November 2007 Issue
New York City was my destination, and Amtrak was the mode of transportation. Flight reservations on such short notice, I had decided, were just too costly. But the first leg of the journey required that I find my way, by 7 a.m., to the Amtrak station in downtown Cleveland. Easier said than done.
As has been pointed out by Charlie Chan and other fictional sleuths, the best place to hide something is the most obvious place. Amtrak has done just that in Cleveland, wedging its downtown station in the shadow of the Memorial Shoreway Bridge that spans the Cuyahoga River Valley, connecting Cleveland’s East and West sides.
But good detective that I am, after asking several people how to reach the station and getting only a bewildered shrug in reply, I did a dry run the day before departure. So forearmed, I confidently directed my wife, who drove me to my destination, through the convoluted twists and turns that lead from the Memorial Shoreway to the Amtrak station. There I presented my ticket, purchased for $154.70 (thanks to the senior discount), and followed a thin line of people to board the train.
Frankly, I had no idea what to expect. I had never ridden Amtrak. And, although I have on rare occasions traveled by train, it had been years since I had ridden one out of Cleveland. In fact, if memory serves, I had not yet learned my multiplication tables when I last boarded a train in Cleveland Union Terminal, bound for — oh, how distant it seemed — Ashtabula, Ohio.
Since I would be in New York for only three days, I did not check my single bag but carried it on board. Within a minute or two I was stowing it above my assigned seat — well, actually above what was supposed to be my assigned seat. It was occupied by a boy in the last stages of a night’s sleep, so instead of the window seat that was mine, I took the aisle seat, which no doubt was assigned to him. Soon after I settled in, the train gave a slight lurch, moving east into the glare of the upward spiraling sun.
This was the Lake Shore Limited, aptly named for the route it follows along Lake Erie into Pennsylvania, then paralleling the Erie Canal, the Mohawk Valley and, finally, the Hudson River into New York City. Our train moved at a slow, measured pace, and as it did the passengers who had slumbered the night away began to awake. Some pulled snacks from their bags; most got up and headed for what I later learned was the cafeteria car, returning with hot coffee, bagel sandwiches and sundry breakfast items.
Uncertain of what the amenities were, or where they were to be found, I did what I so often do in such situations: I watched and waited. I like to call it “getting the lay of the land.” I wasn’t sure, for example, where the dining and cafeteria cars were, or the location of the restrooms, or how one maneuvered the buttons and footrest of the roomy seat that I now occupied. Compared to what I would have been buckled into had I taken a flight into New York, this was not a seat, it was a throne.
While I pondered such things, life stirred in our car. Eyes opened wide; chatter replaced the early morning silence. I learned that the couple seated across the aisle from me were the parents of the boy who sat next to me, now feigning sleep, I suspected. Maybe he was afraid I would demand that he give up my seat. By the time the boy and his parents disembarked in Buffalo, I had found the cafeteria car, bought myself a cup of coffee, and had “the lay of the land.”
Most, but not all, of what I found was to my liking. One thing I had not counted on was the ubiquitous cell phone. As the sun rose higher, like dormant plants suddenly reinvigorated by its warmth, certain passengers sprang to life, calling associates, friends and loved ones.
Astonishingly, several held lengthy, voluble conversations that dealt with some fairly personal matters. In fact, I learned more than I ever cared to know about the recent bypass surgery and recovery of a gentleman who sat a few rows behind me on the other side of the aisle. His tale unfolded gradually, like Scheherazade’s, over miles and miles, ending only when he finally made his exit in Schenectady.
By that time the scenery had changed for the better. My window seat (which I had reclaimed) was of no particular advantage in Ohio or Pennsylvania, but in New York the vistas widened, lakes and rivers shimmered in the sunlight, and there were good reasons to look up from one’s newspaper or book.
I had been cautioned by Amtrak that our train might run late, and it did, by approximately one hour. My schedule in New York allowed for such things, so I found it no inconvenience that we pulled into Penn Station at 8 p.m.
Less than 48 hours later I was again at Penn Station, this time to take Train 49 at 3:45 p.m. bound for Chicago, as far as Cleveland. It was a more crowded train this time, and one that would carry us through the night. Dark clouds scudded across the sky as we pulled out of the underground rail beds. Gradually the rough and tumble trackside, emblazoned by graffiti, gave way to more pastoral scenery along the bank of the Hudson River.
A conductor came along taking reservations for the dining car, but I decided to stay with the cafeteria car. Granted, it offered no seating, but it stayed open longer and was, to my way of thinking, more convenient. I had also decided from the very outset that I would forgo reserving a sleeping car. So, during the course of the evening, I planned to fully recline in my spacious seat, stretch my legs out, pull my jacket over me for warmth, and sleep the night away. I had not counted on the storms, or the little lady directly across the aisle from me. I would soon learn that she snored with orchestral flourishes. It would be a long night.
News of the storms came soon enough. They were up ahead of us, it was announced, and had leveled trees across the tracks. Crews were clearing the way, but our train had to slow considerably while the work was being done.
As darkness closed around us, the car filled with the kinds of sounds one hears on a summer night in a city neighborhood: babies crying, mothers soothing or remonstrating their kids, men exchanging baseball talk, couples whispering. The sounds receded as the night grew late. The last of the cell phones were turned off.
From time to time we stopped to let off and take on passengers. The cars partially emptied only to fill up again at each such stop. The best I could manage was catnapping. After Erie, I began to look out the window for telltale signs of home. As we neared Cleveland and its station, I could not help but notice that the lady across the aisle from me, who had awakened to ask the conductor how long before we reached Elyria, had again lapsed into gasping snores. I had to admit, I almost envied her ability to shut the world out so completely.
And then it was time for me to disembark. We had arrived in Cleveland, at 5:30 a.m. We were two hours late. I didn’t care because, for some reason, I felt like a kid again — almost.