Sunday, January 16, 2005

When travel suspends time

This piece ran in the Feb. 7 Christian Science Monitor. This is the original version as submitted to the paper. It didn't appear on this blog until Feb. 7.

Jan. 16, 2005

In the heart of Boston's South Station, you'll find an open air bookstore called "Barbara's Bestsellers." There, you can buy anything from the much-discussed "Against all Enemies" by Richard A. Clarke to such literary works as V.S. Naipaul's "Magic Seeds."

Across the room at the newspaper stand, the relatively highbrow Wall Street Journal is advertised in gilded letters. This says something to me: Reading America still rides the rails. Maybe that's why trains are going out of business. Because like train travel, reading America is well past its prime.

No matter to me. I'll be one of those on the last train to pull out of the station. Where else but on Amtrak does a voice come over the loudspeaker and announce, "Please throw out all your paper plates and bottles in the receptacles at the end of each car. We'd like to help, but they fired all
the janitors."

Where else does the cafe car man correctly pick out the woman giving him instructions as a teacher and then tell her, "Ma'am, I know you teachers like to help us all live life right but I've been doing this job for 30 years. Thir-ty years. I was a platoon leader in the Army. And you
know what. I believe I can do things right all by myself."

Where else do you see a stylish woman decked head to toe in expensive leather and a
full-length Pendleton coat sitting across the aisle from a guy with a two-day growth and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes?

Amtrak's trains are always ready to surprise. They'll be on time one day and four hours late the next. You'll fall asleep one hour to the steady rolling of the car over the clickety-clack rails and awaken sometime later to see a swan floating pristinely by on a pond near the Long Island Sound.

It's more than a way to get from here to there. It's a way to journey from now to then, too -- a place and time to dream. My memories drift to a street in New York, where I'm headed for the first time in about a year. Each Christmas as a boy, I'd go to that street -- East 86th -- with my father, a street in the heart of the old Yorkville area that died with the old Germans
who'd fill its bakeries and delicatessens in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, ordering "cafe und kuchen," schnaps and the rich dark chocolate sold by three generations of candy makers at the Elk Candy Co., the magical store with the 4-foot gingerbread house in the window, inviting December shoppers in.

It's there no longer. Nor is the schmaltzy violinist, with black tails and white gloves, who would entertain the diners at Cafe Geiger, where my Dad, in his glory, would spread his white napkin and eat beef tartar -- raw hamburger with capers and a raw egg on top -- to make the day's purchase of calories galore complete.

The train rolls along and I dream not just of times past but times that never did happen, the roads not taken of my life. But there's a gentleness to the rails that takes the sting out of "what if," that simply let's the mind wander and wonder why not. I believe a book title is taking shape as my brain rocks to the train's rhythm. "Sidetracked: A Journey Across America by
Rail." I like it. Now all I have to do is figure out the story.


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