Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Lakeshore Limited

I’ve got an experience stuck in my head, and I want to get it written down before it flits away. It won’t take but a second. I don’t know why this experience sticks in my mind; I think it may be because it was so pure and unfettered an incident of revelry. Here it is:

Once upon a time, I found myself on a train going west. This story is not about the journey west or the destination of the train. It is about the first leg of the trip, from Boston to Chicago, on AmTrak’s Lakeshore Limited. I have spent days and days on trains in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, and I think the Lakeshore Limited is the train I like the best. I won’t deny that this very well may be because the Lakeshore Limited is the train I find myself on every time I arrive home in Boston. One has to admit, though, that the Lakeshore Limited has a certain character that is not found on any other train.

The people who staff the train live in one of the destination cities, which means that there are either Bostonians or Chicagoans imbuing the journey with their wit, sardonic attitude, and gruff hospitality. The passengers are also all either coming from one of those cities or going to one of those cities. This isn’t to say that all of the passengers are Bostonians or Chicagoans, but there is a very strong probability that they are New Englanders or Midwesterners. The train itself is the cultural melting pot of the two regions.

There are scheduled journeys at night. We left Boston at night and were scheduled to arrive in Chicago in the morning. There are sleeper cars that I’m sure were full, but the time of year was just at the beginning of spring break for the colleges, and the economy seats were all full too. I had never seen a train full to capacity until then. It was crammed with probably eighty percent young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, each with far too much luggage to keep in the cabin of the train. College kids were elbowing each other and stepping on each others’ toes to get to and from the bathroom and to their backpacks, etc. I decided I would head to the bar car for a beer because a fair percentage of the kids were not old enough to drink.

The bar car was just as crowded. It reminded me of a Dublin pub at 10:55. It was a lucky thing that someone was getting up just as I was looking for a place to sit. I hopped on that seat like a gull on a French fry, dropped my pack and shuffled through the rocking line to get a beer. People were thrown into each other with each sway of the train, and it soon became obvious that it would not be tenable to remain in the bar car and to uphold the integrity of the idea of “personal space”. It was like a front row crush at a general admission concert. I finally got back to my seat with my beer and tried to settle in next to a very heavy guy who was probably ten years my senior. He made a joke about everyone fitting in, and the thrust of it was the double entendre between getting along with a group of people and actual physical space. There was no way he could have made the joke to just me without everyone in the immediate vicinity hearing. We all laughed, it was funny. Because of the rattling and rocking noises of the train, each conversation had to be louder than the background noise, which made it impossible for everyone to talk at once. It was pretty clear too that there were plenty of people who were traveling alone and did not have the impetus to control individual conversations. Organically, the conversation in the car became a single conversation, based on clever quips, sarcastic comments, and clever banter. It was the single time when I felt most like I was an extra in a well written sit-com. As Boston became Worcester we felt out how it would work for us to all stay in the crowded car together. As Worcester became Springfield we were all having a good time. As Springfield became Albany we were trying to keep the laughter coming and looking for ways to maintain the good time. It became like a rolling party. The people who had seats would have their drinks passed to them by the people who stood by the bar. People whose feet got tired were spelled by those of us with seats.

I noticed at the end of the car three college girls standing together. One was clearly of north Asian descent, one was clearly of purely African descent, and one was clearly of north European descent, with blue eyes and blond hair. Each of the girls was beautiful but I looked at them in wonder not just to enjoy their beauty but to revel in the fact that I came from and was shaped by a place that could support and advance the cause of diversity so well.

The large man next to me was a driving force in encouraging the shared humor of the car. Eventually he lumbered to his feet, and I thought it a pity if he were to head back to his seat at that point, that it would leave the rest of us at a bit of a loss. He went to the bar and collected a guitar case from the barman. He explained to an individual near us, but really to everyone in the car, that he was a professional studio guitar player, and that he had to travel a lot to make his recording sessions. He was deathly afraid to fly, though, and had to take the train everywhere. He wouldn’t dare leave his guitar for storage or check in, and felt like playing a bit now.

The air filled with requests and there was a bit of a rush on the beer as everyone settled in for a tune. But there would be no settled tunes that night. The heavy guy was a studio musician who had done long stints in bar bands all over New England, and knew exactly which tunes he could pound out on an acoustic with a pickup and a little amp that would get a crowd of hazy college kids singing. Before long, every voice was raised in song and the barman had to run back to the dining car for more beer. The rocking of the car sent people leaning into each other, and there they stayed. Almost as if the player had a set list he put one song after another that complemented it perfectly, and we rocked on to Toledo.

The guitar player was like a master of ceremonies for the train that night, and he worked magic on the lot of us who were there. He played a couple slower tunes toward the end of the night, and took my request of “Sunny” on the condition that I sing it, and I tried, but he grew frustrated when I couldn’t remember the words and sung it himself (as I knew he would). When he put his guitar back in its case he made pronouncements about the time, and spoke of how much fun we all had- he wrapped up the night for us, and we filed back into our seats to unwind while we rolled into the city of big shoulders. When we filed off of the train in Chicago there were a lot of tired but satisfied grins. Instead of us feeling like we had done a hard night of travel we were experiencing the afterglow of a good party.

That is my most memorable recollection of riding the Lakeshore Limited, but I have to say that each trip has been good. The views of the Great Lakes are great (pardon the pun) if you travel by day, and the people are always cool. I hate to sound like an ad for the train, but I haven’t traveled any real distance by train in some time, and I kind of miss it.


Blogger Cornelius Quick said...

I had never heard of hte Lakeshore Limited until a year ago when I planned a family trip to Erie PA. We never wound up going, but I remember thinking there was something unique about the train in the way it was marketed. It seemed like it woudl have been a cool trip.

The one trip I did take was down to Florida when I was 11. It was with my parents, and was crazy, but fun. I do remember a sense of comaraderie that I had not been exposed to up until that point. My dad had been joking about a big guy who kept leaving his wife and disappearing into the bathroom. Later that night we ran into him there in a sitting room. I twas where he hid his cigarettes from his wife. As it turns out he was a good conversationalist and knew one of my dad's favorite authors. It was interesting watching my dad bond with the guy in that small space.

It was more interesting when my mother got locked in the ladies room. She nobody was in the waiting room to hear her banging on the door. She sat on the toilet and kicked the door as hard as she could in that cramped space. She wound up breaking the toilet seat off, and then using that to bang on the door. We heard the noise and called a porter, who had to take the door off its hinges. She was embarassed, but it was pretty funny. Anyway, there were more stories, but I can't remember them all and I'm getting tired. Enjoyed your story.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I have to take a trip on the Lakeshore this weekend and after your story I really look forward to it. Thanks for the encouragement.

8:28 PM  

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