Train Time Warp

I took Amtrak up to NYC and back yesterday. I prefer the train to driving, taking a bus or flying, but whenever I take the trip time seems to warp on me, and peculiar things start happening.

To begin with, the route itself takes you through America’s back yard, which means you see an odd variety of things. Rusted out cars. Swamps. A surprised deer. A young man going through the back window of a boarded-up rowhouse. Parking lots. A lake. Another lake. An egret. A patio table with the chairs placed neatly on top. Dead-end streets. This Disparity On Parade flicks past your window in a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t shuffle that confuses the mind and frequently causes you to doubt what you just saw.

The train is always late. Perhaps this is because unless I’m in a hurry, I take the Regional rather than the Acela or the Metroliner, and the Regional is Always Late. Sometimes it’s only a little late (15 minutes on the way up); sometimes it’s very late (40 minutes on the way back), but since it’s Always Late, I have to allow extra time to make appointments. When the train arrived at Penn Station in New York, I had half an hour to walk twelve blocks to my first appointment, an audition.

I came out the 8th Avenue exit and was immediately disoriented and walked a block in the wrong direction. I know this intersection well, but for some reason the entire Post Office building that dominates that corner is now wrapped in plastic, and it made the street look all wrong. I corrected my internal compass and set off north. It was extremely hot, and everyone was walking slowly. Is it my imagination, or do New Yorkers not hurry like they used to? Everyone’s got a cell phone to their ear or an I-Pod around their neck, and they saunter along having their conversation or humming dreamily. I also seemed to be the only person in a suit. I kept passing women dressed in very little clothing, foggy-eyed and loose-hipped as they slip-slapped along in their sandals. I thought they looked trashy but I envied them their cool.

I arrived at my audition early enough to cool down. The holding area of this busy casting office was sterile as a hospital waiting room and just as welcoming. There were at least five studios conducting auditions and the auditionees sat outside with all the ease and confidence of patients expecting bad news. None of them smiled. Few of them spoke. Even fewer would meet your eye. There’s none of the chummy atmosphere of local calls, when the holding area frequently resembles a cocktail party and we’re often chided by the monitor for making too much noise. New York calls are serious, serious business. I also appeared to be the oldest person there – and the only one in a suit.

My suit and I gave the best audition we were capable of – about 20 minutes worth – and then we were free and it was back out on the street, in time to make my second appointment. I hustled over to Jack’s at 40th and 7th Avenue, to meet with two fellow habitues: Robert and Mike. Mike works for a Big Fashion Designer; Robert works at the Garden. Because my joining the party swelled the luncheon reservation from two to three, we had to wait for another table. At least it was relatively cool inside. After twenty minutes or so, a table was created for us and we talked theatre shop until the food arrived, whereupon the boys fell on theirs with alacrity (they each had only about fifteen minutes left of their lunch break). Wiping salad dressing from our faces, we smooched each other goodbye and I headed south.

Since this was a Monday and I didn’t have to rush back to DC for a show, I allowed myself more time in the city. I found a Starbucks, ordered an tall and rather unpleasant iced green tea and left a message for longtime pal Tony, who joined me about twenty minutes later. Tony and I have known each other from our community theatre days and our conversation tends to veer wildly from serious shoptalk to “remember when” to flights of absolute fancy. We occupied a table for a good hour, cackling over everything while we waited for the line at the counter to subside so Tony could get a drink (it never did get smaller than a dozen people, and this was about three in the afternoon – weird). Eventually it was time to walk back to Penn Station for my 4:25 Regional, so Tony walked me there. A strong, hot wind was blowing and we watched with delight as it snatched up an empty black plastic bag in front of us and swooped it higher and higher, until it hung batlike overhead, nearly 15 floors up. We turned a corner and the wind smacked us head-on; we laughed in unison and in unison, threw out our arms and “flew” – Tony to the side, angelically; me straight in front, like Superman.

Much to my surprise, as we descended to the main floor of the station, my train was already boarding. We hustled into line, where a uniformed Amtrak employee was checking tickets and a large man not in uniform was exhorting everyone to hurry. Lemming-like, everyone did. Tony and I did a fast hug-and-kiss and I whirled toward the gate, only to be grabbed by the large man who hugged and kissed me, too. I thought it was peculiar but I laughed, showed my ticket to the grumpy Amtrak man and descended to the train. I found a seat and had just settled in when I got a text message from Tony, informing me that the fat man was NOT an Amtrak employee, just a slightly drunken panhandler. Ewwww.

