Wednesday, December 28.
Heading to NYC by rail to bid 2016 a not-so-fond farewell.
The gentle, seductive rocking of the Northeast Regional as we pull out of Union Station lulls me into a hazy time machine of memories. As a youth I shuttled between D.C. and Trenton, the closest train station to my hippy boarding school, located in the Pennsylvania countryside, along the banks of the Delaware River, in a small arts colony, appropriately named, “New Hope.”
More often than not, the train was filled with boisterous, beautiful young people. There are scores of boarding schools and colleges outside Philadelphia and what was then, rural New Jersey. During the holidays, trains overflowed with children of privilege, savoring the sliver of time, where there were no papers to worry about, no finals to study for, yet looming at the end of the line was the specter of going home and all its significance. In my case, it was frustration of being treated like a child, not recognizing the free-spirited, capable individual I had become, who even did his own laundry. Once in a while.
Truth be told, my oversized duffle was overflowing with dirty laundry. I had been putting off the weekly trips the school provided to the laundromat since returning after Thanksgiving, rationalizing home was just around the corner.
It wasn’t a question of irrational “my house my rules” authoritarianism that provoked my ire. It was my parents’ perception of me. I felt like an adult and I wanted my transformation to be acknowledged, and respected, even if I had to throw a fit, kicking and screaming, to prove it.
Eventually, I came to appreciate going home was returning to where you are someone’s child for better and worse.
Amtrak’s trains were much different in 1975. The rail service, a mere five years old, was a hodgepodge of legacy equipment, some cars dating back to the early sixties, when wood was king, plastic and stainless steel, the stuff of science fiction. The cars had narrow corridors, designed before the advent or roller-bags. Trains were loud, the ride not nearly as smooth as now.
The smoking cars were noxious fog banks. The mere act of walking through one embedded the all-penetrating malodor of second-hand smoke into your garments, into your being.
Unlike today where the space between cars is hermetically sealed, or as close as it can be, that wasn’t always the case. In 1975, the gap was partially shielded by a flexible rubber apron, expanding and contracting around curves. The apron was limited in its effectiveness and often, one saw the track underneath, rushing by as the train rounded the mildest of curves. As a result, the gaps between cars acted like one big exhaust fan sucking fumes out rapidly, creating the ideal conditions for consuming cannabis, or “pot” as it was often called. As someone who suffered chronic anxiety, I spent a fair amount of time between cars, bonding with other escape artists.
My clearest memory of that time is the pot of yesteryear wasn’t as strong as today’s hybrid strains. Even a fat joint of Maui-Wowie wasn’t potent enough to make an Amtrak sandwich taste good.
Being an empath, it wasn’t difficult for me to chat up young women if I was lucky enough to be seated next to one. Once they figured out I was still in high school, the flirtatious electricity was replaced by harmless static electricity that is the friend zone.
When the train slowed down, entering the cities of the Northeast Corridor, I’d peer out the window into the apartment houses, hoping to glimpse a woman changing clothes, speculating on the number of couples actually coupling that very minute. As a typical teenager, sex was always on my mind. Between my lewd imagination and the vibrations of the car, I spent a fair amount of my trips in an agitated state.
I was only thrown off a train once. and that wasn’t until college, when my roommate Dave and I traveled from Providence, Rhode Island to Washington. The train had engine trouble in New Haven and we disembarked with an hour to kill. Dave and I bee-lined to the closest packie, a “package store” for those not from New England. Dave and I purchased a bottle of Smirnoff and a small bottle of cranberry juice.
On the train, we repeatedly requested cups of ice and a lime. In retrospect, if we had tipped the bar man, I suspect we would have been ignored. Alas, we didn’t. At Penn Station, we were greeted by the conductor and a railroad cop who unceremoniously told us our trip was over.
This part is hazy.
After getting thrown off the train and being given a stern talking to, Dave and I got separated in the bowels of Pennsylvania Station. Eventually I realized I had thirty cents in my pocket and little else. Back to the security office where I said, “Hi. Remember me? You threw me off the train. Um, I don’t have enough money to buy a new ticket, and I was wondering if you could maybe give me a lift to DC?”
I was escorted by two railroad cops and put on the next south-bound train. The cops stood waiting by the door until the train began moving. My seat-mate, a businessman repeatedly looked at the railroad cops and then at me, an unshaven, partially drunk kid at noon on a Tuesday. Needless to say, he was none too pleased by my presence.
When I finally arrived in DC, nursing a wicked hangover, I stumbled out of the station into the white-hot, August sun. My mother waved frantically, worried I might not recognize my own parents. When they asked what happened, I made up some convoluted story about delays, Dave’s anger-management issues and his decision to return to Woonsocket, from which he hailed.
On the drive home, my mother continued pressing for more details, my father silent, knowing my story was a crock of shit and it might be decades before I’d share the details of what really happened.
Today, my train rides are much less eventful, thank goodness.
More to come! Until then, New York and the New Year awaits and I am excited for both.
Stay in touch. Connect.
P.S. This was the fantasy that never happened, except instead of Vienna, it woulda been Newark N.J. They’re kinda the same. Right? Right??