Da Train, Da Train!

Woke in the middle of my last night in Richmond, hours before boarding my next rail car, to the distant whistle of a train skipping through town. Now that made me smile. The #94 north to New York from Richmond has just left the station, only an hour behind schedule And this time, for the first time, I have the opportunity to enjoy the Quiet Car. And it’s quiet. Quiet enough for a nap.

The last few days have been full with Cristy and Kelly time, dear friends since the late 70’s. As Cristy likes to tell her Richmond friends, she knew me before she knew Kelly. I was also lucky enough to catch up with two of their four sons. Tom (who was born a day after my own son Russell), his wife and new baby were over for pizza and Pineapple Cake night, and Barry, his wife and their bouncy one year old were over last night for Australian Meat Pie night.

Heading into Richmond a few days ago, I chatted up a couple of Amtrak employees in the snack car. The ass’t conductor, James, introduced me to the conductor, Meredith. I told them I’m a writer, gave them my card and invited them to share stories with me anytime. A while later, I was still sitting in the snack car (where I can usually be found) when James stopped and said he had his favorite story to share with me. He sat down across the table.

“I’ve got a lot of stories, some you just wouldn’t believe. But this here’s my favorite. I was sitting at a table just like this one and a bunch of women boarded and sat across there.” He nodded across the aisle. He got quite chummy with one of them – who gave him his card. She was a “Businesswoman”. He was impressed; he didn’t think a successful businesswoman would ever be interested in HIM. After some conversation about work and life, he quipped to her, “Well, listen here young lady, when we get married, there’ll be no pre-nup!”

A week or so went by, he took that card out of his pocket, figuring, what the hell, all she could do is say no. She gave him the card. So he called her and they set up a date to meet halfway between both the towns they then lived in. “I arrived right on time at the meet place. She never showed.” He was really, really angry. Really angry. After a bit of tracking her down, he reached her on the phone. Still really angry, he says to me.

No cell phones back then. She told him she’d left a message on his message machine. And yes, indeed, she had. It so happened, it was just minutes after he walked out the door. In the message, she apologized, said she had to wait for the masonry guy who was working on her home remodel. He got over his anger. They set a new time. They started seeing each other and three years later, they were married. Twenty years ago. She’s still in business and he’s still on the train.

Cristy and Kelly and their kids lived in Richmond long ago when I did, when Howie and Russell were little tykes. Mollie was born here. It was fun to be back. Cristy and I tearfully recalled the sad, sad day I left to take my little kids out to California to live. It turned out to be a very, very good choice.

The perfect artsy-fartsy couple, Cristy and Kelly have not only created amazing works of art personally, their home is a gallery of collected pieces and work their sons have done. Cristy let me go with her to her own workshop, and she and Kelly took the time to fill me in on most of their collections. Amazing stuff.

While Kelly worked and had his meetings at VCU and other work places the past few days, Cristy and I made time to visit the Napoleon exhibit “Power and Splendor” at the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts Richmond Museum of Fine Arts – Napoleon. Napoleon and his mates and underlings (I guess they were all his underlings) were all about marketing his perceived good looks, strength and power. Struck a contemporary note as well.

We roamed around the Richmond Institute of Contemporary Art. Thought provoking (and weird) stuff in there. We had a grand time of it before a tasty, tasty lunch at Can Can Restaurant, sitting outside in the warm humidity, followed by a short shopping trip in the Love of Chocolate shop, an amazing candy shop with the nicest candy shop owner, who knows the answer to any question you can ask about candy.

 

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Piece o’ cake

It’s so easy to lose track of time, what day it is, the day of the month, when I’m coming and where I’m going. Somewhere. Check my written itinerary for assurance.

The family and friend visits are the cake, the train is the icing. Put it together, a bite at a time, I’m a happy camper.

I started out on the #4 from Albuquerque to Chicago. My first sleeping night to get into my routine. Wait for the sun to go down, grab my sleeping shirts and leggings, my silk overthrow, brush my teeth and try to settle in for some sleep. That first night was terribly fitful, with my legs resting on the legrest, my feet on the foot rest, and I still couldn’t get comfortable. Since that night, I’ve learned to disregard those so-called helps. Much more comfortable, for me, to just keep my shoes on, untied, feet on the floor, get as warm as possible and relax. Amtrak really does believe in air conditioning.

At some time between 9 or 10 pm (I think), the conductor, or conductor assistant, or car attendant walks through, turns down the overhead lights, asks people to use earphones on their devices and keep the noise to a minimum. I’m floored at the conversations some people carry on – health issues, money problems, man problems. Really, the rest of us don’t want to hear that. Unless we’re taking it and writing about it! LIke the conversation this morning with the crew in the snack bar car where I sit most of the days. Big windows, smooth conversation, lots of time to think and while away the hours.

“My wife, she sees these names in my phone and doesn’t know who they are. She asks me about all these women’s names. I tell her, we’re like family here, we’re a big extended family – we have each others’ backs. She doesn’t undertand.”
Nodding and smiles all around.
“We see each other every day. That’s who we are.”
“Does she believe you yet?”
Laughter rings out. And then the singing starts, happy birthday to one of the car attendants!