The train pulled out and the time-warp began again. We kept pulling into stations where it had clearly just rained, and rained hard, but the train seemed to be traveling in a protective shield – not a drop on the dusty windows until south of Baltimore, where the skies were an ominous grey-green. The train was not crowded and everyone seemed to want to sleep. I took out my contact lenses and finished up the book I’d started on the way up: Housekeeping, by Marilynn Robinson. In Philadelphia I got out my obsolete but still wonderful mini-disc player, put on a CD of Rampal and my headset, and closed my eyes. I’d been dozing for about fifteen minutes when the back of my seat was thumped hard, which woke me up. Several more thumps followed, and then a plaintive female voice said “it won’t go up.” Clearly, her tray table wasn’t folding up properly and I sympathize, but any hope of sleep fled as she gave the back of the seat a couple more wallops and then subsided. I turned off Rampal and looked out the window for a while. Somewhere near the rear of the car, a high pitched male voice suddenly carolled out: “OOOOOOOHHH GEEEE-EERL! I’D BE IN TROUBLE IF YUH LEFFFT MEE NAAAAOOOOWW!” Then silence. I couldn’t resist and stood up to look. Everyone’s head was sunk low in their seats, eyes shut. I couldn’t identify which one was the singer, so I sat back down again. Throughout the trip, at oddly-spaced intervals, this male soprano would keen out a few words of vintage soul and then go silent. The woman behind me munched potato chips.

I put Rampal back on and looked out the window. In Baltimore, we ran into rain and a bit of lightning. Just outside Baltimore, we slowed down to a crawl and stayed at that speed until after the New Carrolton stop. I put my contacts back in and twitched irritably, unable to find a comfortable sitting position. The car was cold. An announcement was finally made as to the reason for our decreased speed, but crackling static made it incomprehensible but for the word “manual.” The singer chirped behind me again, and once more I stood to see who it was. No luck. Everyone in the car was asleep but me, even the chip-muncher. I went to the bathroom. A battered black suitcase parked at the front of the car was marked with scrawly white letters that read NOT YOURS. They looked as if they’d been painted on with Wite-Out.

I returned to my seat. John called a time or two to check on my progress (we were going to dinner after he picked me up at the subway). Eventually the train pulled into Union Station and I debarked and headed down to the subway. I had noticed on the morning trip in that Metro management had changed the door announcements; I am here to tell you that the “door closing” announcement is not long enough. From the initial warning tone to the door shutting is exactly five seconds, and I watched in horror as person after person got slammed in the doors. I thought the driver always watched out the window and controlled the announcement according to the size of the crowd; if that was the case, then the driver of this Red Line/Shady Grove train (at approximately 8:30 PM Monday 6/19, between Union Station and Metro Center, if anyone from Metro is reading this) was truly sadistic. There were people in line, waiting to board, when the announcement would sound and the doors would slam shut. I saw one guy get caught by his back pack; others by the arm or leg. Someone got stuck and couldn’t get loose; others assisted in pushing the doors back. It was frightening.

I transferred to the Orange Line to Vienna, where the subway doors were more mannerly. John picked me up in Dunn Loring, where he informed me that it had rained so hard that my vegetable garden had taken a beating. We went to Sweetwater’s, where they overcooked my steak. I bravely informed the waiter that I’d deal with it because I was hungry, and was rewarded with a free glass of wine. I ate my steak, sipped my wine and talked to my husband, and my day warped back to normal.


  1. Tony Westbrook

    Yes NYers DO walk slower these days, though the area you were in is heavily populated by tourists shopping. Still, I have noticed people don’t rush like they used to.The big guy who was being so jolly and hugged and kissed you on the cheek should just be given the job of greeting passengers because he was doing such a great job. He came up and shook my hand and though he was dressed in a black shirt and pant type outfit and was clean, it did smell as if he’d been hanging out in the bar/restaurant just at the other end of the main lobby. He asked me for a handout and said “I gave your friend such a great sendoff” and I said “you’re playing a game and NO, but thanks”. At least he was a nice enough sort. Heh, it takes all types to make this city run. And I hope hope HOPE you get the job up here so we can really be silly and have fun. :)And again, I think you’re writings are top notch and worthy of Erma Bombeck-like printings. Hmmmmm…

  2. Joan L.

    That is the strangest train ride story I’ve ever heard. It sounds like a cross between a train and the NYC subway system. I really like the suitcase. Not Yours. That sounds like something A.A. Milne would have had Pooh write on one of his honeypots.

  3. Editaur

    NEWARK, N.J. _ Power problems temporarily halted train service between New York City and New Jersey during Wednesday’s morning rush, causing delays along the Northeast Corridor and marking the third Amtrak outage in a month.New Jersey Transit’s Web site blamed the delays on “Amtrak power problems” along the Northeast Corridor but offered no other details.Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman, said there was a brief power fluctuation at 8:05 a.m. in the New York area. He said trains were stopped briefly but were moving again by 8:33 a.m.

  4. Anonymous

    From a fellow occasional Amtrak traveller — you’ll contend with fewer late northbound trains if you only take ones that start at DC — don’t take the ones that are coming from further south.If you’re looking at a schedule online at the amtrak site, just click on the service route’s name (ie, “184 Regional Service”) and it will tell you where the train’s route begins. The further south, the worse the delay, though even Richmond seems beyond the reaches of acceptable scheduling tolerance.Hardly foolproof, but this has saved me time waiting at Union Station before!

  5. Anonymous

    Yea, Amtrak is ALWAYS late.For me, the worse two was 24 hours late (yes, 24 hours late), and 8 hours late.Actually, the 24 hours late wasn’t as bad as the 8 hours late. The 24 hours late, at least, brought me to my destination still during “normal” hours (just a day late). The 8 hour late train brought me to my destination in the middle of the night with everything is either stopped or closed for the night. That left me stuck at the station.

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