Tell your friends you’re going on vacation and they smile. Mention that it’s a family vacation and that smile may falter for a moment. Tell them you’ve booked a trip to New York City and they say “ah” neutrally and sometimes nod. Tell them you’re going there and back by train -- and they gape at you like a startled tiki. By train? In America? Can you, like, do that?
You can, and we did.
I prefer traveling by rail. For most of the Amtrak ridership I’ve encountered it’s obviously a case of nostalgia (A.A.R.P. members are the only people who don’t take air travel for granted) but me, I simply like it better. Neither my body nor my mind can tolerate for long the miserable cramped confinement of a jet plane, the nasty recycled air, the lack of privacy, or the concretized microwave dreck they call food. Is there any horror quite like a protracted, turbulent descent from thirty odd thousand feet? And the folks you have by that time made friends with, trying not to notice you vomiting into the little bag?
Novitiate Am-trekkers need only keep two things in mind: try never to travel by coach, and never, ever expect to get anywhere “on time.” Now, coach passage is fine if you don’t mind most of the drawbacks of air travel mentioned above, but when I am officially On Vacation I do not intend to court discomfort if I can avoid it. First Class airfare is absurdly expensive, but First Class trainfare isn’t. According to what I looked up on the Internet my family of four, roundtrip SF / NY, would be about $1400 by jet, coach, and we paid $1800 by rail, 1st class. That extra $400 netted us 6 nights of accommodation for 4 people, plus about 72 full meals.
No, the so-called convenience of getting somewhere in a state of endless vile discomfort doesn’t do anything for me. Add our modern Security Fear and the near certainty that a man with long hair and a beard will be asked to “please step into Examining Room 4b with Special Agent McClutsky” instead of boarding with the others, and there’s just isn’t any percentage in it.
I like watching the countryside go by, not beneath, and I like it even better with a big window and a good book. How much nicer, when it‘s your own private window. I like being able to get up and walk around, step outside sometimes, eat a meal cooked for me, take a nap lying down, chat or chat not as the mood takes me, and maybe have a hot shower and then bunk down for the night in my own room. When you can do all that at about fifty miles per hour, what’s not to enjoy?
The California Zephyr departs Emeryville daily. And hey, there’s another thing – they don’t give romantic names to airplanes, do they? If they did, it would sound stupid. Tell your friends you flew on “Annie the Airbus” and they’ll cut you off after one drink. Tell them you arrived on the California Zephyr or the City Of New Orleans, and they’ll immediately brighten up and ask what your journey was like.
Settled snugly in your own compartment, a train is as friendly and romantic as travel gets. In fact there is something appealingly womblike about the gentle side-to-side motion and the soft rhythmic clickety-clack continuum. It works like a potent aphrodisiac on even a perfectly reasonable fellow such as myself. Thoughtfully, Amtrak has provided an antidote to this which they call the “Family Compartment,” but if you and a friend are lucky enough to have a Deluxe Stateroom to yourselves it’s at least theoretically possible to travel over 3,000 comfy miles without ever wearing a stitch of clothing. And they used to talk of the “friendly skies”!
Pulling out of Emeryville on Wednesday morning, we were bang on time -- until we slowed down and stopped near Pinole. Then we stopped again at the new Carquinez bridge.. Our attendant explained to me Amtrak’s great Achilles heel: after stopping, they like to talk about passenger safety but really, they’re just being told to stop by the owners. Amtrak apparently owns the train but not the rails. As near as I can understand it, they lease their track time from another company what’s determined that freight makes the real money, so they give short shrift to human payloads. With maddening regularity we stop, a freight train goes by, and we start again. But soon we cruise past the three flotillas of the Navy’s “mothball fleet” which I’ve always been curious to see, so I don’t much care about the already slipping timetable.
And, I’ve brought Middlemarch with me, a very good and very big book.
Creeping through the timbered slopes of the Sierras, we relocated to the lounge car with its huge windows and drank in the vistas. By then a docent from the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento had boarded and was narrating points of historical interest along the route, his discourse punctuated by another rail phenomenon, the Train Geek.
Every long rail trip seems to feature one Train Geek, this time in the person of a large round passenger with pop-eyes and multiple chins, a baseball cap that never once came off, and an immense digital camera. If anything of interest passed by such as a train station, a switching tower, an old flatcar, an abandoned caboose, a sign, a light, a rotting fence, a bit of chain or a tree, it was duly photographed even if he was in the midst of an explanation of track gauges, engine numbers, or the current market value of old rusty iron spikes.
