On the Autotrain to
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
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
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
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.