December 5, 2004
Traveling by train is not like most other forms of travel. Usually, it is the destination that is the reward, not the journey itself. Whether traveling by plane or by car, you usually just want to get to your destination, when your trip really begins. But a trip on a train, for whatever reason, can become part–or all–of the trip itself.
In Los Angeles, my brother Ric walked me to the platform and saw me board the Sunset Limited, bound for Orlando, Florida. After finding my compartment and depositing my bags, I crossed to the empty compartment across from mine and waved goodbye through the window. Through the magic of cell phones—Ric pulled out his and called mine—we said a final set of farewells. It was after we signed off, however, that an extraordinary—for me, anyway—thing happened. I was in compartment 9, the end unit closest to the dining car. Turning to return to my own compartment, I noticed a man about my age approaching. He said hello and started to deposit his things into the compartment next to mine, number 7. Behind him were two attractive young ladies who turned into compartment 5, the next one down. Almost immediately, one of them popped her head out and asked where the lounge car was. My neighbor—his name was Michael—came back into the hallway and said he wasn’t sure. Because Ric had scoped out the train as I was boarding and had told me over the phone that the lounge car was immediately beyond the dining car, I responded and told everyone—the two girls, who were by now both looking into the hallway, Michael, my neighbor, and an approaching black man who looked every inch a pro football player—where the lounge car was. One of the girls then said in what I shortly learned was an Australian accent, “Great! After we settle in, who’ll join us for drinks? The first round is on us.”
None of us could refuse an offer like that! As the others bustled about their compartments getting organized, I took the opportunity to make a quick call home to check in with my family. After only a few minutes, the girls emerged from their shared compartment and gathered up Michael. The trio then stepped to my door and asked both me and my across-the-hall neighbor–the football player-type who I later learned was named Willie—if we were coming. I indicated I was, and, encouraged by Nancy on the phone, ended my call and joined the group. Willie, on his own phone to his wife, said he’d be along in a bit.
The four of us headed through the dining car and into the lounge car. On this train, the lounge car is not nearly so nice as the one on the Coast Starlight. That train’s first class lounge had upholstered swivel chairs and couches, upscale carpeting and wood accents. On this train, the only lounge car’s upper level consists of fixed plastic-and-vinyl chairs, mostly singles and some doubles, all facing outwards. Downstairs, where the snack bar is located, there are two tables for four and, in a separate room, some oddly-configured banquettes running the length of the room on either side. Again, all done in vinyl and plastic. Since the tables were taken, we snagged some space on the banquettes, sharing with some of our fellow passengers. Having secured a place to sit, one of the girls took drink orders and headed off to stand in the snack bar line. I kept an eye on her and, when she got to the front of the line, helped her carry the drinks back.
As the train began its long journey east, we introduced ourselves. Michael lives in Santa Barbara and is a documentary filmmaker. Currently he is dealing with PBS: they are interested in his most recent documentary, which is the story of his father’s mysterious activities on a frog farm in Cuba. Apparently, in the course of doing research for the story Michael learned that his father may well have been a CIA recruit.
The Australian girls, Stephanie and Rahni (pronounced “Ronnie”), are both journalists. Rahni is actually a foreign correspondent: she works for an Australian TV network but has lived in Santa Monica (California) for the last eighteen months, covering US events. Stephanie is a print journalist currently residing in Sydney. [Note: I’ve put updated photos on the website. One of them is a picture of the four of us. Rahni is the blonde, and Stephanie is, well, the other one. And may I just say how scary Google is? I just “googled” both the of them and got a number of solid hits. Being journalists, I found articles that Stephanie wrote, interviews that Rahni did, etc. Big brother may not be watching, but somebody sure is…]
The extraordinary thing that happened? We clicked. Aided I’m sure by the fact that we were in a similar age group (an age group that is in the minority in the sleeping cars, I can tell you), and probably by the fact that we were all relatively new to the mysteries of Amtrak travel, we soon discovered that we all really enjoyed each other’s company. Until Houston, when Michael left, we ended up eating all of our meals together, spent a great deal of time in the lounge car together, and hung out in each other’s roomette doorways, just talking. Even when one of us was otherwise occupied—Rahni had to get some work done, and Michael slept really late one morning—the rest of us were together. So much so that the staff in the lounge and dining cars started assuming that we were going to always be together, and would ask if one of us was late.
Needless to say, this made the journey significantly easier. No worries about making small talk at dinner with a new set of strangers every night: I had a fixed, comfortable set of companions for each and every meal. After Rahni had expressed interest in playing some cards—coincidentally, I had purchased a deck while on the Coast Starlight—and I taught her the rudiments of Gin Rummy, we decided that the four of us should play something. Hearts immediately came to my mind, and though none of the others knew the game, I was willing to teach it and they enjoyed learning it. That set the agenda for each night after the first: we played Hearts all evening, stopping only to eat dinner. We finally stopped when we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer, which usually was about 1:00 am.
In truth, there was a fifth member of our group, but he came and went because of a special obligation he had. Willie, my neighbor across the hall, had introduced himself when we first got on the train, but never did join us for drinks that first night. I thought at the time that we probably wouldn’t see much of him after that, but I was wrong. I noticed him at meals, always sitting with an elderly white woman. The way he was treating her, I thought at first perhaps he was related in some way. Maybe an adopted son or grandson? He always escorted her in and out of the dining car, helped her with the menu, and often fetched things for her.