Finally it was lunch time. The dining car is surely the highlight of any train trip and for good reason. The food is a lot better than you’d expect, it’s all free to sleeper car passengers, and there is something very special about watching the scenery go by while you’re tucked into a booth and eating. Many restaurants make a big deal about their view, but they can’t touch this. Who ever waves at a restaurant? Everybody waves, when you’re in a passing train.
Also there is the free dinner theater starring the dining car staff. Like good repertories everywhere, no two dining car casts are alike. The fellow in charge is quite the Little Corporal but his Grande Armée is anything from loyal to blasé to simmering on the point of insurrection. This time the staff seemed to be culled from the ranks of taciturn giants fresh from undertaker’s college. Day One, and not a smile was to be seen on any of ’em! And they were so large they could hardly pass each other in the aisle. When our server –-Lurch, I’ll call him--- finally got to us my wife made the mistake of asking what the lunch special was, at which he hung his head and simply walked away. Fifteen (I exaggerate not) minutes later he returned, a journey of some nine steps, to say, “Meat Loaf.” These were the only words spoken to us for the entire meal. Fortunately, the meat loaf was tasty. The Mac ‘n’ Cheese also passed muster with the severest of my family’s critics.
Teeth brushed and shoelaces loosened, we reclined in our Family Compartment and read stories and listened to the rolling creaks and groans of our train. The museum docent and the scenery both departed at Reno, and the Zephyr forged on through bleak Nevada and darkening Utah. In but a jiffy, it was dinner time.
Fittingly, it took the onset of evening to liven up Lurch, at whose table we again sat. He might also have been mixing his meds, as now he not only spoke but employed a free mix of Italian and English. “Welcome to the dining car. Por la signora?” he said with new energy, fixing us with his basilisk eye. “Herb chicken, rice, good idea. Y por el signor? Steak-o. Medium. Spud. And-a Mac’n’Cheezino for the bambinos? Got it.” And we did.
Come back to your compartment after chow (a perfectly cooked steak, too -- plus a slice of cheesecake for dessert and coffee served in those neat little round-bottomed glass carafes; did you know they’re called “hottles”?), come back to your compartment I say and note your kids’ faces when they discover it’s been transformed into a cozy bedroom. In the past it has been a struggle to put our kids to bed but not on the train; in about two seconds they wriggled into their little berths, the next chapter of Swallowdale was read aloud and about two minutes later, they were sound asleep.
Night-time effectively obviates most of the Beehive State, and entering the dining car on Thursday morning, freshly showered, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you are greeted by the stony canyons of Sadler Summit over your tasty flapjacks and bacon. Doubtless fleeing the sunlight, Lurch was not on duty but a compatriot of even greater displacement silently poured me a refill or two. “Isn’t the coffee good?” I asked my wife. “You’re obsessing on the food,” she said groggily. Not really a Morning Person, my spouse. In fact, she arranged with our attendant to have breakfast henceforth served to her in bed, back in the room.
The town of Helper, Utah is so called as this was where the Union Pacific line would typically stop and hitch extra locomotives to the trains to get them over the mountains. It’s interesting to look at the Cretaceous landscape around you and realize the entire human landscape has been more or less created by the very thing you’re riding on, and in less than a century. These are railroad towns, a lot of them, and their history –the “region’s history”—is the railroad’s history.
You get many great ‘photo ops’ on this route along the Colorado River, or through Rouge Canyon, Fraser Canyon and so on, especially when the train thoughtfully slows to a halt so frequently for you to get just the perfect composition. And then it halts again, just a little further along. At Grand Junction, Colorado, we were thoughtfully given a whole hour or more to wander around and photograph the once beautiful now derelict old train station, decomposing behind its chain link shroud. This was especially appreciated by our camera-toting Train Geek, though even he began to glance at his watch.
We were finally cleared to enter the six-and-a-quarter-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, but only under the condition that no one was allowed to go from car to car, to leave their compartment, or to buy food at the lunch counter. Apparently the air deep in the tunnel gets a little too saturated with diesel fumes to support human life, but we rolled out safely in spite of the thing being way too long to make it on just one breath.
We timed it badly for the movie car. The film we wanted to see (“Holes”) screened while we were at dinner, and the next day we ate earlier but were shown “Agent Cody Banks” instead, which we didn’t especially want to see. Well, that’s show biz.
