Twenty-Four Hours on an Amtrak to Philly: a Horror Story, an Adventure Yarn, and a Lesson About Embracing Life’s Rails | News Feature | Indy Week

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Twenty-Four Hours on an Amtrak to Philly: a Horror Story, an Adventure Yarn, and a Lesson About Embracing Life’s Rails

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"The eleven-thirty Amtrak Silver Star bound for Tampa and Miami," announces a voice at Grand Central Station. Then Al Pacino shoots like seventeen people to death before being killed himself, his body sliding down the dull silver hull of a coach-class train.

My sojourn on Amtrak's Silver Star line wasn't quite as dramatic as that scene in Carlito's Way. Obviously, I survived, and the only violence I came near was when I heard a cabin attendant complaining about getting whacked with someone's cane during the boarding rush. But there were moments, as the eight-hour trips to and from Philadelphia both stretched to twelve, when I did feel that maybe Pacino had gotten off easier. To be on a train for twelve hours is to undergo a whole gamut of emotional states, from anticipation and interest to monotony and restlessness, on through a tunnel of despair that, if you're lucky, emerges into a clearing of giddy, almost surreal acceptance of your endless hurtling captivity in a rapidly dissolving social order.

I'd like to share a few hard-won tips for long-distance train travel. One, even in summer, it's freezing, but you can always catch a burst of warmth by lingering on the walkways between cars. Two, relish the romance of the train whistle's lonesome choo-choo for the first hour, because you're going to get really sick of it. Three, prepare to become as intimate with the insides of strangers' mouths as you possibly could without going to dentistry school, because American train travel seems to inspire the most lolling open-mouthed slumber imaginable.

And yet, while I don't relish the thought of riding a train for twelve hours again, I don't regret having done it now that it's over, dissolving into bright little stripes of memory I can keep, seconds I can save, stories I can tell. Whether it's worth your while to take Amtrak depends on your appetite for serendipitous, glancing encounters—for existential comedy and raw humanity. It's definitely not about getting anywhere on time.

Oh, time. Nothing makes one as keenly aware of its irretrievable, arrowing flight as train travel, which feels like an almost gratuitous metaphor for life itself. Though Pacino was trying to head south from New York while I was heading north from Raleigh, we were really both pointed in the same direction as all rail riders: only forward, fitfully stopping and starting but always closer to something a thousand hours ahead than something one second behind. And yet not always sure whether it's you or a train on the next track that's moving, if you're hurtling toward your destination or sitting still as it hurtles toward you.

This, you see, is what being on a train for too long will do to a person's mind.

Also like life, a trip on the Silver Star begins in deceptive novelty and comfort. The seats are a comfy, cozy blue with ample leg room. The engine runs at a quiet, soothing whir as you smoothly glide through the farmland north of Raleigh.

As I boarded, I planned to catch up on The New Yorker, do some work courtesy of the train's free Wi-Fi, and watch sun-dappled meadows and industrial architecture scroll by until I slid into Thirtieth Street Station just after five, in plenty of time to freshen up at my Airbnb in University City and go out in West Philly. It turned out that I would achieve the first item, mostly fail at the second (the Wi-Fi was spotty, and my brain felt as jiggly as my laptop screen), and get my fill of the third well before arriving near nine, stumbling toward the first food I could find, a pop-up beer garden near Drexel University with tasty fish tacos and oversweet undergrad margaritas.

It's on me that I was unduly optimistic about the arrival time, considering that Amtrak had clearly signaled its m.o. that morning. I'd received a text saying the train was delayed, but it might catch up, so basically, forget we told you that. It wound up leaving half an hour late, which was fine. The real trouble started in Washington, D.C., where apparently the diesel engine had to be replaced with an electric one. Some hitch there accounted for most of the delay, as passengers either sat in the powerless train or milled around by the tracks, studying what can only be described as train pee and queasily wondering where it was coming from.

But it was during this interstice that we began to drift away from our devices and magazines, as a certain American impulse to figure out just what the hell the problem was and who was to blame took hold. Even tiny emergencies have a way of bringing people together, and you can only sit next to someone pretending they aren't there for so long.

