Strangers on a train.

Strangers on a train.

Strangers on a train.

Arts and arguments in the news.
Dec. 10 2001 12:50 PM

Why Take the Train?

Politicians and business leaders are imploring Americans to take to the skies. In advertisement and in statements they ask us to make a journey whether it's in the spirit of adventure and to see something new or in the broader effort to help the country to return to normal. Let's not forget that you can also travel by train—not just because you may fear flying but also because it's adventure in itself. It is, as they say, a real eye-opener. Last week, I took an Amtrak express from New York to California, which, as I discovered, means almost no sleep for three days and air quality that often seemed worse than what you expect on a plane. But the West does look mighty pretty through the window, the plains of Kansas, the Rockies—what a sight. The same cannot be said for Amtrak food, which is nothing to look at any more than it's something to eat. The cooking oil must have a second job as an engine lubricant. If you smoke, as I do, you will find that the smoking lounge—a gray room with gray seats with an uncanny resemblance to one of those mobile arrest centers deployed by the NYPD at the height of its anti-crime drive—is likely to be positioned just about as far away from your compartment or car as it could be. When you finally get there you will find it forever occupied by class-grievance types. You would expect such people to be anti-government people, and indeed their conversation suggested they were, although traveling courtesy of the federal government didn't bother them unduly. Like Martin Amis surrounded by hefty Republicans at a GOP convention a few years ago, the rather large, denim-clad men and women who chained-smoked discount cigarettes coast to coast somehow made me seem so frightfully homosexual. There I was smoking oh so gay Camel Lights. A bald ex-Marine (or that's what he claimed to be) with bad, pale skin told boring stories about his military days and bragged about his free holiday flights on Air Force planes to Pearl Harbor. (Some holiday, pal.) At a small station in the middle of nowhere, a woman with an uncanny resemblance to the character played by Anjelica Houston in Stephen Frears' movie The Grifters boarded the train and joined the smoking party. She claimed to be a real estate agent who worked in Santa Fe but chose to live in San Diego, and that her car had broken down—which is why she had boarded the train. But why had she left all her luggage in her trunk? And why did she board the train at a remote station where you could not buy a ticket because there was no ticket office? And why did she pay in cash? Someone, so it seemed to me, didn't want their true identity known. Was the corpse of her husband or lover or business partner still warm? Ah well, that's what a train travel can do: Miles and miles and hours and hours crossing America will set light to anyone's imagination, which is why Amtrak train travel is appealing—despite the food, the appalling air, and the aggressive looks you can expect to find in the smoking lounge.