The Rocky Mountains are surprisingly dull, seen in darkness. Then suddenly the train turns and a boggling, spectacular prospect of colored lights is spread far below you. Surely the Denver town elders planned that their scattered streetlights should be in three different hues? Looking down from the Rockies, the Denver metro area is a surreal nightscape, a wondrous green, golden and orange sight.
Then we tried an interesting experiment: with the curtains closed, a person standing up in the gently swaying compartment is hard pressed to tell exactly which way the train is really moving. Without scenery going by, you’re without a crucial reference. Lying in bed, too, a person can dreamily imagine they’re moving in the opposite direction, or even sideways, hovering miles over a vast field of glimmering lights.
When the train is actually moving, that is.
Friday breakfast finds you screaming along through the great prairie states of Nebraska and Iowa. Plucky fellow passengers observe hopefully that “they’re certainly making up a lot of time, aren’t they?” until the whole shebang grinds to a halt once more to await the passing of the inevitable oncoming freight. The view (moving or stationary) became one of endless corn, soybeans, and occasionally a token barn and silo. By now the lounge car had become the Train Geek’s permanent parlor, enlivened by a large walkie-talkie he kept poised before him, always ‘on,’ tuned to the band used by the engineer and crew. The damn thing squawked and brayed endlessly, not a single word of it intelligible…except perhaps, to him. At Osceola, Iowa he began making many cell ‘phone calls, proudly informing one friend that by this point he had taken over thirteen hundred digital pictures.
By the late afternoon Illinois light it was occurring to many passengers (us included) that we were delayed enough to imperil catching our connecting train for New York, the Lake Shore Limited. We had more than three hours of layover --a good cushion-- but by Princeton, Ill. we were almost four hours late. The conductor was reassuring but offered no guarantees, though our speed did seem to increase a little.
When we finally blew into Union Station in downtown Chicago, at least two dozen packed-and-ready travelers burst out of the California Zephyr and hustled along the platform like a wave of tickets and rolling suitcases…to find that the Lake Shore Limited had departed on schedule, twenty minutes before.
A foaming angry mob swept us along to the Customer Service area to confront a formidable Senior Manager whose iron professionalism, one gathers, might be due to rehearsing this scenario all too often. Most of the Zephyrai were dismayed at missing their train, but willing to be fed and put up for the night for free. Although one thin, fixedly scowling individual launched into elaborate detail how this WAS going to interrupt her STRICT medication regime which was LIFE THREATENING and which she could ONLY buy in New York and how this EASILY might just cost her LIFE which Amtrak CLEARLY didn’t CARE about---at which point I walked up and asked about other trains departing that night.
At ten p.m. we boarded the Three Rivers, bound for Akron, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Trenton, and New York City. But we were downgraded to Coach! No sleepers available. The kids didn’t mind since we were still all together, and they could curl up neatly into the reclined seat. They had coats for blankets, so what was the big problem?
“We paid for beds,” my wife pointed out. “Well, the ticket man said we’ll be credited for the overpayment. And we’ll still get to New York the same day.” “Did he give you a pillow?” “Eh, no. But really, you could just pretend you’re back in college, you know, like the old Eurailpass days? Remember? Bumming through Europe?” “I’m not 19.” “Well, you’re not as tall as those guys.” I indicated the husky young pair of lads in front of us, six and a half footers each, speaking what sounded like Russian. It turned out they were Lithuanian, in college, and bumming around America for the summer. Their names were Ari and something almost unpronounceable, like seven vowels and an ‘L’. They were shy, friendly, and very broke, on their way to New York to catch a flight back to Vilnius. This was their third day on the rails too, except they’d come from L.A., coach, on a special cheap ticket. They lived so frugally I gathered their entire summer had set them back about two hundred bucks apiece, including tips. They had no blankets or pillows, skipped meals to save money, and just folded their big frames into the seats and shut their eyes when the time came. Ah, to be 19 and on the road.
“Oh My Gawd,” said a loud raspy-voiced lady near us, “What this seat is gonna do to my back.” “Well you just do the best you can Mom,” said her large and unconvincingly blond daughter from the seats behind us. Both were gifted with penetrating voices. “Well that’s it for my back then.” “You’ll be OK, Mom.” “Do we have time for a cigarette?” “No Mom, conductor said we’re takin’ right off.” “My Gawd I sure could use me a cigarette. I mean it’s not like it’s anything. It’s just a cigarette.” With vocal cords nicotine-stained and smoke cured for at least four decades, our garrulous neighbor could be heard the length of the completely full car. And was. “Well I could use me one too, Mom.” “You know when you’re trying to settle down there’s really nothing like a good cigarette.” “Ain’t that the truth, Mom.”
