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Amtrak makes holiday travel different

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 30, 2001


FLORENCE, S.C. -- Memorial Day's long weekend was a good time to visit my son in Brevard, N.C., and my friends in Asheville, N.C.

How to get there and back? My first choice was to drive my Blazer because I wanted to bring my kayak and explore the waters of the Blue Ridge and Black Mountain regions.

I studied my maps, considered mileage, drive time, gas prices, wear-and-tear on the vehicle and my intolerance of holiday rudeness on the interstate, and I decided that driving was insane. Flying was too expensive and too uninteresting, and I wanted to see things close up and not fly over them. Although I recently had traveled by rail in Eastern Europe, I had not ridden our own Amtrak in nearly a decade.

As I stood in line in Tampa for my ticket, a woman, with features that James Carville used to rag during the Clinton sex scandals, started telling me about her newly buried fiance. I grabbed my ticket and ran.

I boarded the Silver Palm at about 11 p.m. Thursday, en route to Florence. From there, I would take a bus to Columbia, S.C., then another to Greenville, S.C., where friends would fetch me and drive me to Asheville.

I rode in coach class, where money definitely is an object, where fanciness is held in contempt. Entering the first car, the reality of human habitation in a small place stunned me. On Amtrak, most passengers travel whole days without "freshening up," as it were.

On this night, my train had begun in Miami and had made 10 subsequent stops, picking up diverse ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. Long-haulers, those going beyond Florida, had set up house or had made camp. Many people had their shoes off, and babies had done their business. A black family of six was enjoying a moveable Memorial Day feast of ribs, chicken, greens, yams, corn bread and potato pie.

The attendant assigned me to an aisle seat. My mate weighed at least 300 pounds. He luxuriated as if he were home in a King-size bed. I cleared my throat and gave him the evil eye, but this fat guy did not care one red zit about my little personal space. Mercifully, I persuaded the attendant to give me another seat.

He assigned me to seat No. 7 -- in another car. Walking down the darkened aisle, I realized that most of the passengers in this car were old. An eerie silence reigned. I strained to hear soft, intermittent snores, yawns and a man muttering to himself in his sleep.

My new car was lively. I stowed my luggage and walked to the lounge, where I ordered a bottle of wine and sat behind four people, two black men, a black woman and a white man, playing bid whist. I scooped up an abandoned New York Daily News on a nearby table and began reading about Mayor Giuliani's blasting the press for writing that his women problems have distracted him from his official duties.

Suddenly, in walked the James Carville blond I mentioned. She sat beside me and launched into a morbid description of how a truck had crushed her fiance to death. I dashed to another table in the smoking area (and I do not smoke). If she had not been so loud, I could have suffered her presence. After a few minutes, I braved a trek back to the bar; the blond had disappeared. I sat at a window and watched darkness engulf the train and an occasional light rocket past. We were somewhere north of Jacksonville. Wheels clanked and rattled on the tracks.

An old black couple, seeming to have been together since the beginning of time, sat nearby. The man played one-hand solitaire, and the woman stared at him lovingly, her colorful hat cocked seductively to one side. A young white woman plopped down at my table, hugged her knees to her chin, closed her eyes and, miraculously, fell asleep.

A heavily moustached, older white man nursed cold coffee. He seemed to dislike everyone. A white teenage boy behind me -- eyes shut, Yankees baseball cap turned backward, earplugs tuned into a portable CD player -- tapped his fingers on the table. Two Asian lovers, each with intricate tatoos, kissed as if kissing were being outlawed the next day. A group of self-absorbed Rastafarians strolled through on their way to the diner.

Without warning, the giant television in the rear of the lounge came on and Bugs Bunny's mischievous face lit up the screen. Everyone in the car, even the sullen man nursing cold coffee, turned to watch. In no time, many people, including the morbid blond, were laughing.

As we neared Savannah, I realized that at least one Amtrak slogan was right: "What a difference the train makes." I am looking forward to my next rail adventure.

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