riding the rails 17

The Lakeshore Limited runs between Chicago and both New York and Boston, splitting into two when it gets to Albany.  Although the idea of a traveling along the Great Lakes is an appealing one, I already knew from an earlier trip to Boston that leaving from Chicago at 9:30 at night makes for an extremely limited lakeshore view.  Most of it takes place in darkness.  I do remember waking up in the middle of the night just outside the stadium where the Cleveland Browns play, and seeing a flashing sign that said, Welcome to the Dog Pound.  I think that’s the year that they lost every game.

There were a few hours to kill when I got to Union Station, so I went upstairs to the food court and got a piece of pizza.  The Rams were playing the 49ers, which would’ve been an interesting matchup, but the bar was closing and all I could see of the game was someone in a back room watching it.  I went down to make sure I knew where the gate was, and found that people were standing in line an hour early.  Half of them seemed to be Amish, which I’d seen many of by now, out riding the rails.  I knew they weren’t Pilgrims, but kept flashing back to the Mayflower every time I ended up in an observation car full of them.  Next stop, Plymouth Rock.

The Lake Shore Limited definitely had an east coast vibe to it compared to the other trains I’d been riding.  My car seemed to be full of Russian teenagers, perhaps on a school outing.  Two of the boys stashed their enormous suitcases in the overhead bin across from me and sat with their knees bumping into each other.  I kept waiting, in extreme agitation, to see who was going to join me, but no one did, which seemed unlikely, seeing how packed the car was.  The Russian boys went to congregate with their friends at the front of the coach until the conductor came through, bellowing that everyone take their seat and have their tickets ready to be scanned.

The café car was a different set up on this train.  It was five cars up, on the same floor as the tables.  You didn’t need to duck down a stairwell to get to it.  There was already a long line when I went up to get a cup of noodles.  Since there was nowhere to sit, I decided to take it back to my seat.  The door of the first car I came to wouldn’t open, so an old woman who was sitting right in front of it jumped up and pulled it open.  Then it wouldn’t close.

It’s going to be a long night, she said.

The whole night passed and no one ever took the seat beside me.  I lay on my side, with both leg rests up and my jacket bunched up on the armrest.  When I woke up, we were just outside of Buffalo, any chance of seeing the Great Lakes thwarted once again.  We had a smoke break there and most of the passengers got out to stand on the platform.  Although the grass in the meridian was still green, the chill in the air was a reminder that winter was just around the corner.  When it hit, it would hit hard in these parts.

In Utica, there was a new kid who got on and sat in the seat behind me, beside a reserved Brit who was finally forced to open up and share a bit about the bicycle tour he was on that had been postponed twice because of the pandemic.  The kid was excited to hear that and eager to share his story as well.  He was leaving his home in upstate New York and going to stay with his girlfriend in South Carolina.  They’d been chatting for six months, but had never met in person.  He was terribly anxious about having a twelve-hour layover in New York City and claimed to have booked a hotel online for thirty dollars.  They hadn’t let him bring his pellet gun onboard, so he’d traded it for an ounce of weed.  At that point, the Brit got quiet again.

Just as we were approaching Albany, a small cloud of smoke came wafting through my seat.  I almost said something to the kid, not because I minded, but because if they caught him, they’d throw him off the train without a refund.  We had a long layover coming up.  All he needed was to wait two minutes and he could find a quiet place to do whatever he wanted.

There was an hour break in Albany because they needed to separate the train.  The 448 would be heading to Boston and the 48 would continue to New York.  To get to the station you had to climb a set of stairs and cross over a walkway.  I bought a New York Times in a store, but had a hard time concentrating when I sat down and tried to read it.  The kid wasn’t the only one antsy about his twelve-hour layover in New York.  My fear is never that I will be killed, rather, it is that something will happen to make my life even worse than it is.  To just show up in Manhattan after dark, following the directions on my phone into some dark corner of the city, seemed like I was practically begging for that to happen.

When we were underway once again, the kid behind me began calling everyone at home, letting them in on the big surprise, that he was gone and wouldn’t be coming back.  I wasn’t so sure about that.  Behind the bluster he was putting on, he sounded scared, and at one point he called a friend to do a wellness check on his dog.

The sky was dark and heavy, muting the colors of the autumn leaves, and just outside of Poughkeepsie it began to rain.  The timing could not have been worse.  For a long while we traveled beside the Hudson River, which should’ve been a scenic highlight, but the water just reflected the steel gray sky and the raindrops on the window cause my anxiety to intensify.  After entering a long tunnel, we arrived at Penn Station, far beneath the ground, and there was no option but to get off the train and face the situation.  I saw the kid with a huge suitcase and couple of other bags.  It looked like he’d packed all of his possessions.  It was hard to know which way the exit was, but I was pretty sure he was going the wrong way.

There were some people waiting for an elevator and I went to get in line behind them.  A baggage handler assisting them told me about an escalator right around the corner, so I went over and began to ascend, soon finding myself in an entirely different world of space and bright light, like a soul entombed in a sepulcher finally being raised to heaven.  Beneath the high ceiling of the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station were rows of bright flashing screens.  Footsteps on the floor seemed to echo around the complex.  I stepped out the front door and right in front of me was Madison Square Garden.  A block later, there was the Empire State Building.

Now that I was on the street, the directions to the hostel didn’t seem to be that difficult.  The city seemed smaller than I’d imagined it, almost personable.  It had been raining hard earlier, but by now was barely sprinkling.  I followed 8th Avenue down to 20th street and then crossed over to 7th.  The hostel was halfway down the block.

The room I’d been assigned to was long and narrow, with only two beds in it, one in front of the other along the wall.  At first, I chose the one close to the window, but later decided I’d rather be closer to the door and lockers, so switched.  So far, there was no sign that anyone else had checked in, and though I doubted it would stay that way, hoped it would.  To stay in a room with five or six strangers is one thing.  To stay with only one is far more intense.  I wasn’t even sure it should be allowed.

After getting moved in and locking up my things, it was only eight o’clock, so I decided to hit the streets and try to make it to Times Square.  All that trepidation had been for nothing, unless my roommate turned out to a serial killer.  What was more likely was that someone would show up at the last moment and snore me to death. You’ll never see it in any horror movies, but, honestly, it’s the worst way to go.

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