, for the Washington-New York leg of a trip east to see what was in the museums and warm my roots a bit, I bought myself an (expensive) ticket on the Acela.

               I had first seen this marvel of a train one summer when I was boarding the Lakeshore Limited in Boston’s South Station, on my way home to Detroit.  The first leg of that trip involves a slow haul over the Berkshires at maybe twenty miles an hour, huffing and puffing all the way up like the Little Engine that Could.  But there, right on the other side of our boarding platform, sat an engine crafted out of gleaming steel, its long streamlined nose regarding us lesser passengers haughtily.  It was reputed, I remembered, to accomplish what in France they term  TGV—“très grande vitesse”—a speed of 120 miles an hour.


           Now, I’m going to take that someday,” I promised myself; and so I did.

           There is nothing so heart-warming as talking for hours with a friend who (swears she) met you when you were still in your baby carriage.  She has settled at last in a home of her own, a pleasant house in Richmond cozily furnished with pieces I recognize from our Connecticut childhood summers. Her living room is done in  beige tones, the dining room painted dark red, with family portraits impressively arrayed on the walls.  

We sit in her breakfast nook to talk…and talk…and talk, about our youthful shenanigans and our grown up daughters, about what is going on in Washington politics these days and what is going on with our grandchildren,  all interlarded with “organ recitals,” recounting our illnesses and recoveries and exclaiming how lucky we are to still be here—laughing and gossiping and philosophizing while I revel in expressions I had thought disappeared forever: 

“What a lark,” she exclaims.

 “Hell's bells,” I find myself saying.
                “Long story short,” we demur frequently as on and on we go, weaving our web of memories with a warmth that only a long, long friendship can engender.                                               
            As my visit drew to an end I began to worry about the next leg of my journey, which involved getting back to Washington to catch the Acela for New York.  All tired out from so much fun, I hauled my bag onto a regional train that runs between Newport News and DC.  It seemed pleasant enough, and I found  an empty seat and settled down next to the window, gazing at reeds blowing in the wind and the vista of a broad, misty marshland. As the conductor approached I got out my ticket, and noticed that the train continued on to New York.  Ever nervous about my travel arrangements, I said

               “I see that we go all the way to New York City. Can I stay on if I miss my  connection to the Acela?

               No problem, if we have a seat for you. Worst case scenario, we put you off in DC and you catch the Acela when it comes through.”

               I sat there doing mental arithmetic, which I was never good at.

              1. They put me off in DC.

               2. The Acela, much faster than this regional, comes whistling ‘through.’

                3. If both get to New York City at 5:45, won’t the Acela accelerate itself past where I am put off before we get there?

               4. This depends on how late the regional is.

Recalling puzzlers like “Train A goes at 60 miles per hour and train B goes at 120 miles per hour. If a little old lady is put off of one to catch the other, how many minutes can train A be late to allow her to catch train B,” but  answer comes there none.

               At Fredericksburg, I acquire a seat mate.

               At Quantico, there is an announcement that the train is now full.  I resume my calculations on time/motion train  A vs train B problem, but still to no avail.

               At Woodbridge, I climb over the knees of my seatmate, only to discover that the toilet is out of paper.

               “We are sorry,” comes the announcement,” but all of the toilets on this train are out of paper.”

               My favorite meal on Amtrak is a Hebrew National Hot Dog so full of sodium that I wonder what would happen to me if it raised my blood pressure and triggered a stroke?  Nevertheless, I would really enjoy one just about now.

               Announcement resounds though the car that the café is out of 1. Sprite and 2. hot dogs.

               I would like to take out my knitting, but the seats are so close together that I might find myself elbowing the nice but rather capacious lady sitting next to me.  There is a lot more talking now, some of it quite loud, and children are skittering up and down the aisle. The car is beginning to feel close packed and stuffy; and what is that smell?

               At Alexandria, I look at my watch and discover that it is an hour before my confirmed ticket on the Acela, so  I decide it will be well worth the effort to make the switch and enjoy my treat after all.

