Bentzman
Suburban Soliloquy #91

Amtrak

This adventure began on a snowy night in late April, the 24th of the month. I had to be back at work and also home to feed the cat. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, was staying longer. She was keeping the car and I was taking the train home. We had driven 575 miles to my sister-in-law's house on farmland outside of Cincinnati. Our drive had taken nine hours. Other in-laws were flying in from Great Britain, another from Washington State to gather in Mount Orab, Ohio. But this is about my trip home.

Four o'clock was too early in the morning to be out of bed. At that early hour and in the fog of snow the city skyscrapers were looming shadows and the streets deserted. From out of the darkness we could see a distant concrete structure brightly lit and growing incredibly tall before we knew it to be our destination. We arrived to the colossal arching fašade of Cincinnati's Union Terminal, built during the golden age of train travel when the center piece of every major city was a station of mythical proportions, were temples honoring transportation.

We parked the car and together entered the imposing edifice to stand underneath a towering dome. It would have been a finer experience had they retained the waiting room in the rotunda, as it must have been in former years, when the station was new in 1933. At least the building had been preserved, converted to hold a museum and theater as well as to serve as a train station. Also preserved were the large murals, glass mosaics and frescos, showing the industrious American at work. Meantime, the new waiting room had been tucked into a smaller space, the size of a classroom, hidden in the rear of the station. This new waiting room was, nevertheless, nicely paneled with dark wood inlaid into a light wood, creating scenes of the railroad.

My train was to be late. Since I had a long wait, I walked Ms Keogh back to the car while the car was yet warm. Neither of us had brought clothes for this unexpected return of winter. We kissed good-bye through the car window with the snow falling about us. I was not willing for her to wait for that ridiculously late train.

I had breakfast at the station while waiting for the train, a Three Musketeers bar and black coffee from a vending machine being all that was available at that hour. The day approached and the sky became lighter in the windows of the little waiting room.
The 5:04 arrived at 6:30. The stationmaster, a tyrannical little woman, marched up and down the platform barking orders at us as to where to stand and how to move. "To the south of the elevators, people; to the south of the elevators!" I had no idea which way was south. The sun was not visible through the grey sky. I thought I was boarding a train heading east. The train came into the station. She herded us on.

All aboard the Amtrak Cardinal! The miseries of traveling by train are unchanged even after twenty years. I had forgotten about the vibrations that rattled up through the seat and my legs to prevent me from writing. I had to wait until station stops to squeeze a few words out of my pen. During these stops they gave passengers a chance to step outside and smoke, with special instructions to stay near the train and not wander far. Nor were they to throw their butts on the track, but were advised to carry a small cup of water in which to extinguish their cigarettes.

The coach was the same as I rode in twenty years ago on frequent trips to Boston. They were newer then. This one was notable in having television monitors mounted in the overhead luggage racks. Since none of them were on, I don't know why they were there. The seats were the same, having only one uncomfortably short and narrow armrest. There were no armrests between the seats to protect you from the spreading hips of your neighbor. There were other differences, too. Posted on the wall at the front of the car was a sign that read, "SEE SOMETHING? SAY SOMETHING? Unattended bags? Suspicious activity? A safety hazard?" A sign of our times.

Another aspect of the train ride had not been improved, the cramped restrooms were filthy. One is jostled too much to stand and aim, and the abuse the toilet seats had received from unimaginably discourteous others discouraged any intention of sitting. I cannot imagine how women persevere.

Still, the whole trip was not miserable. Eventually the train left the plains where we passed behind the ugly backsides of industries, the underbelly of society, and carried us into the mountainous woods of West Virginia. A mild snow continued falling among the tracery of trees that had not yet rebounded from winter. Nothing was green, but interspersed among the grey and brown trunks were fireworks of white dogwoods and pink redbuds. The train entered into the New River Gorge. Even when the ride was beautiful, edging along the river, yet the river's edge was often cluttered with trailers, like discarded soup cans. And then I was startled by the New River Gorge Bridge.

High above us, lashing the two sides of the gorge together with slender strands of steel, was a long web, a fragile-looking bridge. I was not expecting to see on this trip what was until quite recently the world's longest steel-arch span. The bridge itself is 3,030 feet long, riding atop a 1,700-foot wide span that vaults the river at a height of 876 feet. Of course, I didn't know any of this for what it was until after the trip, when I did the research. On the 8th February 2003, the Lupu Bridge in Shanghai bested the New River Gorge Bridge by 105 feet.

It was an hour and a half late before I boarded the Cardinal at Union Terminal. It was two hours late before we departed the station. Fortunately, Ms Keogh called ahead to warn my mother that I would be two hours late. Unfortunately, the warning went unheeded.

How strange it is that my entire social life has become dependent on letters and email, meanwhile I have no local friends nor neighbors I can call on to fetch me at the station at any hour. Is this not odd? For most of my life I had the closest friends and, while many have remained my friends, they have moved to far off places to follow careers and raise families. I have made many new friends in the last decade, but all of them have been cultivated through the written word and none live nearby.

I was willing to catch the last train out of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, although I was at risk at missing the last local and having to wait overnight. A cab home from the station was more expensive then the train fare from Cincinnati. Had I caught the local, it would have delivered me to Langhorne Station, about a three mile walk from my house, which I wouldn't mind, but since there are no sidewalks, I would have preferred trekking during the day. It was my mother who kindly insisted she would fetch me from the 30th Street Station, and her friend, Ms R, who insisted on keeping her company, for which my mother was grateful.

My mother is an anxious woman, but Ms R was perhaps more anxious in this case. These are both ladies in their eighties, and something happens to women in this age group wherein they become less sure of themselves and go to greater lengths to be certain things are done correctly. Even though my train was scheduled to arrive at ten o'clock at night, they had been informed by Ms Keogh that it would be late. Ms R wanted to leave for the station at six o'clock, a drive of less than forty-five minutes. Just how bad did she expect traffic could be? My mother, showing more sense, made a point of being late to collect Ms R, and then insisted on first taking her to dinner to eat some of the excess time. Despite these delaying tactics, they arrived at the station at nine:thirty and sat in the car until my train finally arrived at one o'clock in the morning. I had spent eighteen and a half hours on that damned train.

The 30th Street Station is another one of those temples to transportation, a Classical Revival monolith completed in 1934. The original benches are in place inside a grand marbled interior. Well-lit and constantly patrolled by the police, yet my mother would not wait here due to her Statue Phobia. Within the immense hall resides a giant angel carrying off an equally giant corpse. (The statue is misidentified throughout the internet as a Winged Victory. It is not. The locals call this angel Saint Michael or Gabriel when giving directions. It is a bronze to honor the Pennsylvania Railroad employees, men and women, who died in World War Two, and its real name is The Angel of the Resurrection by Walker Hancock.)

I did not find the two ladies waiting for me in the station. They were waiting in the dark parking lot on the south side of the station, wide-awake in the front seat of my mother's Corolla and jabbering with the vitality of adolescent girls at a pajama party. I was glad to see them and, to my astonishment, they were not at all upset about their three and a half hour wait.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"