At four thirty in the morning I learned that “If you try to go between the cars to have a cigarette, you know, just one cigarette, you know, My Gawd, in the place there between the cars where there isn’t anybody and you’re not bothering anybody, these people, My Gawd, they materialize out of nowhere and they tell you you can’t even have a cigarette.” “Well, it’s crazy, Mom.” “You’re darn right it’s crazy.” “Well Mom I don’t make the rules, you know.” “It’s some crazy person makes the rules. Well I mean, My Gawd.”
The Three Rivers indeed follows three different rivers through Pennsylvania and each of them is beautiful. Rivers always fascinate me because I come from Los Angeles where there are no rivers. The foliage is so lush and green everywhere. The immense abandoned mills along the riverside were not unpicturesque, forlorn and slowly rusting, certainly more attractive than when they were operating. Train routes through cities are often ugly, but following river valleys there is little else than beauty.
Near Lancaster I noticed curiously dressed people collecting their hand luggage for the next stop. Plain overalls, plain clunky shoes, plain dresses, plain mob-caps, plain straw hats, and half a dozen kids dressed in identical miniature. And those tremendously cool beards! They were actual Amish farmers! At the station they were met by a dozen others teleported from the same century -- but they were climbing out of mini-vans and station wagons. I thought Amish drove only buggies? The attendant pointed out that they were in fact Mennonites, what he called ‘postmodernist Amish.’ They farmed traditionally and had those tremendously cool beards, but drove cars, danced, and even had ‘the electric’ in their houses.
“We could do that, you know,” I told my wife, “we could live like that. We could farm traditionally. It’s real life. Salt of the Earth. We could be great Mennonites.” “You’re an atheist.” “Would that be an issue?” “As soon as they got to know you, we’d all be burned at the stake in the village square.”
By nightfall we were in New Jersey, thoughtfully coming to one last stop in the middle of nowhere and giving the train as good a view of the New York Skyline as possible. The mighty Empire State Building stood out above the rest, starkly lit. The Lithuanians began to sing “New York, New York”…in Lithuanian.
Pennsylvania Station, Manhattan – at a quarter to nine or not, it’s a madhouse! One where the nuts are not only running the asylum, they even drew up the blueprints. Once train stations were immense caverns of space, huge gorgeous empty rooms. From anywhere you could see the clock and the arrivals / departures board, constantly updating itself. Now they build endless warrens of tunnels and chambers with low ceilings festooned with mini strip-malls, billboards and neon, but no clocks. Timetables are on widely spaced TV monitors so fuzzy they’re illegible. It’s almost impossible to find your way around, tell where you are, or where you need to be. Even the taxi rank was a mess, the signs leading you hither and yon before finally getting up and outside, but even then you’re led around by temporary barriers to a side street, an unmarked one, where you stand and hope for a cab. It was a warm, humid, and close night.
I was told that in the 1960s, when residents realized the city really did intend to pull down the old Penn Station, they literally linked arms to make a last-minute human barricade against the bulldozers. It worked -– for about an hour, just long enough to get them out of the way for the ‘dozers to do their job. Now they have a dreadful station that everyone hates. There is talk of pulling it down, too, and re-building the original station. Or moving next door, into the old and stately Post Office.
My son asked why steam was leaking up from a manhole cover on the street. I explained to him about the vast catacombs of the legendary New York City sewer system, how much of it was a steaming vine-choked tropical swamp populated by savage cave dwellers who have never seen the sun and huge blind albino alligators preying on whomever washed down the drains. “I’m in the seventh grade, you know,” he said tartly, “not kindergarten.” He did avoid walking near any steam leaks for the rest of the trip, however.
My sister’s apartment is over fifty blocks uptown, and the cabbie was thrilled. “Downtown is a total disaster. President God Damn Bush is in town and they just close the streets, wham, sorry a special party is closing this for a private function. Traffic, oh Maria – unbelievable. The motorcades, the cops. That God Damn Bush, man, what a mess, man, but he still better than That Asshole Clinton.”
This caught my attention. How so?, I wondered.
“Oh, God Damn Bush don’t like New York, he hate the U.N., he’s only here when he gotta be. Hardly ever see him. That Asshole Clinton, man, he love New York, he here all the time. Motorcades screwin’ everything around all the time. Close the streets, wham. Uptown, oh yeah, really, I’m thrilled. You from New York?”
