Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Train Trip - Part Two

NOTE: this post is rated PG-13 for an instance of mild strong language.


If you feel you need an introduction, perhaps you haven’t read my previous post, “Train Trip – Part 1.” Or perhaps you don’t need this introduction at all, and yet here it is, like that weird snub-nosed hair dryer provided in a hotel room, or those gross individually-wrapped toothpaste-flavored candies in the glass bowl at an otherwise great restaurant. (This introduction exists for the sake of form; I try for a certain consistency with these posts, having not yet read enough Donald Barthelme to develop better habits.) Suffice to say I’m in a huge rush, writing a bit here in the observation lounge before the rest of the family wakes up. Thus, there may not be any structure to this post, and it may run a bit long. The Times regrets—no, wait, the Times breathes a huge sigh of relief—that it isn’t paying me by the word, nor, in fact, at all.

Train architecture

I’m in the observation lounge, looking out the huge window at, uh, Kansas I think. It’s easy to get disoriented when you wake up on a train that’s been cruising along at 70 mph all night. To my left is the bar. So far on this trip there has been no activity at the bar: no drinks served, no bartender, no booze inventory. Just a little sink and the kind of faucet where you push the glass against a half-ring, and two small fridges built into the cabinetry. I picture a time, back when Americans drank cocktails, when this bar would have been the nerve center of the entire observation car: guys with narrow neckties and short haircuts drinking highballs. You can still get beer on the train, but it’s downstairs in the cheerless little snack bar among the Doritos and refrigerated box sandwiches. (Of course, this car is gorgeous, and has no need for a two-drink minimum.)

I’ve often filled our water bottles here at this abandoned bar, reaching over its low partition, feeling vaguely subversive. If anybody gives me a hard time about this it’ll be the Scoutmaster to my right, who is presiding over six or eight Boy Scouts on this train. The other day this Scoutmaster scowled at me hard for no apparent reason, though I’ve decided the scowl might just be his natural expression. He doesn’t look happy at all, though perhaps I wouldn’t be either if I had to wear a full Boy Scout uniform in public throughout my vacation.

Anyhow, yesterday evening I saw somebody manning the bar for the first time, but it was a college-age girl, standing behind the partition working on her laptop PC. I couldn’t figure out why she chose that area, having to stand and risking the wrath of the Scoutmaster, when there were seats available. (She wasn’t serving drinks, needless to say.) This morning the mystery is solved: she was there for the electrical outlet. This train, though it looks a lot like the one we took east toward Chicago, is evidently a bit older and doesn’t have electrical jacks running along the walls. The other one had plenty of them (each labeled “120 Volts” since probably half the passengers on these trains are foreigners). The only electrical outlet in the whole car is that one at the bar. I’ve got my laptop cord snaked through there and hope to have my battery back to 100% before the Scoutmaster notices.

Situation room

Downstairs from the observation lounge is the snack bar and a restroom that mainly serves the coach passengers. This restroom is certainly harder-used than the ones in the sleeper cars. We only use it when the kids need a restroom during our meal, as it’s quicker to get here via the observation lounge than to go back through the sleeper cars. During one meal I stood outside the restroom, chaperoning Alexa, when another passenger (ball cap, sleeveless t-shirt, slack jaw, paunch) went right by me toward it. It didn’t occur to him that I was in line. I guess he thought I just preferred standing over sitting, and preferred restroom-perfumed air to fresh. I said, “Hey, dumbass, you think I’m just standing here for my health?”

No, of course I didn’t really say that. I said, “There’s someone in there.” He replied, “Both of ‘em?” and continued down the short dead-end hallway. There is of course only one restroom there. I replied, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a second one.” When the guy discovered there was only one restroom, he said, “Oh, my goodness, right you are! I’ll line up behind you like any reasonable person.” No, of course he didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything: he just tried the latch on the one restroom, where Alexa was. I guess he figured I was lying about the restroom being occupied, or was somehow mistaken, or perhaps he thought that tiny door would miraculously open out into a giant multi-stall men’s room. Alexa called out, “Excuse me, I’m in here.” The guy came back out past me, mouth-breathing, his brain unable (through overexertion or sheer paralysis) to contrive a facial expression. This is the beauty of a train: aren’t you glad this idiot isn’t on the highway instead, buzzing along at 80 in his Ford Expedition, changing lanes without checking his blind spot?