               I haul my suitcase into Union Station with plenty of time to lug it to the bookstore where I buy a Wilson Quarterly,  a journal so full of wonky articles and well reasoned book reviews that it is always good for a train journey.

            I am sitting in the waiting area absently scanning the announcement board when time/motion problem is solved by my discovery that there is an Acela every hour. It must have been the next one I was supposed to “hop on” to, though how to achieve that without a reservation is not entirely clear. Perhaps these luxury trains never fill up entirely?

               I love walking down the platform alongside a train, refreshed by air so much cooler than inside.  This time, there is the gratification of glancing up at the gleaming, streamlined engine I had so envied in Boston.  As we get underway through the rail yards and begin to pick up speed in Maryland, we  move along the tracks, in contrast to the regional’s bumps and grinds, like a knife through butter.  Soon everything is going by so fast that I don’t have my usual chance to identify the duck on a particular pond or what crops are at what stage—the landscape seen from an Acela is more prototypical than particular, affording the general idea of meadow or forest, like a kind of Platonic ideal.

 The seats are capacious and comfortable, with a surfeit of leg room and plenty of space between, though I am without a seat mate at the moment.  Perfect, I  realize, for knitting! I am working on a little yellow baby sweater for a friend’s first grandchild and need to get on with it as I am hosting her granny shower right after I get home, so I take to  knitting and purling in blissful comfort.

          That is, until I notice rows of finely tailored trousers relaxed between seats and foot rests in all the seats around me. Good heavens! My car is occupied by men in elegant, well fitting (bespoke?) suits, who must be  Very Important People.   I recall that the Acela is much frequented by Senators and Congressmen—Joe Biden and all that—and isn’t that Brent Scowcroft sitting across the aisle, glancing at me with mild surprise before politely averting his eyes?  It must be unusual among this dapper crowd to spy a lady in red blazer, pink blouse, and pearls carrying on with her knitting.  I don’t feel “unimportant” to myself—Full Professor, Feminist Founder,  Academic Author and all that—but I must look unimportant to them. I wonder if there is a car full of well-dressed, powerful women somewhere on this train, or can they afford it?   

Never mind—there are those lovely pastures streaming by and the intimate windows of cities to glance (fleetingly) into, so I turn my sweater to a purl row, though I am beginning to get awfully hungry.

               Walking through the cars to find something to eat, I pass an enclosure with armchairs and little tables and a sign affixed to the glass that identifies it as a “Quiet Room—no Cellphones or Children.”  There are elegantly suited women working busily at their laptops, and a dapper executive’s legs stretching out from his Wall Street Journal.  I am surprised to find that the dining arrangements are the same as on the regional, just a café with no Hebrew National Hot Dogs on offer but adequate if plain sandwiches and good strong coffee.

Returning to my seat, I notice right at the beginning of my car that a tiny  lady, probably in her sixties, is perched on a  stool provided for a laptop table, busily tapping away while urgently telling someone at the other end of her cell phone how to prepare the room for  a speech she is going to make at the Hilton.  Then I settle down with my Wilson Quarterly noticing that, as always on a moving train, I am suddenly capable of grasping concepts that otherwise elude me.  Soon, however, I need to visit the bathroom   (Toilet Paper! Clean Sink! Scented Hand Soap!) and on the way back walk slowly enough to read over the urgently busy lady’s shoulder.  The masthead of her stationary reads

                           REPAIRING THE WORLD!

 Good for her, I say to myself, thinking of Tikum Olam, that marvelous creation story where God sent his light into the world with such power and glory that it broke all the jars he had set out to contain it, their shards scattering all over the universe so that we human beings are left to repair the world by collecting the thousand thousand things and refashioning their containers. Good for the tiny  lady repairing the world on her laptop and cell phone and good for the women working away in the quiet room and for all of these busy, dapper men, too, if they are of honest intent, and good for me and my friends renewing the light of our friendship, I revel, as we streak through the wetlands of New Jersey at more miles per hour than I have ever experienced on a train before, until the towers of the city where I was born  rise in all their splendor out of the marshes.