Actually he turned out to be a very happy fellow who was impressed that we’d taken the train all the way from California. He noted my hair. “Hey, you go near the Park, you go visit Strawberry Fields by the Dakota. The Dakota Building, you know?, where they shoot John Lennon?” I told him we hadn’t thought about it. “Oh, it’s great. Look there!” Mindfully, he halted the cab to show us – right in the middle of an intersection.
Ten car horns instantly blared all around us. He ignored them. We were smack in 5th Avenue at 72nd Street and he leaned over me to point at the barely visible Dakota, five blocks away. An endless stream of honking cars swept around us. Other cab drivers gestured, vividly. Vehicles shot by, mere inches away. They hardly slowed down. Delivery vans, a limousine, a bicycle, more cabs… Satisfied that we’d noted the edifice, he leapt back into traffic.
No drivers seem to take the least notice of the lines painted on the road: you drive in New York City and you’re automatically jockeying for position, ripping along at the maximum speed traffic will allow. It was like being a corpuscle in a healthy jogger’s bloodstream.
Sunday dawned clear and balmy. It was impossible to find a cab because, as the cop hanging parking tickets on cars in front of the building told me, “Columbus Ave is closed for a Special Function.” “Oh, it’s the street fair,” my sister told me. I thought we should go, but she waved it off. “Not even the local merchants do them any more. They’re professional Street Fair people. They close the street, they set up, sell sell sell, pack up, and vanish.”
So the day found us at Central Park taking better advantage of the lovely weather. I stopped to buy some ice cream bars from a pushcart salesman before noting my sister waving me delicately away. Come on now, I thought, I’m supporting the Little Guy here, not slick street pros, and pointed to a few pictured items on the menu placard. They were brought forth with a kind of wounded, sulky look. “Twel dolla,” the little fellow under the umbrella said morosely. I gave him twenty and got eight in change. “Count it,” my sister said to me quietly, “count it.” I did, and again it came to eight dollars. “These carts are all scooped up by immense trucks at night – every one is owned by the same company, and I think they employ crooks exclusively,” she said as we walked along. The kids couldn’t find a waste can for the wrappers, so I walked back to the cart to use the one there. Only then did I notice the small, faded notice tacked down low on the side. It was the ice cream price list. I added up what I’d bought, and it came to ten dollars.
I caught the pushcart fellow’s flinty eye, and I’m sure he knew exactly what I was discovering. And I think he also knew it was a lovely afternoon, my family was walking away to find the Alice In Wonderland statue, and it was only two lousy dollars. “Your first New York Moment?” my sister said with a smile, later.
The Central Park Boat Pond was fantastic, right out of the 1930s, even if the hire boats are now outfitted with radio controls to luff their teeny sails at the flick of a switch. Two men were showing off superb scratch-built models of old powerboats, all shiny mahogany and little brass rails, and enterprising fellows had set up an enormous telescope to offer free views of a hawk family who had built a nest on a neighboring skyscraper’s rooftop. We caught the goofy Children’s Zoo clock striking 6, then looked for cabs: we’d done ground level and now it was time to head for the top.
The Empire State Building is once again the tallest structure in New York, possibly the only building ever to have regained the title. It’s an extremely popular tourist attraction, and no wonder – the lush prewar décor of the lobby looks so appealing you can’t resist walking in, and where else can you stand at the base of an actual Airship Docking Mast except the 86th Floor Observation Deck? Few other piles have such a Gee Whiz Factor, when you think of it. The famous “Flatiron Building” is easily visible from the Deck, but looks so small it gets lost down in the geometry. The Chrysler Building is pretty, but come on – it’s a couple of stories shorter.
It was a clear sunset and we lingered as the lights of the city came on. I also popped for the personal audio tour narrated by “Tony,” cab driver and Chelsea-born New Yorker to the bone. A bit heavy on the folksiness (and he never once asks if I wanted to know what da fuck is wrong wit dis fuckin’ city) but it’s an enlightening spiel and a fine alternative to your children’s pleas for E.S.B. souvenir junk, available at hand in limitless quantity.
Back to mundane street level, we could not find a cab. Instead we found two or three dozen New York Policemen setting up barricades and waving traffic away. “This street is temporarily closed,” we were told, “because of a Special Party.” “That probably means a government V.I.P.,” my sister translated for me, “I think it’s Bush. Ah-ha,” she pointed, and sure enough a parade of big vehicles slithered around a corner and began to race past us. There must have been fifteen of them, roaring shiny SUVs packed with big scowling he-men in dark gray suits and sunglasses and little earphones with NYPD motorcycles swarming ahead like hornets to block side traffic, close more roads, establish a presence, move The Man to his next stop.