Off the train

Last Thursday we got off the train in Chicago. It had been a great three days but the kids were starting to become unstable, in the way that a nuclear reactor sometimes does. Their roughhousing was becoming more violent and unstructured, approaching that of two little boys (which of course I have no stomach for). My attempts to calm my daughters down were failing. I put a stack of pillows between them; these became weapons. I felt my authority slipping away: the kids would desist for only moments before gradually going at each other again. If Joan Didion had been trapped in our little sleeping car, she’d have said, “The center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

The train was only about four hours late, which wasn’t bad at all over such a long distance, with a freight train derailment along the line. (Amtrak pays the freight companies to use their tracks.) Our checked bag, however, took another forty-five minutes to reach us. It’s hard to know, in a train station you’ve never set foot in, that you’re in the right place, that there isn’t an evil twin baggage claim area that actually has your stuff. There were no announcements of any kind concerning any of this, and when I asked somebody in an Amtrak uniform what was up, he said, “Oh, it’s on the way. They had to wake up baggage.”

We spent the night in Chicago (our hotel, which we’d paid for in advance, was overbooked and they sent us down to a “sister property” and refunded our money!) and we spent the next morning recombobulating ourselves. Then we had lunch at an Italian place called Volare. Glorious! Look at this pappardelle alla Bolognese I had:

As I cropped the photo just now, this big black woman passing behind me must have looked over my shoulder because she said, “Mm-mmm-mmh.” And she’s right.

It was hot and sunny and humid in Chicago. We found a little pocket park with a fountain. The kids were instructed not to get wet. They got drenched. Erin said, “I can’t believe they got wet!” I replied, “I can’t believe you can’t believe they got wet!”

There’s a big park in Chicago next to the naval pier, and a nice stretch of beach. The kids wrestled on the grass for at least an hour. Instead of running all over Chicago (in the heat and humidity) and trying to tick off items on a metaphorical tourist’s checklist, we just spent the afternoon at this park relaxing.

Unreasonably close to the departure of our next train—which would take us a short distance up to Michigan to visit some friends—we suddenly became ambitious and headed to the John Hancock building. It’s not as tall as the Tower Formerly Known As Sears but has the best view in the city, according to our waiter at Volare. To be precise, he recommended the view from the women’s bathroom in the 96th floor lounge. The elevator made all our ears pop. Here’s the view Erin and the girls got to see:


There is no window at all in the men’s room of the 96th floor lounge.

It was a bit tight making our train to Michigan. I have a vivid memory of my kids sprinting down the platform ahead of Erin and me, the train seething and groaning next to us.

Michigan was excellent. Among other attractions, there is a gorgeous beach near New Buffalo:

After a lovely few days with our friends we headed back to Chicago, where we locked up our luggage in the baggage claim room at the station. This took twenty-five minutes because it involved a fingerprint reader that wasn’t working. The attendant got it basically working and I managed to cram our carry-on bags in the locker. On the way to checking our last bag I realized I’d locked up our tickets with the carry-ons. I went back, released our baggage, checked out the locker again—only it assigned me a different one so I had to move everything—and then when we checked that last bag we finally learned the location of the mythic passenger lounge where they’ll hold your bags for free. (I’ll be making a voodoo doll of the person at the information desk who played dumb about this lounge and directed us to the lockers.) By now we’d wasted not only $12 but too much time to go up in the Tower Formerly Known As Sears. Here’s an exterior shot, anyway:

