Practising community seating

By Janet Hughes

Featured in Capital #47
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The hulking long-haul Amtrak trains have romantic names, like the Sunset Limited (LA to New Orleans) and the California Zephyr (San Francisco to Chicago), the Lakeshore Express (Chicago to Boston) and the resonant City of New Orleans (New Orleans to Chicago).

Janet Hughes recalls random human moments from a succession of Amtrak trips with her family.

You’re rattling through the wilderness in double-decker tin cans with a bunch of assorted others, for anything from 24 to 50-odd hours. The sheer distances come home to you when mobile connections fail – the train’s wifi fades shortly after you pass through a town, your mobile service soon afterwards. You depend on the train and its staff for survival and everything

The folk in charge wield power with professional pride, some relish, and no mercy, right from check-in. Sleeping-car passengers are peeled off and corralled in lounges in the larger stations, then led in bunches to the platform in a kind of military kindergarten expedition. Or maybe not – in the gaggle on the LA platform is a chap wearing a rubber-fetish jumpsuit with a fake bare behind that moons us as he disappears up the stairs, and a Santa hat. Well, it’s nearly Christmas.

At Emeryville (across the Bay from San Francisco) a uniformed lady bellows at us in an extravagant Southern accent. We don’t catch exactly who is supposed to follow her. A sour Experienced Traveller sits on his luggage, insisting the sleeping cars always stop right here. He grins nastily as she stalks off down the platform, then looks back and sees the doubters. She bellows that sleeper passengers had better all get our asses down here, now, or get left behind.

A mild-looking guy (retired academic, I reckon) fears his wife may do just that. He has his baggage, the right sleeping car, but he can’t find her. He trusts she will soon emerge from the swarming station, since he has her ticket. No-one seems too bothered. I suspect she’s done this before.

The train trundles alongside, and the sharp diesel throb drowns everything briefly. The cars sit high on the bogies. The staff plonk down bright yellow steps to help us board, and we haul our bags up the tight stair to the upper-level corridor. We shuffle past the roomettes (two berths, shared facilities down the hall) to our ensuite ‘bedroom’.  An armchair faces a big couch across the big window. A tiny bathroom is shoehorned into a cylindrical compartment in one corner, with a handbasin notched into the side.

Our sleeping-car attendant converts compartments, deftly making up beds, working around dining-car bookings to avoid getting in the way. He works from a station in the corridor, where there are endless supplies of bottled water, and urn coffee (drinkable!). I overhear him telling a passenger he is a former Marine, and this is his version of the quiet life. The days off are generous. In between, passengers leave and board at any and all hours, necessitating lightning linen changes and cleaning; he also responds to call buzzers, takes meal bookings and delivers room service, troubleshoots, and sometimes he reads.

Our neighbours in two adjacent rooms are a family party presided over by an almost textbook Jewish matriarch. I say almost – she’s tiny rather than stout, exquisitely smart-casual and bejewelled, and there’s something not-quite about the accent, though it’s basically Brooklyn. They order in a lot of food and make sorties for alcohol. They squabble. She bosses everyone around. And they play cards incessantly. We never do figure what game. Perhaps they don’t either – we heard someone complain there were two games going on at once and she had the rules to both in her head.

She starts sniping about Canadians, and suddenly the source of the accent overlay becomes clear – she’s talking about other Canadians.

At night the seat of the couch becomes the lower berth, while the back flips up to form the top one. All comfortable if slightly shabby. On two trips we are accompanied by our adult son – you pay only a tiny coach-class fare for the additional body, on the explicit understanding that this arrangement is not for people above average size. We’re not, but the “double” lower berth isn’t really (son is just fine thanks on the upper one).

If anyone moves, everyone has to move themselves or their bags. Getting into the bathroom with its outward-swinging door involved contortions, especially once the bunks are made up, shrinking the floor-space and adding in a ladder just for fun. Get out of bed and you land on baggage. Mostly we laugh. Sometime we whack heads or elbows, or each other. Occasionally we sleep, lulled by the smooth ride and steady pace. (The trains are not allowed to travel over 79 mph).

The shower is a challenge. The toilet takes up most of it. Shipboard-style plumbing delivers a 15-second gush of water for each press of a stiff button. The hot water doesn’t run out except when I try to shorten our morning rush by showering at night. No escape once the shampoo is on. Breakfast is announced at seven and it’s supposed to be all over by nine. The first sitting is always undersubscribed, and the PA calls to hurry up grow more frequent and urgent until a bleary queue forms in the corridor.