I couldn’t help noticing a group of saffron-robed monks across the street, watching the lights and sirens go by, just like us. “Oh yes, the Dalai Lama is also in town,” my sister said. I bet they don’t close streets for him. Or do they?
Monday’s weather was indifferent so we went to see the aircraft carrier “Intrepid” docked on the Hudson River, near the berth originally intended for the Titanic. It’s an interesting floating museum of fighter aircraft, and survived a lot of punishment in the Pacific theater of World War II including two or three direct kamikaze hits that almost sent the ship down. In fact the Captain sounded the alert to ‘abandon ship’ at some point, but the damage was so bad the intercom wasn’t working and nobody heard the alert, and they ended up saving the boat. Jet planes made the Intrepid a kind of dinosaur, though it was this carrier that was dispatched to fish out the Mercury and Gemini space capsules when they splashed down in the Atlantic.
On the Hangar Deck, we met another assemblage of the robed monks – or was it the same guys? Hard to tell if you don’t give each one a differently colored balloon. I thought it was strange to see them here, between a memorial to Bob Hope featuring Endless Film Clips of His Least Funny Routines (intercut with soldiers literally falling from their chairs, convulsed with laughter) and a display whooping up that savior of Desert Storm the “Patriot Missile,” really just an immense ad for the Raytheon Corporation. “What do you think those Holy Guys are doing here?” I asked my wife. “Probably curious to see how the killer half lives,” she shrugged.
We ascended to the Flight Deck, keenly anticipating our tour of the Bridge. But it was roped off! “Sorry,” a New York Policeman informed us, “but a Special Party is in the facility for a Function and the Bridge is closed for the time being.” Standing coolly by the wicked-looking Blackbird parked on the deck was a hulking man in a dark gray suit, sunglasses and a little earphone. Next to him were three “artiste” types dressed in timeless black, one holding a makeup case.
“Is it George Bush?” I asked. The policeman smirked. “Vanity Fair,” he said with only the slightest trace of disgust, “if that ain’t the same thing.”
Our next cab dropped us off at the famous Natural History Museum, to which my sister had thoughtfully provided us with passes. But before we could get to the dinosaur rooms, Security Guards and two large men in dark gray suits with sunglasses and little earphones caught us up. “We’re sorry,” a guard told us, “but a Special Party is going to be touring the facility and having a Function, and so the Museum will be closing for the day in ten minutes.” This time it was George Bush. We were promptly shown the outside.
Still undismayed, I saw grafted onto one end of the museum is the old Planetarium. It is now reincarnated as the Rose Earth ‘n’ Space Center, and a slick-looking piece of eye candy it is: immense sphere set in lucite box, five stories high. Tomorrow we would check it out.
And Tuesday morning, just as we were stepping onto the funny scales to see what our weight would be on Jupiter or on Halley’s Comet, we were met by some Museum Attendants, two cops, and a large hulking man in a dark gray suit with sunglasses and a little earphone. “I’m sorry,” the Museum Guy on the left said, “but a Special Party is going to be touring the facility and having a Function, and so the Museum will be closing for the day in ten minutes.”
“But we—” I yammered. Don’t argue with these people, said my spouse’s look. “Oh, we were on our way to the Met, anyhow,” she said out loud.
“It’s just across the Park,” she told me as we waited for the light on Central Park West. And so we plunged in to the verdure --just to cross it, mind you— and began wandering like lost hobbits. The paths simply did not go where we needed to go and kept taking us further from the Met. They were designed by madmen, these paths! They didn’t seem to go anywhere. Finally, stepping over a few small fences, we followed long lines of electric cables right to the edge of The Great Lawn: on our map, more than half way to the Met. But then we encountered “Lou” (or so said his embroidered satin baseball jacket) riding up on his electric golf cart.
“I’m very sorry,” he drawled through his gum, adjusting his Doobie Brothers embroidered satin baseball cap, “but there’s this Special Function setting up, you see, and so you can’t cross here.” Behind him the only people not engaged in laying cable were a few dozen policemen. And so, a humble sixteen mile detour later, we chanced upon 5th Avenue.