On Friday, Michael and Rahni slept in, leaving Stephanie and me to fend for ourselves. We made our way to the dining car, and were seated by the steward across from Willie and his traveling companion. This gave me an opportunity to observe the two of them close up. At first, I saw nothing to contradict my original assessment. As the meal progressed, however, some of the questions the woman—Jane—asked of Willie made it clear that she was no relation. She didn’t know what kind of kids Willie had, for instance (a bunch, of varying ages in case you were wondering). I gradually grew to realize that they were in business together, or were working together, or something like that. Earlier I had had a brief interaction with Willie in which he mentioned that he was in show business in some way. He said he had done some acting, but didn’t want to elaborate. Putting two and two together, I guessed that maybe she was also in “the business.”
The four of us had a nice breakfast. Willie was turning out to be a delightful person, and I could see that he would fit into the group nicely. Jane, on the other hand, was somewhat crotchety. She was very particular about what she ate, and she had a number of strong opinions. I suspect that old age has a lot to do with that; I, like the others, gave her lots of slack. Once Jane had finished her breakfast, Willie dutifully got up and escorted her back to her room. Stephanie and I lingered a bit, and then finally made our way back to our own respective rooms. Shortly thereafter, Willie returned to his. But before he went into his room, he stuck his head into mine, told me how much he enjoyed having breakfast with the two of us, and then said, “So, did you recognize her?” I said no, and he then informed me that I had just had breakfast with Jane Russell (a bombshell in her day, she is perhaps best known for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” – see http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000066/). It turns out that he was escorting her to a gathering of older actors in Memphis. And we later figured out that he is principally employed these days as a bodyguard. (Check out http://news.findlaw.com/prnewswire/20041004/04oct2004025846.html; I’m pretty sure he’s the “Willie Green” mentioned in the article. Ouch!)
Regardless of his profession, I was absolutely right about Willie fitting into our little group. When he discovered that we had a card game going, after he saw Jane safely to bed he joined us in the lounge car. Hearts can’t be played by five people, and he didn’t know the game, so he decided to watch Rahni play and then coach her. Although he didn’t know Hearts, he knew how to play Spades and apparently they aren’t all that different. He caught on extremely quickly, and proved to be a solid partner for Rahni. The following night he joined the game again, and this time we each took turns sitting out so that he could actually play, and not just watch. I had actually invited Jane to play as well—she had mentioned during our breakfast that she knew how to play Hearts—but she chose to retire to her quarters instead. Too bad—that would have made for one heck of a story!
As we approached Houston—Michael’s destination—we all became increasingly uncomfortable. Michael started to openly consider changing his plans—he was going to see his son and (we had a hard time believing this; look at his picture) his grandson—and instead tagging along with the girls for a few days. He even went so far as to call his son and sort of jokingly suggest that he might do such a thing, just to gauge his son’s reaction. Well, Michael did get off in Houston, so you can guess how well his little “joke” went over. When the train pulled into Houston, we all got off the train to say our final farewells and, as it turns out, to meet his son. That wasn’t quite the last of him however; Stephanie received a phone call about ten minutes later from Michael. He had forgotten to tip our room steward and asked if she could take care of it for him. As we had exchanged contact information, Michael promised to reimburse her, and she agreed to do as he asked.
Though you wouldn’t know it by reading the schedule, Houston turned out to be a late night stop. Since we would arrive in New Orleans sometime the following morning, we had a very drawn-out breakfast so as to spend together as much of the time left to us as we could. Willie joined us for part of it, so the table was even full for a while. But all good things must come to an end, and when we reached New Orleans they did. New Orleans was a longer stop, so I took the opportunity to walk everyone into the station. From there, Willie and Jane headed to the ticket counter (well, Jane settled into a seat and let Willie handle the tickets) to confirm the details of the next leg of their trip. The girls gave me a hug and then headed out the front door in search of a taxi, off to their New Orleans hotel.
I’ve got to tell you that getting back on that train was very, very hard. Especially hard was seeing new people, joining the train in New Orleans, occupy the rooms that my friends had just vacated. I kept wanting to drop in on someone, but I had no one else to drop in on. These new folks were just people—strangers to me. That day, for the first time in the trip, I skipped lunch. When the dining car steward came by to take my dinner reservation, I felt a great sadness as I confirmed that indeed it would be just one for dinner that night. When 7:00 rolled around I almost skipped dinner, too, but I knew that I needed to get back into the swing of things as best I could. At dinner, the couple that I was seated with were nice enough, but try as I might I just wasn’t up to being talkative. I wasn’t completely silent, but I ate my meal quickly and then excused myself, not willing to linger any more than I had to. I hoped to relieve some of the emptiness I felt inside by talking to Nancy, but it wasn’t to be: we were in the middle of nowhere by that point and I had no cell coverage. I ended up watching a movie on my laptop, hoping that by the end we’d be somewhere with adequate coverage, but no luck. I went to bed that night feeling more alone that I had on the entire trip thus far.
They say that “time heals all wounds” and though I can’t say I’m completely healed, a night’s sleep and the process of dealing with the next morning’s arrival in Orlando (in Sanford, actually, but that’s a story for another day) did help a lot. I’m now in a hotel where although I’m a lot less likely to meet other people, I’m back online and I have great cell coverage so I can once again contact all of my regular friends. I miss you guys! Thanks for continuing to read these; they are proving to be of cathartic value (Dan and John: get out your dictionaries and look it up!) as well as serving as a record of my trip.
Next time I’ll cover some details of the Sunset Limited itself, and what it’s like to spend that much time living on a train.