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Writing the Rails


© St. Petersburg Times

The American train is romantic for the first 20 minutes and relentless thereafter.

Like a classic femme fatale, it lured me with hints of satisfaction, then punished me for 23 hours. I was seduced by visions of me at a table in the diner, crossing my silverware on the plate after finishing a delicately prepared chicken breast, dabbing at my mouth with a cloth napkin to the traditionally soothing of click-clack and the passing American landscape out the train window. But dinner on the Tampa-New York Silver Palm found me ripping plastic from the laminated turkey sandwich in my lap, accompanied by the cracking of the bones in my back. Pretzels and a soda were my escargot and Sauvignon.

Not that I could have afforded the diner, even if it didn't resemble a roller-rink snack bar. But train travel suggests something special. Before you begin scoffing at my, um, railing, know that I've seen the better part of Europe through train windows, glowed red from radishes eaten on a Ukrainian train, stood in the glow of my Moroccan train as it burned after exploding, and raised tea toasts to New Year 1996 on a train full of sleeping Chinese.

I know and love trains the world over. And yet, until this summer, I had never taken a train in the United States.

When I told friends I was going to New York and they asked, "What airline?" I responded, "Amtrak; only $18 more than the plane and you get an extra 20 hours' travel." The train alone surprised them, but the fact that it cost more than a round-trip plane ticket rendered my decision incomprehensible. My romanticism weathered a steady line of shaking heads.

Ten p.m. on a Tuesday; my ticket was waiting behind thick glass at the station. I was behind a line of worn people and a 40ish woman who sucked her fingers and clutched a pillow she may very well have named.

Seats were assigned by a man holding a clipboard as passengers boarded the train. The ticket agent assured me this man was nice. "Just ask for a window, and he'll give you one," the agent said. Five minutes later I asked, "Can I please have a window seat?" The man smiled up at me. "Sure thing," he said, and gave me an aisle. I've no doubt the seat guy loves his job.

At this point, I confronted what was to be one of the most memorable parts of the journey: my chair. Though it appeared comfortable, padded, with what was apparently a stick shift, a large button and enough angles to imply sufficient engineering, it was wholly terrible.

In retrospect, I believe it was a reupholstered dental chair from the 1920s, with minor modifications. There was, for example, a board that folded out behind my legs. This board ended at the calves, thus cutting off circulation to my feet. The board was dropped back in place by throwing the stick shift into first. The shifter, a ball-headed lever to my left, had no other purpose. It was all quite impressive and pointless. Behind the stick was a large button that reclined the seat. What the airlines accomplish with a small, flat disc required a paper-cup sized plunger on my chair. Again, impressively ridiculous.

The chair's effect was apparently universal as, following a rude 2 a.m. jolt, a chorus of obscenities accompanied discussions over which body parts were numb and which were given up as lost.

Ah, the train. There I was, massaging tactfully accessible numb parts and being laughed at by my seatmate, a New York lawyer who was on board only because his aunt refused to fly on the family vacation.

"Hey, check out why this guy's on the train," he said to his unbelieving relatives. "Wow, you must be kinda stupid, huh?" said his sister.

"No, no, no!" I kept insisting to myself, "This is a privileged view of our country. This is better, this is special."

And you know what? I started looking, and I saw it. I saw a busted-up dock on a river and a bare-chested old fisherman surrounded by kids. I saw smokestacks like castles on the horizon, trees like cotton candy, tobacco and town squares, and a beautiful black woman dressed in bright colors, barefoot in the street with her hands on her hips.

I saw a community theater in Delaware that sits right up against the tracks, museum-quality graffiti on a Philadelphia overpass and a million other wonders. It was like leafing through the scrapbook of the most interesting person you've ever known ... while someone pokes you with a stick. I can say from experience that a freight car is more comfortable.

Nevertheless, the train offers something most people need: a look at where they're coming from, where they're going to, and what they're going through. It's a chance to relate to everyone else living in the country.

America's trains have the run of two shining seas and a world in between. It may have been a rough seat and precious little romance inside the train I rode, but at just $18 more than the plane, it could be the bargain of a lifetime. Reade Tilley is a free-lance writer living in the Tampa Bay area.

Originally published November 9, 1997

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