The Met is arguably America’s best art gallery because it just has so damn much in it you’re bound to find what you like. We went straight to the Van Goghs and then settled in for a good soak in the gorgeous Impressionist waters. This lasted about nineteen minutes until our writhing children couldn’t stand it a moment longer (“Isn’t there anything in this place but paintings?” my despairing daughter asked) and my son noticed in the leaflet the Temple of Dendar. “It’s an actual genuine for-real Egyptian Temple. You can go in it. We’ve got to see it.” Fair enough, but it wasn’t easy going back four thousand years to get there.
Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome and Medieval Art got in the way. Ancient Near Eastern Art almost had us, and then we got totally lost in Egyptian Art – at the very Temple’s doorstep, you might say. Entire thirty-one foot long Book Of The Dead scrolls weren’t good enough for these kids, oh no. Had to be the Temple. “Oh, the Dendar Temple, oh yes, this way,” one museum employee after another told us, pointing -- so we kept on. This wing was designed by Dædalus himself, or maybe the same guys who laid out Central Park. And then a corner was turned and before us lay a silken black reflecting pool dotted by papyrus. A fabulous looking sandstone Temple of Dendar --an actual genuine for-real Egyptian Temple!— stood hugely astride an island within.
And without, a thick stretch of finest red velvet museum rope, blocking the entrance.
Hispanic men in waiter uniforms were setting up tables and candelabra on Temple Island. Cases of champagne were being carted in. Four museum attendants, a docent, three cops and a hulking man in a dark gray suit with sunglasses and a little earphone strode forward. “I’m very sorry,” they all said in perfect chorus, “but there will be a Special Party holding a Function here in a few minutes, so…”
My sister listened patiently that night to my fuming tirade on bureaucrats, uniforms, path surveyors, velvet ropes, little earphones and all Functions except Bodily. When I was done, or at least quiet and slightly dizzy from hyperventilation, she held out an envelope. “I got ’em,” she announced. Some masterly string-pulling had netted her nine helpings to 42nd Street’s hottest ducat, “The Lion King.”
Next night, there we were in the very thick of it, 42nd Street! The stage! “Legit”! And a full house, to judge by the crowd of people outside. But, why were we outside? Over the massed heads we could just see some large gentlemen at the door, holding things up. Oh brother, I thought gloomily, some behemoth in dark glasses with a little earphone will tell us that “The Leader Of The Free World wanted personally to see this here fine cartoon once again before he leaves town so this the-ater will now be closed for a Special Function”…but no, they were just checking for terrorists. Not finding any, the show cranked up on time, and we got to see it.
The production design is superb, but the story is still a dopey pæan to the divine right of kings. And as Katha Politt pointed out, you can tell it’s a Disney show because the only character with a real African accent is a monkey. More interesting to me was our stroll afterwards, through Times Square. It was almost midnight on a Wednesday, and the sidewalks were a throng of people! Every place except Toys R Us was open. You could get a decent tan just from the neon.
Thursday morning was spent in a frantic maelstrom of suitcases, souvenirs, missing socks, and last minute postcards. We decided at noon to check our two largest bags at Penn Station in anticipation of our 2:50 train, since the leaflet said it was only $1.50 per item. At the Left Luggage station, the bill for two bags somehow came to $9.00. I met my wife’s gaze: ah yes, another New York Moment.
Our last destination was the famous “Carnegie Deli” on 7th Avenue. Sucker that I am for the movies, I wanted to go into the deli where “Broadway Danny Rose” was filmed and order a sandwich named after a theatrical star. “I’ll have the ‘Jack Benny,’ thank you,” I could hear myself nonchalantly saying, “or, make that a ‘Fanny Bryce’ if you please.” I was slightly suspicious that this could be the New York equivalent of going to L.A. to see the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, expecting to bump into Mel Gibson or Marlon Brando at Hollywood & Vine, but what the heck, we were tourists and we were hungry.
As usual, there was a knot of people waiting at the door. I experienced a twinge of fear – but instead of being told the place was closing for a Special Party, there was a large man in a nice suit mechanically taking each patron by the elbow and saying, “Welcome to the famous Carnegie Deli we have a table ready for you welcome to the famous Carnegie Deli we have a table ready for you welcome to the famous Carnegie Deli…” The place, as Al Jolson used to put it, was jumpin’. The walls were plastered with framed photos of celebrities, the deli counter was a frantic hum of activity, and hardly a dozen chairs were unoccupied. We were led to all the way to one corner and seated beneath 8x10 glossies of a host of local TV people and second string sports greats, rather the ghetto of the Carnegie Deli it seemed to me, though nearby was a blurry snapshot of George Lucas.