By the time we got moving again, I had gotten to know my seatmate, a kind, patrician eighty-two-year-old potter. Emboldened by my quiet cackling over Anthony Lane's takedown of Bill Clinton and James Patterson's thriller, she took a deep breath and asked what I thought about "the direction the country was going," and we cemented our bond in anxious commiseration. Our little society soon drew in the guy in front of us, a garrulous hard worker and player with a snowy white ponytail. A frequent rider who seemed cheerfully furious about the delay, claiming it happened every single time, he talked about Amtrak in a "never again" way that made you certain he would be back next week, repeating his talking points.

By the time we crossed into Pennsylvania, someone had gotten out a guitar and was playing songs for two women in front of him, who draped themselves over the headrests as if they were in the balcony of a concert hall. I have no doubt that, had the trip lasted another hour, someone would have started roasting meat on a spit in the aisle, perhaps using the guitar as kindling. And maybe with the guitarist on the spit.

Some passengers were immune to annoyance, though. A little boy was perpetually excited by everything he saw, wanting to know what was inside all the tall buildings and asking if he could go on a boat someday when a harbor stretched below us. "Mommy, a train, a train!" he shouted whenever one passed us, seeming to forget he was on one. But aren't most things easier to appreciate when they're zooming by you than when you're snug inside them?

This, you see, is what being on a train for too long will do to a person's mind.

If time on a train stretches out in stages, like linked cars, then time in a city scrunches up and rushes by, like all those buildings and pedestrians. What do I remember? A third-floor walk-up, small but clean and pretty adorbs, with a surprisingly large TV I never turned on and a surprisingly large shower that, in the Philly summer, I definitely did. A spicy old fashioned in a crowded little cash-only speakeasy above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia. Breakfast at The Gold Standard Café and a tarot reading in the park. Sweet, sesame-crusted salmon at a BYOB Mediterranean-Moroccan restaurant called Figs. Wandering between tall row houses through a neighborhood block party near the museum and into a bar called Bridgid's that, I now know, specializes in craft beer, which perhaps explains the Sazerac so strong it made me almost hallucinate, watching the sun set over the Schuylkill River.

But thirty-six hours in Philly felt infinitely shorter than twenty-four on the train, as if I'd simply fallen asleep at Thirtieth Street Station and had an expensive dream.

To get home, I took the Carolinian rather than the Silver Star, but the experience was much the same. My seatmate was moving to Raleigh to be a city planner, so I briefed him on the light-rail sitch and beseeched him to solve it. When we passed through D.C. without issues, I started to get cocky, which of course caused a freight train to break down ahead of us and strand us for hours in a cornfield near Selma.

I mean, look, I get it. The locomotive is one of those machines, like the piano, that got as good as it could get long ago, and then never changed. It's not like I think Amtrak could ever make the trains arrive right on time. (Or maybe they could, and it's just a ploy to shake us down for $9 microwave pizzas.) They just shouldn't say 5:00 p.m. when they mean between five and ten. Just say that, Amtrak! Let the misadventure be an informed decision.

As we neared Durham, the vibe was getting decidedly Snowpiercer. People were smoking in the bathrooms, like, go ahead, Amtrak, say something to me. The toilets were unspeakable. Carts stood haphazardly in the aisles. There was no more ice. I swear the lights started flickering ominously in the dining car, though that may have been an aftereffect from the vape pen a stranger had thrust into my hand at the last stop.

But even then, when I thought I'd go mad if I didn't get off this train, I had the inkling that it had all been worth it. I had lost a few hours, sure, but what had I gained? The high trill of the potter's laugh. The ponytailed man's maniacal grin. The friendly bro drinking Jack Daniels airplane bottles who had a dubious fact at the ready on any topic that might arise, including the current market price of a bushel of corn. This, I found ineffably hilarious, deep inside the paradoxical sense of freedom that can emerge when you're forced to give up your plans and just be right where you are.

This, you see, is what being on a train for too long will do to a person's mind.

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