We still had time to head over to Giordano’s for real Chicago-style pizza. (Doubtless a local would contest the “real” label, since Giordano’s is a chain, but so is Uno, and we have no guide, so what could we do?) Regardless, it was tasty:

(Note, in that photo, how assiduously Lindsay is wiping salad dressing off her plate so as not to taint her pristine pizza.) In case you’re wondering how this ‘za compares to other offerings, it’s quite similar to Zachary’s in Berkeley, whereas Uno (the original one) is more similar to Little Star in San Francisco. Uno and Little Star are single-crust pies with a cornmeal crust. Giordano’s and Zach’s are double-crust pizzas. Overall, I found Giordano slightly inferior to Zach’s: the sauce isn’t as bright or zesty. (Uno outside of Chicago, meanwhile, is greasy in a Pizza Hut way, though I still like it a lot.)

We have many dozens of itchy souvenirs from Michigan: during movie night, outdoors near the swimming pool, we were absolutely feasted upon by mosquitoes, despite taking every precaution. We’d worn socks, shoes, long pants, long-sleeved shorts, bug spray that smelled like Thai food, and even these Lawrence of Arabia hats, provided by our hosts, that covered our necks—but all to no avail. I slaughtered a good many mosquitoes, but clearly not enough. My entire back is a night sky of welts—you could make out any number of constellations. At least the bites are small (perhaps due to the allergy shots I get?) compared to that of our host, whose back was a raised topographical map of mountainous welts. Erin got it really bad, too, on her legs: evidently those insect bastards could bite right through her pants. Alexa has one on her face and another on her neck, poor kid. Next time it’s jeans and a denim jacket, kitchen gloves, and rubber waders.


During dinner the other night, we crossed over the Mississippi River. It was all but unmistakable given its vast size, but since the waitress was right there we asked her if it was indeed the Mississippi. She glanced out the window as if she’d never seen the river before, and said she really didn’t know. As she turned to head to the kitchen area, I said to Erin and the kids, “I did hear one guy say that this was the largest body of water west or east of the Mississippi.” The waitress turned back and said, “Is that right?” (This is what we in the amateur comedy industry refer to as “collateral damage.”)

Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa offer multiple—no, countless—no, almost continuous—opportunities to look at cornfields flying by.

If a Martian landed on this train and looked out the window for a few days, he would probably conclude that corn is the main thing we humans eat. And yet all these cornfields aren’t abounding with the sweet corn that humans can eat; it’s all for cattle. So the question is, where is all this cattle? In feed lots, of course, and though rolling by a feed lot or two would be educational for the kids, I’m just as glad they’re not on display here.

We also pass by fields of soy, though I somehow missed my opportunity to photograph them. At least the kids got to see them. In their bedroom at home is a U.S. map showing (via cartoonish drawings) the main industries and exports of each state. Northern California has a picture of a semiconductor, which my kids easily recognized. Around Iowa in the map is a little bag labeled “soy.” Soybeans are among our country’s largest exports but nobody knows what the plants look like. For the record, they’re darker green and lower than cornstalks, and leafier. Not as characteristic as the cornstalks—or is it just that they’re not as ubiquitous here?

This isn’t to say the scenery is boring. The rows of manicured crops create nice optical effects if you blur then focus your eyes. The abundance is kind of soothing. Meanwhile, I get to watch freight trains, which pass by regularly. The sheer range of vintages and styles of these trains never ceases to fascinate me. Watching them at stations is the best way: when they come by, you can feel the vibration in your feet and the wind coming off of them. They are serious industrial beasts. Best of all, when I'm traveling by train I don’t have to look at automobiles. In general, I hate cars. If you asked me to rate each car we saw as we drove along an American highway, I’d say, “Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, passable, ugly, ugly, hideous, ugly, ugly, okay, ugly, ugly, passable.” And there are too many lousy drivers on the road to give me complete peace on road trips. The train is really the better way to go.

Check back soon for Train Trip Part 3 – Dining Car Ewok Meatloaf Special!

dana albert blog

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