As we pull out of Penn Station and begin to roll along the Hudson River, I can imagine, if only barely, how the river looked to its namer when he sailed up it in one of those ships I know from historical dioramas: the short cliffs, the trees massed thickly enough to hide, now, the myriad houses of the city’s elite who for decades have settled here.
Am I a settler, or a discoverer? Temperamentally, I ally myself with the discoverers although my life has made a settler out of me, almost by chance. But on the train, I reclaim my original identity, to discover, visually, at least, a part of the U.S. I have never known.
Now here comes a barge with a strange insect-like pusher (perhaps everything on this river deserves a made-up name) and then the narrow parks and playing fields that underlie the upper West Side.
That Henry Hudson wouldn’t have seen, of course—the railings along the bank, the concrete, the benches—but he would have noticed the confluence with the Harlem River. Here, the Amtrak brochure states with satisfaction, university rowing teams sometimes help the city’s police by discovering the floating dead—generations of young athletes, now including girls, leaning on their oars while the offending object is identified as yes, in spite of all appearances, human.
Now we are at the top edge of Manhattan, where the old brick warehouses remind me of the outskirts of other towns, except one here has a new sign, KARASAKI, as though revived by a foreign infusion. The further from Wall Street and Fifth Avenue, the closer to that other United States—the western expanses a nice lady at lunch apologized for to her sister, explaining she’d visited friends in Kansas because they were briefly stranded there for their first jobs.
I remember that confidence, built on the conviction of being in the right place, the only place—Manhattan—at the right, the essential time, symbolized for me by the handsome young husband helping his wife to choose an evening dress at a Fifth Avenue department store, a dress for a designated occasion, for a designated life, neither of them ever a good fit for me, a westerner to my core who took most of my life to find the West.
We are out so quickly, far faster than on the Long Island Expressway or any of the other radials filling and emptying the city. By this time on an airplane, the earth itself would have vanished as I settled blindly into discomfort, severe constraint, and the unwelcome presence of strangers. Here in my bedroom I have all the homely comforts of a doll house: a tiny sink, ice water in a special, miniature tap, a double window, a long couch which will become in good time my bed, a facing seat for my feet, a tiny bathroom with toilet and overhead shower that seems a miracle of convenience and thrift. The water goes off before there can be any long luxurious and wasteful soaking; the sleeping car attendant advises me to get wet, soap, and rinse off—which might seem punitive but instead fits neatly into the whole doll house scenario.
Pink and grey clouds, soft as eiderdown, float over the sky that is still a washed out blue, and the sunset reflects dimly in the watered-silk expanses of the widening Hudson, where ducks float in fleets. Tall reeds at the edge of an estuary screen the cars rushing back and forth. We do not equal their speed.
Croton-Harmon, our first stop, was once where the trains exchanged their electric engines for steam or diesel, preparing for long hauls north or west. At the station, a girl sits forlornly with her back to the train—why do all people who are waiting look forlorn, as though abandoned by their futures?—and police cars and pick-ups lounge in the parking lot.
John Cheever lived near here after he abandoned the city. “The Enormous Radio,” his first short story to gain attention, recreates the long-ago intimacy of a middle-class Manhattan apartment building, where conversations are broadcast through the walls on the radio. What peace he found here in the suburbs was founded upon many contradictions, foremost among them his determination to pass as a country squire, as a generation earlier William Faulkner posed in Mississippi in riding clothes with fox hounds in attendance. No writer is ever enough.
Empty slips—sailing season is over—and a few hoisted and shrouded motorboats prove that leisure here is still a pursuit, contradicted by the wild tangle of forgotten undergrowth, weed forests, along the tracks. We are in the midst of climate change worries yet somehow these great waste spaces survive as well as two ivory swans floating on a private lake. No one can take care of the world and yet it seems somehow that the world, at least along these old tracks, is managing to take care of itself, if we would only leave it alone.
Dusk is gathering, soon to obscure the landscape or replace it with reflections in my blurred window. The sleeping car attendant, a handsome and gracious black man (once the railroad offered the best jobs black men could hope for, protected by a powerful union) comes by to take my dinner reservation, warning me that everyone else also wants to eat at seven. Well, I won’t eat earlier.
