With another command family trip to Florida in my near future, I repbublish an OBG (oldie but goodie) about my one and only train ride to the Sunshine State. There’s a reason why I only made this voyage just once. Read on to find out why.
Frequent flyer miles? Business class super service? Supersonic jets? They’re all excellent catch phrases for an industry which aims to attract the traveler in the fast lane. Clearly, for the businessman who needs to be at a distant boardroom – or the vacationer who wants to maximize his enjoyment of those precious two weeks the corporation gives him, flying to one’s destination is the quickest and most preferred method.
But what about people like retirees, students, or freelancers who aren’t on such a tight schedule? Maybe they’d like to enrich their travel experience by actually seeing the country they’re passing through (instead of flying over), and/or meeting some interesting strangers along the way. Well, if like me, you’re one of those eccentric types who has the time and inclination to turn a two hour trip into a 24 hour marathon, Amtrak is definitely America’s alternative for us retro dudes!
For me, a command family performance in South Florida (the location of mom’s new condo) was the occasion which prompted my virginal Amtrak voyage. A few wild train-riding stories from some of my bohemian East Village friends, and a very late decision to actually make the reunion sealed my fate. The Amtrak round trip ticket was only $138 (just a week in advance). Spur of the moment flights to Florida were more than twice the cost so I decided to make tracks – so to speak.
The first advantage to the rail plan involved a 20 minute bus ride to Penn Station instead of the much less palatable $20 cab ride from hell to La Guardia Airport. With the extra time and money, I stopped off at my local Chinese take-out and packed a lunch special before hopping mass transit to the train depot.
And it wasn’t five minutes before I was settled in at my seat than we were already on our way to Florida. So far so good – for a brief moment.
“Who said you could sit here?” the conductor interrogated me as I was opening my lunch special.
“Nobody,” I snapped back. “Do I need an engraved invitation?”
“This is a seat for wheelchair riders. You can’t sit here,” he insisted and offered two or three others that were available.
Of course, a label on the seat or some sort of direction from a conductor as I was boarding might have been appropriate. But naturally, he made no observation therein and forced me to pack up and move on. The fact that I had to choose one particular seat for the entire trip wasn’t to my liking either. I’m a nomadic type of guy; nobody told me I was to be gagged and bound to one seat for the duration.
But it wasn’t all bad in those first few revealing minutes. I noticed that each car had about twenty little televisions mounted all along the luggage rack. Yes! They have movies. (And let me tell you – on a 24 hour ride, you can really catch up on some viewing. On the way down, I watched Forrest Gump twice, Clear and Present Danger, Corinna Corinna and something about a talking dolphin whose name I can’t recall.)
As luck would have it, the only television within view of my second seat was broken. The conductor had no choice but to switch me again – while murmuring something under his breath. Who cares if he liked me? I paid my money in advance and I wanted to see my movies!
The first couple of hours were great. I had two seats to myself and was quite content in my little headphoned world watching America’s favorite movie. But as we rolled into Philadelphia, the train filled and I found that the vacant seat next to me had been occupied by a not-too-attractive and as bad luck would have it, overly friendly female. I weathered the storm until she fell asleep – virtually on top of me.
Again, I summoned the conductor for a seat change, pointing at the prostrate body draped on top of me as what would surely be my last legitimate excuse for such a request. This time I put myself in the back – near a broken door which stayed open letting frigid Arctic air into the car. I froze for a while and then mustered the courage to hassle the conductor for the fourth time!
“Uh…excuse me sir. Can we close this door?” I asked sheepishly.
“Not really,” came his reply. “We’ve been trying to fix it for hours.”
I gave him a cross-eyed look: “Do I get a rebate for freezing half to death?”
He gave me a cross-eyed look back. This time the frayed conductor showed me the list of every available seat and commanded “This is your last chance.” Finally – and mercifully – I settled in with a Colombian family on their way to Disney World.
It was a poor choice. The 14 year-old boy who sat next to me was an even more intrusive sleeper than the girl. He rested his head on my shoulder several times, and occasionally awakened to say something to me as if I knew who he was. After a while, the whole situation was so outrageous I found myself laughing out loud. What the hell! I can take anything for a day!
Having solved my seating crisis to the best of my ability, I watched two more movies and then decided it was time to roam around the train and scare up some activity. The lounge car which was where people were supposed to congregate and interface was totally repulsive. Everybody was smoking and drinking…and butts and beer cans were strewn all over the diner style tables. The air was unspeakable…not to mention the decor and ambiance, which made The Waffle House look like The Russian Tea Room.
