Friday, October 2, 2009

ది Autotrain

On the Autotrain to Florida, the passengers emptied the complimentary snacks and fruit bins in the club car even before the steel wheels started rolling. At the beginning of the 16-hour trip from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford in Central Florida, elderly ladies broke out their cell phones and all said the same thing. “We’re on the train! Here! Talk to daddy.” Daddy confirmed they were indeed on the train, and the train was going to leave the station soon, and the car had been driven onto the carrier wagon and Mom had left her purse under the drivers’ seat and no amount of pleading with the conductor could get the purse back, so Mom did not have her Metamucil or Valium. It would be a long trip.

I love the Autotrain, have ridden it at least a dozen times, but this trip is at best bittersweet. I’ve had to sell the apartment I’ve owned on Siesta Key and this will probably be the last time I ride the train.

This evening, a foursome in the observation car is into its second bottle of wine, and the stories are getting louder—tales of trips to Mexico, to Montana, to the Bahamas on a cruise ship. These folks have skipped supper to entertain each other with anecdotes of monkeys, alligators, ganja-smoking Black servers in Montego Bay and guides in Yucatan who spoke a language unknown to man. They’re a happy group, the children are grown and settled and now, with responsibilities discharged, the four are off to do a little gambling in the Seminole-owned casinos off Alligator Alley.

The movie tonight is Mall Cop, not a high favorite among the passengers. There’s a small TV screen at the far end of the wagon and speakers every three-or-so feet, so even if you don’t want to see the movie, you’ll get to hear it. Next to the TV is a sealed cubicles where four dour smokers aggressively practice their art.

Dinner is fish or steak. I sit with a delightful Hungarian couple in their eighties who ask if I have any friends who are camp survivors. It takes me a moment to spot the blurry tattoo on the man’s arm. Oh. Those camps. I say no, I don’t, though both my parents were in the war. The man says, “So, you are not Jewish?”

Once this is established the conversation wanders. They’ve never gone back to Hungary; they live in Palm Beach, have a cabin in the Poconos. Their children are grown and none of them speak Hungarian. But imagine this: two homes, eight months in the sun, four in the woods! Old people like themselves? Is this a great country or what? We agree, three immigrants, two generations. Yes, it sure is.

The only serious drawback to taking the Autotrain is that I can never sleep there. The noise, the rocking wagon, the stentorian whistling snore of the man two seats down, the hissing and slamming of connecting doors, the never-silent train whistle… All conspire to keep me dozing fitfully so that at 2 a.m. I remain awake; my legs cramp, my feet are swollen and my shoes don’t fit. I join the other insomniacs in the observation lounge, and since it is still pitch black outside, there is nothing to observe but each other, which we do surreptitiously.

But the passengers who do manage to sleep show how adaptive humans are to their environments. Large men pack themselves into tight spaces, feet and legs going every which way! Women become tiny mummies wrapped in blue Autotrain blankets. The repeat passengers are smart—they’ve brought their own bed things, leaving to the rest of us the marshmallow-size pillows supplied by Amtrak. These flatten like crepes upon contact with one’s head, and I have witnessed elderly passengers going from wagon to wagon collecting them. Eight marshmallows carefully arranged provide a modicum of comfort.

By morning the wagons are beginning to smell a little farty. Maybe it was the fish. We left the loblolly pines of Virginia and when dawn breaks, it is over palm trees and yuccas. The 452 riders stir, find the dining cars and a rumor spreads—they’ve run out of bagels! No, they haven’t but the corn muffins are running low. I sit across from a very large young woman who folds a half a bagel into her mouth so that little streams of grape jelly escape from the corners of her lips. She smiles at mde, I smile back. We are now two hours from Sanford, where we will debark and wait for our cars to be unloaded. This is a crapshoot. One time, I was the second car off the train. On another trip, it took more than two hours to get on the road.

The Hungarian couple looks remarkably fresh and rested. They have changed clothes, scrubbed their faces brushed their teeth. They smell like Colgate dentifrice. When their car—an older Lincoln Continental in mint condition—is driven to the waiting area by an attendant, the husband shakes my hand and the wife gives me a hug.

My car appears moments later. It’s an older Avanti convertible that never fails to elicit questions. I answer a few (yes, Studebaker made them originally; they were designed by Raymond Loewy, it’s a Chevy 305 engine…) and drive off. It’s warm, muggy. I stop and put the top down. I’m going to miss the train the adventure, even the one night of sleeplessness. I really like it down here.

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