The dining car company (you’re not allowed to sit alone) sometimes produces surprises, such as a brave man who suggested spending the night with me—an offer I politely refused—reminding me of Mary McCarthy’s short stories about train conquests. Amtrak should make use of that in their advertisements, if they would only advertise. Assignations between strangers are certainly arranged on airplanes, or used to be, before the situation became so glum, but a seduction in an airplane bathroom, if technically possible, loses its charm compared to my big bed with its white pillowcases and freshly starched sheets. After all in seductions as in everything else, the context makes all the difference.
Peekskill comes next, noted for a meteorite that poked a hole in the trunk of a 1980 Chevrolet Malibu, but far more significant to me because of an Episcopalian convent where the woman who raised and loved me spent her last years taking care of dying nuns. When I visited Lucy there, she seemed the true spirit of the grim place, threading the corridors in her laced-up orthopedic shoes, bringing comfort to those ancient women marooned in their tiny rooms.
Such a sense of distance—that’s what I love most about the train. Although we are less than two hours out of New York, this stop at Poughkeepsie evokes the distances of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” by means of darkness, parked cars—abandoned, they always seem to be—and a small lighted storefront advertising an ATM and coffee, the OPEN neon pink. For someone getting off the train here, a stranger to the place, that lighted storefront would seem to offer hope of connection, a person behind the counter, a sense of direction, an advisor—but what if the storefront was closed? The station itself is already dead and dark.
Poughkeepsie would have seen flocks of young women in gloves and hats waiting to take the train to the city and hopeful mischief, but now Vassar’s undergraduates, males and females, would scorn this slow passage. Better to sit in a traffic jam on the outskirts than to accept the slow meandering of the train.
It’s pitch dark by the time we pull into Albany (on the train, it’s always “we,” unthinkable on the airlines) and Coco, the other sleeping car attendant, tells us we can get out for a breath of fresh air.
This stop seems ominously final. The lights in the train go out, and as though to compensate, a crooner’s tune seeps into the car, either from the station or some other source, it’s impossible to tell.
I get off since there is nothing else to do in the dark and find myself in a real station, one of those old timers tiled with gleaming yellow and orange tiles, mahogany details, and a working coffee shop and magazine stand. We are still in commuter territory. I wonder if anyone besides me is planning to ride halfway across the country.
The “all aboard” is without drama and the lights in the car go on again.
A few hours later, we are rattling through dense darkness somewhere west of Albany on the way to Schenectady, billed as the home of “the oldest planned campus in the country”—were the others unplanned?—Union College, where Jimmy Carter “began graduate studies in nuclear physics in 1953”—a curious fact, which seems unrelated to his later career. But my undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College might also seem unrelated, since that genteel course of study in 19th-century British writers, minus George Eliot and the Brontes, hardly explains what I’ve become.
In the diner, the usual awkward silence when strangers are asked to sit together is broken when the man of the couple across from me speaks, and I tell him and his wife—Todd and Betsy—that I ride the trains as my contribution to the slowing of global warming. Although Amtrak, unfortunately, fails to capitalize on the enormous difference between airplane and car emissions and what their locomotives produce, more of us are becoming aware of the difference this makes over time.
To my delight, these Vermonters are riding the train to Denver for the same reason. This is the first time I’ve found fellow passengers committed to doing what we can in the name of global survival. Of course I also ride the trains because I love it, but this does nothing to mitigate my passion for reducing my carbon footprint in any way I can.
We have a long and spirited discussion about Vermont’s antiquated and dangerous Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, the future of their former governor, Howard Dean, the obliviousness of most of the country to the problems we face, and our hopes that even half-hobbled by a new Republican majority in the House, the Democrats can find the energy to preserve the accomplishments of the Obama administration—this over a delicious although unrecognizable braised lamb bone, for me, and chicken and trout for my new acquaintances.
At one point, I ask whether if one of us stood up and asked who else in the diner is riding the train for the sake of the future, there would be any answers, or whether embarrassment and silence would take over. None of us dares to take the risk, but I imagine the day will come—and it is not far off—when this rallying cry will become a shriek of desperation.
K. Howard, the handsome and suave dining car attendant, wonders whether anything that Amtrak proposes, such as recycling their plastic waste, is really happening. We have all grown cynical, wary of easy promises, in this first decade of the twenty-first century.
