A Year On The Ground: Rail Riders

by Sallie Bingham

In the diner car somewhere in Georgia, Keith, the kindly, amused and amusing steward, explains the exigencies of Amtrak, under funded, according to Jimmie, the sleeping car porter, since its inception.

“Did they get rid of your chefs?” I ask Keith, having heard on an earlier east-west trip that chef losing had been one of Amtrak’s attempts at economy.

“Not our chefs but our chef’s helpers, the ones who used to make salads, things like that, and wash dishes, the same time they got rid of china and glasses and linen table clothes. Now we just wash the wine glasses and the knives and forks and throw everything else away—a big waste,” he adds, before I can comment on the vast bags of non-recycled trash the new system must produce.

I commiserate before going back to the dinner menu.

“I recommend the steak,” the big, brightly colored and adorned woman next to me says with authority. The steak is amply promoted on the menu, its description outclassing the chicken, pasta and seafood, so I order it and it is delicious, as well as free. Our first class tickets entitle us to three meals a day.

My seatmate is traveling from Miami to her home in New Jersey. She speaks with a familiar accent. When the roommate who refuses to bow to political correctness asks her if she’s from Mexico, she replies with a flash of pride, “Cuba”.

She goes on to tell us with a pain now almost fifty years old that her parents were driven out when Fidel Castro came to power. Her father, who owned a group of small grocery stores in Havana, arrived with nothing but his family and the clothes on their backs; he went to work in a New Jersey plastics factory.They managed.

Now, his daughter, my dinner companion, trained as a registered nurse, has found a private position after twenty years in a hospital. She’s the companion of an eighty-year-old woman who loves to travel and who only suffers from high blood pressure, which is controlled; as a safety measure, for companionship and because she can afford it, the woman takes along my companion.

“I told her I won’t fly,” my newfound friend tells me. “So we go by train. Now she wants to go to France.” She throws up her hands metaphorically.

”Take the boat,” I suggest, my imagination swarming with memories of evening dance parties, dress-up dinners and mild flirtations.

She loves the idea. Now my imagination swarms with images of her evenings on “The Queen of Elizabeth” with her charge, both of them dressed-up, vivid and well decorated, taking their seats at the captain’s table.

I don’t disrupt the illusion by asking her what she thinks of the U.S. embargo that has driven her home island into poverty. She does agree that everyone in Cuba gets a free education, including graduate school.

“They’re all doctors and lawyers, but they make twenty-five dollars a week.”

Not enough for an Amtrak ticket Florida to Virginia, even by coach.

The roommate and I lower the upper berth in our roomette, making ready for the night. I opt for the upper berth, remembering from childhood how cozy it was, with its long window giving out onto the night. I climb from toilet to closed washbasin to berth and tuck myself in with a sigh of relief. We will ride all night, the roommate down below, the engineer sounding the long sad diesel horn hour after hour as we make our way through the endless towns of the eastern seaboard. There’s no open space left, it seems to me, as I lie looking out on houses, roads, small towns, grade crossings where, even before dawn, cars are lined up waiting for the train to pass. On a porch, two little boys dance wildly as they see the train, the hope and the vision of escape for them as it has always been for me.

We will reach Richmond shortly after breakfast, to spend a few days in the town that was home to three generations in my family.

to be continued...


Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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