Enough of that! I continued down the line through the sleeping cars and to the caboose where I discovered an open door which led to a small chained-off outdoor observation platform. I could actually stand outside and watch the landscape whiz by behind the train!
Wow! This was just my style! Now I knew why I’d taken Amtrak in the first place. Guess again! The conductor caught me from behind and of course, told me the one thing that looked like fun on this hell ride was off limits to passengers. I feigned obedience but resolved to buck his authority in the wee hours.
Back in my seat, I studied the reprints an editor had sent me as guidelines for an assigned piece and after finishing them, realized that in the absence of owning a lap top, I’d better bring a book for the return trip – if I valued my sanity. In the absence of both, I spent the wee hours listening to rural country music stations on my Walkman and watching the Piggly Wiggly’s roll by each time we passed through and stopped at a small southern town. And actually, I liked those quiet hours staring out the window and listening to heartland music as my adolescent seat mate rested his weary head on my shoulder.
Around 3 A.M., I made my second assault on the caboose and this time was successful. The conductor was snoring like a grizzly bear as I passed him! The ride on the platform was everything I’d hoped for…noisy, fast, scenic and aromatic.
“Hey! you can’t ride the wing of an airplane,” I thought to myself. “This here is what it’s all about – smelling the Spring Georgia air and watching the rails disappear behind me at 80 miles per hour!” I stood there mesmerized for at least a half hour before I’d had my fill.
Daybreak brought the expected wake-up activity – with everyone scampering for the dining car or snack bar. I figured I’d treat myself and have a first class meal. The dining car experience was another plus. Not that the food was so great – but the early morning route through Northern Florida, riding by trailer parks and one horse towns flying The Confederate Flag really hit the spot – that the food did not.
The old timer I dined with was amiable as well. Our bonding was so complete that he even took me on a guided tour of his sleeper, a cramped accommodation which I definitely did not feel was worth the price.
By Orlando, most of the train exited – or at least enough people so I could have two seats to myself! And I slept like a baby for at least two hours. At 4 P.M., I arrived at West Palm – and there was mom, right on time to fetch her baby boy!
“So, Billy! How was the trip?” she asked with a note of sarcasm in her voice.
“Oy vay” pretty much summed up the entire experience in two words.
One week later, after a wonderful visit during which I got severely sunburned, I was on my way back to NYC – on you guessed it – the train. With one Amtrak voyage under my belt, I knew how to make this trip better.
First, I purchased some light reading – “Private Parts” by Howard Stern – for those incredibly boring and restless moments. And second, I chose my seat mate much more carefully this time.
After reconnoitering the car, I picked a sixty or seventy something black man as my partner. Leroy was a two pension retiree who’d traveled almost every Amtrak route and really knew the ropes. Once I’d told him I was a cab driver/freelance writer, he took to me immediately and we remained buddies for the entire trip.
“You know…when we get to Jacksonville, the train stops for an hour and we can get off and go to this terrific discount bakery. I hate paying these Amtrak prices!” he complained.
“Is there a Mickey D’s or a 7 Eleven?” I asked excitedly. He responded in the affirmative. YES! Burgers and brews! I’ve died and gone to heaven.
The conductor announced that we would be stopping for just a few minutes but Leroy assured me that was just a ploy to keep passengers from wandering off and purchasing food and drink at a reasonable price. He assured me the stop would be exactly an hour – and he was right.
Exiting the train post haste, I got a full intoxicating dose of the outskirts of Jacksonville, not to mention a Big Mac and a couple of quarts of Old Milwaukee. Leroy had the cups; I had the beers; and we were all set. Soon, we were joined by a young post-era hippy who’d just been released from prison for the heinous crime of consuming and selling hallucinogenic drugs while following The Grateful Dead around the country.
“I’m going to Montana…I need some wide open space, man!” explained the youth. I wasn’t surprised he’d feel that way after spending 19 months behind bars. Anyway, felony conviction notwithstanding, I liked the guy. It was refreshing to see that the peace and love ethic lived on in “Montana Mike” as I named him forevermore.
I dragged Mikey on the obligatory trip to the caboose viewing platform, an experience which was enhanced by the arrival of two young Puerto Rican girls from Philadelphia sharing a phat doobie. So I partied with the younger generation for a while and then begged off to catch a snooze back at my seat. The rest of the trip I immersed myself in Howard’s ridiculous book, the perfect “drug” for the endless voyage.
By the time I got home, I was so dog tired I fell asleep on my recliner and awakened 70 years later with a long white beard. And how do I feel about my Amtrak experiment in retrospect? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world…but I’d never do it again!