The forceful Southern ladies who rule the dining car have a finely-honed double act. The larger one plays bad cop on the PA, scolding latecomers and enforcing seating rules. The smaller one runs the floor with flattery. We’re all “lovely ladies” and “young men”. The Deco-style menus are graphically elegant, but the food is diner-basic if hearty. Meals are included for the sleeper passengers, who must put their compartment number on a chit; those who have to dash out and check soon get better at remembering it.

You don’t just bowl up and grab a table. You have to book a time slot for dinner and lunch, and always queue in the corridor till you’re called and seated. On Amtrak, we’re told often, “We practice community seating”. This means unless there are four of you, you will share a table with a succession of strangers.

Community seating is one of the joys of Amtrak for me. It’s about efficient food service, but it also creates a kind of managed sociability. People mostly introduce themselves, or converse even if they don’t. Newbies from the last stop ask old hands advice about the rules, the menu, the facilities.

Everybody asks everybody how they come to be riding a train. This reminds you that trundling through the “flyover” states is by definition an odd thing to do. The Art Deco menus suggest it’s a throwback to a golden age of leisurely travel. Most of us are, er, older. Some of us just love trains, like the articulate oil executive who takes a big rail journey every so often to refresh his spirits. Some want to explore their own land, like the Jewish father and young son heading home to Charlottesville.

I overhear a remarkable corridor conversation between the very articulate 10-year-old and a woman, surely a former teacher, about the recent Charlottesville riots, Confederate monuments, community and tolerance. I want to see the kid in charge somewhere some day, if his clear reasoning and humane values survive his growing up. Then at lunch I recognise the woman’s voice, and her husband: she didn’t miss the train after all. She was also the voice that elicited the biographical info from the very quiet ex-marine in charge of the sleeping car. Her husband is probably well used to waiting while she disappears into conversations with strangers.

On the shorter legs, rail can compete with flying. A companionable school administrator from Nebraska is taking her sister to a neurologist’s appointment in Michigan, and comfortable slow travel overnight made more sense than the queues and hassles of two airports. It almost certainly cost more – sleeping accommodation on Amtrak is not cheap, although coach class is very inexpensive.

Many coach passengers bring packed food, or eat from the café-bar, but some pay cash in the diner. One unsmiling and rumpled young woman asks us flatly, “So are we going to say what we’re doing on this train?” She and her partner have driven from small-town Illinois to San Francisco as her mother was ill. Their purpose-bought van blew up, hence the train back, but she figures they didn’t do too bad since they got half its price back for scrap. It occurs to me to ask whether her mother recovered, now we are all chatting comfortably. 

“Oh no, she died. She was pretty much dead when we got there.” Did I say comfortably?

In the glass bubble of the observation car the sky is all around you, the seats angled outward. A drill-sergeant voice over the PA scolds the inconsiderate types who put their stuff on the observation-car seats to reserve them – it’s a full train. There will be a raid to pick up misused belongings; the owners will have to show up at the café counter to claim them, and probably cop an earful about sharing.

Watching a huge pink dusk gather over Nevada, I rack my brains for the Spanish word for the dry watercourses that score the desert between the flat-topped mesas (literally tables). My approachable-looking neighbour helps me out: arroyo. And just like that, we are deep in conversation, about the landforms and life of the desert. She is an engineer-turned-ecologist, lives in a commune in New Mexico. And she, too, is freshly bereaved, having lost a son to a mountaineering accident. She is taking a very long, slow way home, to process her loss in relative solitude. Relative only – community comes naturally to her, and she greets a steady succession of new acquaintances as they pass.

Sliding into New Orleans at night, we dine in a fierce thunderstorm. A quiet African-American woman makes up our foursome, takes a while to speak. She is spending Christmas in New Orleans, having lived most of her life there and moved away fairly recently. She explains that hurricane Katrina flooded out her three-storey home, smashing most things but floating her heirloom china cabinet to the ceiling, where it lodged then sank slowly with the water-level, its contents intact. It took a whole year to dry out and repair the house, another to banish the boggy smell they thought would never leave.

They toughed it out, but then her bridge phobia grew unmanageable, as she was confronted daily with countless smashed and replaced bridges around the watery city. Their remnants are still sticking out of waterways 10 years on. As we talk the train sways slowly across the Mississippi; when the lightning flashes we all look away from the window.


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