riding the rails 19

The Silver Star, or Silver Service, as it is sometimes referred to, came into existence as an assortment of early independent routes connecting New York City and Miami.  It travels 1,500 miles and passes through twelve states, and was the only train I really wanted to ride on when I bought my USA Rail Pass, twelve days earlier.  Now because of Hurricane Ian, I’d been all over the country, except for Florida, and was finally aboard the Silver Star, but only traveling as far as Washinton, DC, as the section to Miami had been suspended for repair work. 

What they hadn’t told me when they informed me about the cancellation, however, was that the train still went as far as Jacksonville.  If I would’ve known that, I would’ve kept my reservation and taken a bus the rest of the way.  Now, I was getting off in DC in a few hours, with a connection to New Orleans the next evening, too tired and confused to try to make any more last second changes to my itinerary.  If I could take a bus to Miami from Jacksonville, I could probably take one from New Orleans.  After two cancellations so far, it was like the universe was trying to send me a message, but I refused to listen.

My clothes and shoes were still wet from racing to Penn Station in the rain to catch the train.  After the café car opened, I went up to get a breakfast sandwich and coffee, and returned to my seat shivering as we passed stations in New Brunswick and Princeton Junction, New Jersey.  After a stop in Trenton, we next arrived in Philadelphia, which surprised me, not knowing how close it was to New York.  I’d gotten off the train there on a previous trip, but that had been from Boston.  If you ever want to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave in less than two hours, let me tell you, it can be done.

With the two sections of the Rail Pass that I’d lost crossing the Bay Bridge, and the reservations I’d made on the Crescent to New Orleans and Sunset Limited, I was now technically out of rides, unless I made some sudden changes to my itinerary or received mercy from an unexpected quarter.  I decided to try to speak to someone in customer relations, since what had happened in San Francisco really didn’t seem fair, now, or then.  I was on hold for a long time and during that time the train began to violently shake.  It shook so hard, derailing seemed like a real possibility.  Simultaneously, a high-pitched shriek started coming from the PA.  By the time a woman from customer relations repeated to me that nothing could be done, I’d been shaken into a state of acute agitation.  The whistle blew, like a demon’s trumpet, and I looked out the window and seethed.

The last time I’d been at Washington Union Station, I’d been charged nearly a hundred dollars to store my bag for a day.  By booking a room in a hostel, I was actually saving money.  Once we arrived in DC, I took my time making my way through the terminal, which is Amtrak’s actual headquarters.  An exhibit in the hallway celebrates fifty years of their existence.  There are also commemorative statues and plaques scattered around, like the one honoring all the employees who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty.  The central hall, with its statues of Greek gods and centurions, resembles nothing less than a temple. 

Like all of the classic train stations I’d passed through so far, what I saw outside the door told a different story.  Beneath the statue of Columbus out front sat a homeless woman with plastic bags all around her.  On another side of the monument was an abandoned pile of filthy blankets.  Under one of the stone lions someone had written, Think of how much you all have stolen from me, and dated it June 6, 1971.  Just across the road, you could see the United States Capitol.

The hostel I’d booked was only a mile and a half away, but seemed to take two hours to get to.  The person at the desk asked that I remove my shoes, then showed me how the code for the front door worked.  I was in the basement, in a room with six bunks, down in a lower bed, jammed between two others.  Someone on the other side had hung blankets and made a tent out of their bed.  They appeared to be inside, possibly sleeping.  I thought about calling Amtrak to see if I could switch my ticket to Jacksonville the next day, but then realized I was too spent to function.  I’d just have to hop on the Crescent the next day and see what happened between Washington and New Orleans.   Since that was going to be the situation, I went ahead and booked a hostel in the French Quarter.

It was still early, so I went out and started walking in the direction of the National Mall.  If all of the buildings in the area appeared to be fortresses, perhaps it was because I was staying less than a half mile from the White House.  I followed 10h Street past the Federal Triangle and the IRS headquarters, then crossed Constitution Avenue, walked west for a few blocks, and there was the Washington Monument.  In the other direction was the Capitol.  I decided to walk towards the Lincoln Memorial, and then visit the Capitol and a few Smithsonian Museums the next day, since my train didn’t leave until six in the evening.

It was a beautiful fall day as I approached the Washington Monument, circled by flags.  It is always a strange thing to see anything so iconic, that you’ve only been exposed to in media and print images, in person, because suddenly, there it is, right in front of you, sometimes larger than life, other times, much smaller than expected.  The Washington Monument is exactly like you think it will be.  There were not many other tourists out and about.  On the grass, right past the monument, a group of young people, perhaps up and comers in the world of politics, were playing a game of kickball.  Just then a large helicopter, perhaps Marine One, passed overhead.  It’s the President, someone shouted, and they all began to wave.

Across from the World War II Memorial, I got an ice cream cone from a food truck and sat down at the base of a flag to eat it.  Beyond the pillars, arches, and fountain of the war memorial, there stretched the reflecting pool, and at the far end of it the Lincoln Memorial.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting long shadows, the last few rays of sunlight illuminating the Washington Monument with an almost greenish glow.

Walking towards the Lincoln Memorial, besides the reflecting pool, I followed a family straight into the last few pulsations of the sun.  By the time we reached the long, stone stairway, it had set.  Up the temple steps, there sat Lincoln on his throne.  For all his virtues, it was hard to say how much anyone there knew about him, outside of the fact that he’d once been president and was very famous. It is fame that has become the measuring stick of success these days.  How it is achieved does not seem to matter as much.  While Lincoln is still remembered for his honesty, these days the truth is often regarded as relative, reliant on the interpreter and how it best suits their agenda.  He is also admired for helping to heal the nation after the Civil War, but the divisions in recent years haven’t been based on ideology, and the best way to go forward as a country, as much as sheer hatred of the other.  There was only one boy I noticed reading the inscriptions above his head and on the walls, while everyone else stood with their backs to him, taking group pictures and selfies.

It was nearly dark as I walked through the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the expressions on the faces of the nineteen soldiers represented so lifelike that you actually feel like you are out on patrol with them. By the time I made it over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked past the wall listing the names of the over fifty thousand Americans who’d lost their lives in that war, it was night.  I sat on a bench next to a pond in the Constitution Gardens, and saw both the lit-up Washington Monument, and nearly full moon, reflected in the black water. 

Once I got up and started back to the hostel, I immediately had to use the bathroom, badly.  It must’ve been the ice cream from the food truck.  Block after excruciating block, not only were there no bathrooms, but it would’ve been a federal offense of the most egregious nature to try to improvise one.  What do you do in a situation like that?  I’d reached the point of wild desperation by the time I spotted a McDonalds and walked into to it, almost on my tiptoes.  Both relief and perspiration washed over me as I sat down in a stall and contemplated the disaster that would’ve befallen me if I hadn’t had enough money to buy a Big Mac.  When I returned to the dining room to eat it, I noticed three homeless men nursing their own small purchases, just to be able to sit at a table inside for a few minutes.

Taking a different street back to the hostel, I just happened to pass the White House, which was all lit-up, as well.  On a bench in Lafayette Square, facing the White House, sat a homeless man on a bench, a blue jacket pulled up over his head.  I walked up to the gate where a handful of visitors were taking photos, and talked to a protestor in a shack, picket signs and declamations stacked up all around him.  He and his only company, yet another homeless man, said they were waging their own war against capitalism.  Good luck with that, I told them.

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