I leave the diner, negotiate my shower in the tiny bathroom—how good it feels, what a simple and obvious solution to over-use of water, the tiny cabinet with a toilet and a hand-held spray. And then to bed with the curtains open so I can see the western New York state towns we will be passing through, although at the moment the uninterrupted darkness of the countryside reminds me that we are still, at least in part, a rural nation.
Not able to bring myself to draw my navy blue curtains, I wake up many times during the night to the glare of lights in small towns across Indiana; it’s worth it—I will sleep solidly at home—to have glimpses of those empty streets, the glaring green Walgreen’s sign, the stingy trees. Why so many lights are left to blaze all night in empty town centers is a mystery to me; are we terrified even of the dark we don’t see? The stars are long forgotten, and I no longer see in toy stores those paste-up constellations that used to decorate my sons’ bedroom ceilings. Even I only recognize the Big Dipper, as though the all-night illumination of our towns has erased even my memory of the stars.
A pleasant woman who shares my breakfast tells me she moved from California to Chicago to be with a widowed daughter, but she’s going back to the sun. Chicago’s grayness sent her into a depression, and I remember my decades of struggle in New York City to deal with the endless darkness of the winters.
South Bend: a smart-looking woman in a long dark topcoat backs an orange garbage cart at furious speed down the platform, and an elderly man gets out to smoke his pipe. We are warned by public address at these “smoke stops” that “We will leave you” if the all-aboard comes too late for someone lingering on the other side of the station. To be left here in South Bend without coat or luggage might be a strange experience, especially since most of the passing trains are freights, like the one hurtling by now with a scream.
How long has it been since anyone hopped a freight, that rite of passage for Depression-era writers? And why do we have to go to a siding and stop to allow the freights to pass? It seems we must offer obeisance to these emblems of the way the rails still make money.
Gary, Indiana: it begins with a mountainous cloud of pure white smoke—what does it contain? could it be as innocent as it looks?—rising above a long line of sealed warehouses, as though the innards of those buildings were being released in the form of whiteness, purity, hope. (And now we stop for one of those freights that is made up of empty upright forms, going somewhere to be filled.) We are in a forest of pylons, old and new, tall, angular metal forms stringing webs of wires across what was once prairie. We halt near a towering row of a dozen or so abandoned mill buildings, painted barn red, embossed with huge pipes that must have once carried the fuel for whatever they were making. Rusted freight cars, parked for an eternity, wait outside.
But there is still life here: two men in green day-glow suits climb out of a truck, and farther along this desolation, another truck is trundling. The scale of this wasteland is amazing: hundreds of empty freight cars, black bridges linking nowhere to nowhere, more pylons, wires by the thousands sloping between them, slanted covered walkways with blocked windows that once carried something from mill to mill; a great gaunt drawbridge, lifted forever over a canal peered into by loading booms, workless for decades, and now again a huge factory building, black, this time, a trail of steam sneaking from a vent like a dying breath.
Coal in great heaps, brought in, deposited, and left, comes next, and the rattled remains of a half-mile-long structure of long-lost purpose. CSX train cars piled high with what looks like gravel but is probably coal, or coke, wait as though eventually an engine will come along and shove them away, but who knows? They may have waited there since the turn of the last century.
Sunrise pinks a stanchion; could it be called beautiful? The highway overpass, a modern thing, has a gentle curve. There are bare trees here, inalterably elegant, and stranded weeds. Where and when was my aesthetic born? Probably in the England of the imagined nineteenth century, unadorned by Milton’s “dark satanic mills.”
But these mills are not satanic. They are blasted, finished, useless, and the lives of the thousands that toiled there, immigrants from all over the world, have left no mark or record.
Now we ride smoothly along the shores of Lake Michigan, an impossible blue, unrelated to what used to happen and is happening still along its shores: a huge black water purification plant that looks exactly like its ruined neighbors but is not ruined. It is operating, feeding purified water to Chicago.
And now the little outlying towns, which may have seemed remote from the great works even in the time of their flourishing, as though it was possible like D.H. Lawrence’s miners to come home, wash up in a pail on the back porch, and sit down to a hearty meal salted with resentment. A church spire punctuates most blocks, source of comfort if not hope for the women, but the present is here, as well, in a sign hanging from a brick wall, “MORTGAGES HERE NOW.” The train is not close enough to see the foreclosure signs that must line these small urban front yards, foreclosures brought on by the unsustainable mortgages still advertising their impossible dreams.