The menu was slightly alarming. My eye came to rest first on admonitions such as “$12.50 minimum order” and “Sharing charge $3.00” and “NO CREDIT CARDS.” But most shocking, there were no celebrity sandwiches! I was ready to leave right there, but my wife saved the day by pointing out a little box touting “the ‘Woody Allen’ – corned beef and pastrami, for serious fressers only!” The day was saved. I would have a ‘Woody Allen.’
Waiting for our food, I began to wonder what exactly a “fresser” was. Someone in show biz? In makeup? Or perhaps a jazz musician? The sandwich arrived, and all became clear: “fresser” clearly meant “glutton.” On my plate was a heap of steaming sliced meat at least fourteen inches high. The two pieces of rye bread looked like large postage stamps toothpicked onto either end of a haybale.
As we ought to have expected, it took a staggering $80 to cover our three lunches (including Sharing Charge) plus a nice tip -- our waiter did, after all, kindly take a photo of me posing eye-level with my ‘Woody Allen.’ My head is the smaller of the two objects in the frame. Perhaps I’ll send them an 8x10. There’s still wall space in the men’s room.
Stuffed like only a serious fresser can be stuffed, I made it outside to 7th Avenue with the help of my family. The kids wanted to ride on the actual ferris wheel they’d seen through the windows of the huge Times Square Toys R Us, and moaning softly, I waddled after them. We never quite made it. Standing outside the store, watching a popular street performer wearing nothing but boots, a hat, and a pair of Y-fronts with “THE NAKED COWBOY” printed on the back, my wife realized our train was leaving in only fifteen minutes.
Very reasonably, we panicked.
I regret not learning the name of our delivering angel; call her Gertrude The Good. She swept upon us in the form of a short, natty lady with Gary Larson style eyeglasses and a distinct metropolitan accent. In half a minute she told us exactly what subway station to get to, what line to catch, where to exit and where to go next for the station. Then she vanished mysteriously.
The next fourteen minutes were an insane blur of stairs, heaving crowds, accelerations, lurching stops, EXIT signs, and a wild lunatic child-dragging sprint into the impossible Shelob’s Lair of Penn Station as loudspeakers announced, “Lake Shore Limited, final boarding, track seven…” About two and a half pounds of corned beef angrily protested this treatment.
The crowds. The luggage counter. The check stubs. The corned beef. The redeemed suitcases. The missing train tickets. The corned beef again. The tickets located. My sharp-eyed son noticing track seven, a miraculous ten feet away. And as the Amtrak steward testily admonished us that guests ARE meant to arrive half an hour before departure time, we collapsed into our sleeper compartment in Train 49, the Lake Shore Limited, I swear to you less than one minute before it began chugging out of Pennsylvania Station. We made it.
I’m sure exhaustion and anoxia contribute to the warm glow a chap feels when he’s rolling along the banks of the Hudson, looking benignantly upon the riverside estates nestled in their lush greenery while sipping a complimentary iced beverage, but those three hours to Albany were among the most pleasant I have spent. Two curiosities swept by: the remains of a crazed looking Scottish castle (Bannerman’s Island Arsenal) and a dark, creepy, almost Harry Potterish stone fortress hugging the eastern shore further along (West Point). The former is not such a blight upon this idyllic and dreamy river mostly by virtue of its being a ruin.
I stepped out of the compartment somewhere past Rhinecliff to go examine the shower facilities, and in the corridor got acquainted with Train Geek #2, the westbound model. He was a lanky, badly shaven sloucher with thick glasses and another permanent baseball cap, and he already had his incoherent walkie-talkie out and tuned to the Amtrak band, squawking up a storm. I directly learned he was on his way to an actual Train Geek Convention in far-flung Sacramento. And hey, if I had any questions about trains, anything at all…
Night stole upon us by Schenectady, and after a reviving hot shower the Dining Car beckoned. The kids wanted their mac and cheese delivered to the room, but I scotched this idea. Here was a new train, a new menu, and a new dining car staff to watch. It was our privilege, our duty. Besides which, it was already paid for. Thinking to strike a less mercenary note, the author pointed out that he, for example, looked forward to deciding between a veal chop or a Cornish game hen. “Good grief,” moaned my wife, who had still not entirely recovered from those last hundred yards to track seven, “how can you even think about food?”
“It’s because I’m a serious fresser,” I answered, tying my shoes. “Come on, I want to get a table before the Secret Service closes the dining car for a Special Function.”