Last night was my 1st overnight on the train after a few days off visiting my brother Mike and sister-in-law Lynn in Florida. What a great visit we had. Time to sit and catch up with each other, just the three of us. Then an amazing day at Epcot after a brief drive to Orlando. I got to meet some of their hilarious friends, danced with Springsteen Karoake “Dancing in the Dark”, and joined in the singing of David Allan Coe’s You Never Even Call Me By My Name. Look it up. Wait for the last verse!

And on we roll to Richmond Virginia, 9 am until noon (or so – trains do tend to arrive late, but not always) to meet up with Cristy and Kelly, friends since the late 70’s, the wild and crazy political campaign we worked. Or worked around the pinball machines.

Hear the train whistle? the Choo Choo? That’s me.

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A journey of eleven thousand five hundred miles begins with a single step.

When I purchased my Amtrak cross country trip weeks ago, back in May, I was told I could pick up the Rail Pass and boarding tickets at my first boarding, which would be in Lamy NM. OR, I could pick up them up at the San Francisco Transbay Transit (temporary) Terminal. A new (bigger and better?) one will open soon. It seems that just about everything that opens in San Francisco is bigger and better.

Anyway, being aware of just how many things can go wrong in trips like the one I’ve planned, I decided not to wait. I’m flying from SFO to Colorado on Friday. A week later, I’ll be taking a road trip to Chimayo and Lamy NM, before boarding the Southwest Chief, my first “all aboard” of many in the next several weeks.

So yesterday morning, since I was in the City anyway after spending a fun-filled night with my good friends, I made my way to the Transit Terminal.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets.”

The young woman behind the counter smiled. “This isn’t the Amtrak counter. They’re over there.”

I looked behind me, in the direction her head nodded toward. Oh, okay, I was at the Greyhound counter. “All right. Thank you.” A minute later, I was at another counter.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets, please.” Yes, that’s right. I’m usually quite polite.

“I need your I.D.” No chit chat from the young man behind the glass who didn’t bother to look up from his computer screen.

I struggled to yank the damn license out of its plastic sleeve in my wallet before passing it through the little hole under the safety glass. I waited for the guy’s response, looking around the place. Maps on the walls, tiny lego train people and assorted toy train accessories lived on a shelf behind the glass. Racks of tourist come-on brochures and flyers sat along two walls. One or two people straggle in, look around and leave.

“This trip has been canceled.” Michael reports.

“Uh…no. It hasn’t. When I purchased the tickets the charge inadvertantly went through three times and those were canceled, but not the trip,” I said, my stomach beginning to jump up and down in a drum of nerves.

He printed out and passed over to me a bunch of paper showing me the canceled trip. I looked it over and still wasn’t buying it.

“Let me get on this other terminal,” he tells me and moves five feet to his right to another keyboard. I sidestep over to watch and wait.

“I can see what they’ve done,” he says. “They’ve also overcharged you $14.”

“They? I thought you were they. You’re all Amtrak, right?”

“Yeah, but those idiots online are always screwing things up.”

I stood there patiently, thinking back to the time of original purchase, recalling that everything seemed to go so smoothly, and that the guy on the other end of the phone really knew what he was doing. Except for the triple charging of my bank account, of course. But that was blamed on the accounting unit, not the ticket seller. Sure. Yeah. Right then, I could have cared less about the $14. I just wanted the trip to be in my hand.

Many minutes crawl by. A couple more people stroll in and out of the waiting room. I ask my hopefully, savior-to-be, what his name is. It’s Michael.

“Okay,” Michael reports out. “I think I may be able to refund the $14, and restore your trip. But if it doesn’t go through, the whole thing will definitely be canceled and we’ll have to start all over again.”

Visions of no available seats for my trip swarm through my head. “Well, what are the chances you can save it all?”

“I’d say…pretty good,” he slowly drawled out his answer.

“I’ll go with pretty good.” I am a risk-taker, after-all.

Michael did indeed save my day. He figured a way to refund me the $14, print out my Amtrak Rail Pass AND my boarding passes for the next few weeks. He then took it upon himself to happily scrounge around and find each train’s time-table brochure, along with a glossy 8 x 10 inch full color map that he handed over to me. We finished our time together in short order, both of us relieved at the happy ending.

I’ll have to go online and give him a good Yelp. He is obviously not happy about the “temporary” Transbay Terminal closing in the next couple months. He indicated to me that there would be more machines than people working the place. I hope he finds a good spot to continue helping our fellow travelers.

It was after I’d walked out to the car, my hands full of passes, papers and a map that I really don’t plan to drag along with me until mid-July, that I realized I should probably hit the bathroom before my hour and a half drive home.

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It’s paint. Your guess is as good as mine.

 

And then I headed home— to do some laundry, dust the bookshelves and re-pack.

Friday is just two sleeps and a wakey away.

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