The president might walk these streets when he talks about rebuilding our industry, might try to imagine how we will ever dispose of these acres of ruined buildings, ruined machinery, while preserving these humble frame two-stories and their plain chain-link-fenced yards, as well as the churches that must strive, still, to hold it all together.
The neighborhood baseball field is infested with Canadian geese, those feckless survivors, whose ordure will make the place unusable.
Handsome limestone school buildings, now abandoned, with their playfields, their swimming pool ornamented with Roman columns, remind me of the time we still believed in public education. The pool could be a relic of the polio years, avoided, as in Philip Roth’s novel, Nemesis, when the 1940s summer epidemics cut loose.
But during the spring and fall, before and after fear took over, during the heat of Chicago summers, what diving and floundering and shouting and laughing, how many intense meetings, flirtations, courtships, quarrels and estrangements, the whole history of the neighborhood, at least its young members, inscribed in the pale blue cement that turned the pool water, highly chlorinated, into the color of the lake itself.
There has been a kind of renewal as we approach the city: staunch rows of brick apartment buildings, one designated for old people, little front yards with cement floors, room for a grill, all shadowed by an enormous overpass, the lives lived there set to the incessant howling of traffic. Some of the older neighborhoods have been eviscerated by throughways that run indiscriminately through what once were front yards, but the new apartment buildings take no such risks, they are too closely packed and too close to the tracks to be threatened by the new throughways that will be built with stimulus money that was once earmarked for the trains.
“ALWAYS INTO ROCK” a beautifully scripted yellow and red graffito reads on the cement side of an apartment building.
Now Chicago offers its lean view. All the silvery towers seemed lighted by their own sense of significance. We pass, groaning softly, over an old railroad bridge that spans the Chicago River, once so polluted it caught fire but now the water has cleared. There is something less than inspiring about the way the big cities present themselves to the few travelers who arrive in the old way, from the open reaches, as though what Willa Cather wrote has come true and the plough that broke the plains, now broken itself, has conceived, labored and produced these effortful replacements for corn and wheat. But even here there is the Continental Grading Company—what does it grade?—and the big locomotive repair works that seem still to be functioning, with a line of patient Amtrak locomotives lined up outside like people in a doctor’s crowded waiting room.
These industrial ruins are inevitably male, while the small houses, the paved yards and the neighborhood churches are, or were, the women’s sphere, not made by them, not paid for by them, but inhabited, decorated, used. Someone has recognized this and made her feelings known in black painted letters on one of the elephantine cement legs of an overpass: I AM A WOMAN. This desolate urban world seems to deny her existence, but she insists on it in this message only visible to passengers on a train.
Now, more crawling, which is fine by me since my five-hour wait in Union Station for the Southwest Chief may bring that anxiety the train eases and even erases. The safest place in my life is this bedroom B on car 1112, serviced by Coco, with silent and invisible passengers packed around me.
The first class lounge at Union Station is a fine and cozy nest, airless and windowless, but with only one TV, its shrill tones softened so that the entire area is not subjected to whatever is on the tube. There are comfortable chairs, tables in the right places, electric outlets for our devices, cold water and hot coffee, and one of those beautiful red-and-black tiled bathrooms, the tiles shining like mahogany, that seems to mean we were better off in the long-ago past.
I settled in to read, going into the icy terminal itself only twice, to buy a salad and some magazines; there the noisy inhospitable world of the big city is lying in wait with its numb hurryiers, its angry sales people, its stacked eaters at rows of institutional tables.
As I go back to my nest, it’s clear that in this way as in so many others the divide between rich and poor has widened and deepened. The thousands who don’t travel first class in the sleepers are treated like cattle, in this station as in airports all over the world; something small, but significant, has changed. I don’t know whether low-paying customers were always treated with this combination of insolence and avoidance but it seems at least possible that once—when?—there was a governing standard of attitude that was extended to everyone.
It has taken thirty years of abuse by the airlines to force my commitment to traveling by train, and my experience on the many U.S. airlines I’ve patronized has been no better and no worse than anyone else’s. Now “they”—whoever they may be—are instituting full-body screening and pat-downs of our “intimate areas,” as the New York Times reports, in response to a wretched man who tried unsuccessfully to set off a bomb in his underpants a year ago. I wonder if anyone remembers the old saw about closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.