STEPHEN SMITH: Not What It Used to Be: That About Does It for Taking the Train
Mostly it was romantic illusion that lured me onto the train.
I'd been rereading "The Great Gatsby" and lingering over the railroad passages: "We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again."
And there are the trains in Thomas Wolfe's "Of Time and the River": "The train halted for a moment at one of Virginia's towns, and for a moment the people were conscious of the strange yet casual familiarity of all those sounds which suddenly will intercept the rhythmic spell of time and memory which a journey in a train can cast upon its passengers."
It had been 30 years since I'd ridden Amtrak from Southern Pines to Union Station in D.C., and the time and the price -- $103 for a round trip ticket -- suggested a new journey. Given the country's economic condition and the state of the universe, I needed to give Amtrak another chance, so I showed up at the station at 7 a.m. ready to ride.
Most of the passengers were still asleep as I walked down the aisle to find my assigned seat occupied by a gentleman who was tipping the scales at 350 pounds. He was splayed out over his seat and mine, snoring and snorting, a thin trickle of drool running onto his hand where his outsized head rested. So I walked back to the club car and found a seat as the Silver Star lurched and rattled out of Southern Pines.
As the passengers wakened and wandered past me on their way to the dining car, I began to wonder if maybe this train was headed directly to a special episode of the Jerry Springer Show entitled "When Cousins Marry." I don't mean to sound superior, but, hey, these folks were a trifle on the rough side. They obviously hadn't visited a dentist this century and most of them displayed tragically placed tattoos and painful body piercings -- not that's there anything wrong with tattoos and piercings.
But I have to admit that the Amtrak to D.C. was comfortable and on time. The trip takes about an hour longer than by car, and you can sit back and enjoy the countryside and the small towns with their boarded-up store fronts and dying main streets.
(Here's a piece of advice: If you need a rental car at Union Station, don't pick it up there. Take the Metro to Reagan Airport -- it takes about 25 minutes and costs $2.50 -- and you'll save hundreds on the rental.)
The trip back to Southern Pines was a different story. The train was late leaving, and we lost time as we traveled south. Again, I hung out in the club car so I could use my laptop on a flat surface. Unfortunately, there were a bunch of drunks on board, and I was forced to listen to their inane banter, which was enough to make me lose faith in humankind.
The highlight of my homeward journey occurred when a man was removed from the club car for refusing the conductor's request not to smoke. We lost another 45 minutes.
At dusk, I went back to my seat in the passenger car. The entertainment consisted of movies on a laptop owned by the man sitting one seat up and across the aisle. He watched two silent X-rated movies and, oddly enough, a cartoon feature entitled "Kung Fu Panda," which I found more offensive than the porn. I wondered if his battery might go dead -- the battery in his computer, that is -- but I realized he was plugged into a 110 outlet.
The Silver Star pulled into Southern Pines more than an hour late. I heard the woman who detrained with me say, "That's it for the train."
So much for romantic illusions.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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