Thursday, September 29, 2016

Northeast Regional

The other staffer showed up a little after four, reporting that it took her an hour to travel the mile from Penn Station to the Lotte Palace hotel where our control room was set up. I briefed her on our operation, showed her where the high-side and low-side were, where the printers were, which laptop you could print from and which you couldn't and where the support staff was. Our office had basically taken over the entire 37th floor of the hotel, each bureau in a separate hotel room.

I said goodbye to my colleagues and stepped into the elevator, through the lobby and past security, the point of no return. I stopped briefly at my hotel to pick up the rolling suitcase I had left with the bellboy before making my own journey to Penn Station. It was a little past 5:00 and my train didn't leave until 6:30, so despite the warm temperatures, there was no way I was going to get in a cab and pass up the opportunity to walk the mile through New York City at rush hour.

The walk reminded me of the walk Elise and I took through the city after we got engaged. I asked her to marry me in Central Park. Buoyed by our happiness, we walked a dozen blocks or more from Central Park to Times Square, calling our parents on our cell phones to tell them the happy news along the way.

I walked down 5th Ave, past the library. As I got closer to 33rd, I could see the new World Trade Center tower, shimmering in the heat and the distance. I didn't even notice when I passed the Empire State Building.

I entered Penn Station and picked up my ticket at the Amtrak window. I hadn't eaten anything all day, so planned on grabbing a bite at the train station, but the only places to eat were a KFC, Taco Bell, and TGI Fridays. I decided to find a spot at the bar at Fridays with a view of the train board and wait until it was time to board the train, twenty minutes before departure. I ordered what passed for a local beer, I suppose, a Goose Island IPA that had only the vaguest hint of hoppiness. It tasted like skunky Miller Lite and cemented my estimation that D.C. beer is much, much better than NYC beer. (In fact, it's one of my favorite things about my new hometown, the beer scene; I think there are 7 microbreweries in Loudoun County, Northern Virginia alone.)

I drank two anyway, the first going down fast. I contemplated ordering food, but potato skins weren't exactly what I was in the mood for. Plus, I wasn't sure how long they would take and wasn't prepared to order $15 worth of food I might not even get the chance to eat.

Somehow, I struck up a conversation with the guy standing next to at the bar. He, too, was going to D.C. There weren't many of us, come to find out. Most people seemed headed out to Long Island or New Jersey, up to Boston. I sneaked peeks of baseball highlights on the plasma big screen between snippets of conversation I've mostly forgotten. I do remember we shared the fact that we both had three kids. His were 16, 13, and 10, to which I said something to the effect of, "You're me in eight years." (Forgive my math. It's usually pretty good, but remember I was two beers in at this point on an empty stomach.)

I think he did challenge my math. Whatever. But he also said something somewhat striking, not surprising, and definitely relatable, "My 16 year-old. She has no interest in getting her drivers license." I have no idea how this came up in conversation between two strangers waiting for a train, but I wasn't surprised to hear it. I had heard or read somewhere that many Millennials were shying away from driving. I don't exactly remember what was cited as the cause...perhaps they were fulfilling their social needs online. My own half-sister only recently got her drivers license at age 18. Not exactly late, per se, but several years after her triplet brother and sister got their learners permit. Now, she complains online about getting locked out of her car at school and having to take an Uber home.

He described it as a "paradigm shift". "By the time our kids are old enough to drive, cars will be driving themselves," he said. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I suppose he could be right.

He was the one who noticed our train was boarding, and I hurriedly settled my tab and we walked to the platform together, though I was much slower than he was, wrestling a disagreeable rolling suitcase through the crowded train station. We stood next to each other on the escalator down to the platform, and I remember thinking to myself I hoped this guy wouldn't follow me on the train because I didn't know if I could sustain awkward conversation for 3 1/2 hours all the way from New York to D.C.

Thankfully, he turned right at the bottom of the escalator. I turned left. And ran right into a conductor. It occurred to me then that I hadn't rode the train since college. I guess I thought it was like an airplane at first, that I would have an assigned seat. I showed the conductor my ticket and asked, "What do I do now?"

He smirked down at me, "You get on the train, son!" He bellowed.

I picked the nearest car, though I am sure there is some strategy to seating, some place on the train more desirable than others, a quiet place no one will bother you, or a spot close (or far) from a bathroom, or next to the dining car.

The first open seat that I saw was next to a mother and her infant daughter. She expertly cradled the baby, feeding her from a bottle she held in the same hand. She reached for her diaper bag with her free hand as though to move it from the seat next to her so I could sit down, but I made a motion with my hand as though to say I wouldn't take the seat and looked for another one, but the car was surprisingly full.

The woman moved her bag. "I'm getting off at the first stop," she told me. "Then, you'll have the whole row to yourself." I agreed and sat down. The baby immediately smiled at me around the nipple on her bottle, milk dribbling out the corners of her mouth.

I made small talk with the mother as the train pulled out of the station, telling her about my own three kids. At the first stop, in Newark, she didn't get off (I must have misunderstood her), but the elderly couple across the aisle did. They had been on the train since Boston and were now panicking because there was no red cap helping them off with their bags. By the time the train had come to a full stop, the couple had worked themselves up into a full blow tizzy, so I just snatched their bags from them and ran all three of them out onto the platform before they even had time to say thank you.

I settled in, taking my earphones out of my bag. I planned to listen to music, something I do almost religiously twice a day during my daily commute. After running, it's my second favorite way to relax when I'm feeling a little balled up. I also planned to finish the book I've been reading on this trip. I even brought a second book that I planned on starting. I guess I was feeling ambitious (though I did read two nights after the kids went to bed, flat on my stomach on the hotel room carpet by the dim light of a floor lamp).

I've been reading C.J. Cherryh nonstop for almost a year now. I started with the Chanur novels, all six of them, then read Downbelow Station, one of the best sci-fi books I've ever read. How it has not been adapted to a movie or television series yet is beyond me. I'm now going through the Company War books, working my way up to Cyteen. I used to read the Economist before bed, because I felt this need to keep up with current events. Now that I work in current events, I decided I needed an escape. these books remind me of the joy I had when I first read Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock, Dune by Frank Herbert, and the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey as a teenager.

But despite my best intentions, I didn't open the book. It would take me three weeks to get through the last twenty pages. I watched the scenery go by instead, rail yards, cemeteries, American Legion headquarters, used car lots, suburban New Jersey. The sun set, painting the sky and the clouds golden. The entire landscape took on the same hue as golden raisins.

I texted back and forth with Elise as she was stuck in traffic, taking Clementine to ballet. I glanced up at my phone at one point just as the door between cars was opening and saw that I was next to the dining car where there was a bar. I decided, "Why not?" And carefully got up and bought myself a beer.

I went back to my seat and sipped on my beer with every intention of opening my book. I never did. I was having...

I looked out the window as the sun set and the moon came out. Philadelphia. Delaware. Eventually, Baltimore and BWI.

We would pull into Union Station a little after 10:00. By the time I would get home on the Metro and in bed it would be 11:30. I'd sleep for five hours, get up at 4:30, shower and get back on the Metro to open the office. I wouldn't catch up on my sleep all week, but it was worth it. I think. It's hard to tell sometimes how important or not my small role is. But I can say I got to go to New York and ride the train.

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