I called a friend of mine who lives in Jersey City and told her that I would be arriving at Grand Central Station at 9:25 and she said she and her wife would meet me there. How they planned to find me in such a big place, I had no clear idea, but I figured that the obvious Maine girl in the big city might stand out, so I trusted.
The passengers on the train as it headed toward midtown looked like representatives of the United Nations. It was wonderful to be surrounded by so many colors and styles of people, so many languages and styles of dress, the occasional crazy person (also available in a myriad of colors) and it was all a beautiful tapestry to my Maine eyes. Remember that Maine is the whitest state in the United States, and outside of our (albeit very small) urban areas, we don't have a lot of people of color for me to see every day. So this was a buffet for my eyes and my soul.
As I tend to do, I struck up a conversation with a guy. Big, burly guy, dressed in work clothes of Carharts and layered flannel and t-shirts, he was headed in to begin his overnight shift on one of the construction projects in the city. He works with Local 50 of the union of equipment engineers, meaning he operates backhoes and bulldozers and heavy construction equipment. He's working on a project to build some tunnels under the river - he described it well, but having no understanding of the geography, I didn't really retain it. But it's a five year job, he said, and in these times, he was glad to have it. He works six days a week and takes the train in at night and home again in the morning. He doesn't have to pay for gas or parking in the city, and all he carries with him is his lunch. Not a bad gig. We talked about unions and how they can work well and how they can fuck things up, and how they could do so much more if the people who need them would only understand and join. We talked about how unions are weak in the south and in Maine and how I used to be in the Sheet Metal Workers' Union in Maine and the Teamsters out in Minnesota and then we were in the city and we had to get off the train. We parted company in good cheer and I set out to find my friends.
Now I had seen pictures of Grand Central Station on the History Channel and on Law & Order and stuff, but nothing can really prepare a person for the moment when you step off the platform into the great terminal area filled with hundreds of people all rushing in their own directions, with stairs and doorways in all directions and tiles! My god! The tiles! Millions of tiles everywhere. Polished everything, it was bright and shiny and there were police officers and help desks everywhere, and it didn't look at all scary like I thought it might.
It was huge, though. And I knew there was no way in hell I was going to find two women - one of whom I had yet to actually meet - in that madness. I dragged my wheelie bag over against a wall near the police kiosk and made a call on my cell phone. My friend was amused at how overwhelmed I was and we agreed to meet under the big clock in the middle of the terminal.
Now mind you the big clock in the middle of the terminal is perched atop what looks like a ticket sales and information booth, with windows on all sides. It's round, and maybe 24 feet across. Two parties seeking one another could circle the thing on opposite sides of it for days without ever meeting each other, I thought. Hmm. OK, in an effort not to look lost, I began looking at the schedules. They seemed like a smart thing to be looking at. I might need to get around after dinner with these friends, after all.
Well, it worked. They showed up in no time at all, hugs were shared, cookies handed over and then A & S waited patiently while I ducked into a bathroom to change out of my mover's clothes of Carhart jeans, steel toed boots and stained t-shirt into a more respectable outfit of clean jeans, sneakers and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Hey, I was going to spend some time on trains after dinner, I wanted to be respectable but comfortable for a long time.
We went back up street-side and found their car that they had brought into the city (!!! crazy people!!) to meet me. We stashed the cookies and my bag in the trunk and I got a whirlwind (heated and not walking - yay!) tour of the bright lights of the city. We saw the Empire State Building (several times) all lit up in blue and white for Hanukkah, we drove around Times Square, which was simply overwhelming to the point of stimulation overload, and then we drove in what felt like circles to find a place to park to go eat.
We ended up a block or two from Penn Station and we settled on a little southern-style rib joint right across the street from Madison Square Garden (The World's Most Famous Arena!) and the train station. What a joy it was to sit at a cramped little table in a warm, noisy restaurant/bar, with the Colts/Jacksonville game on (Colts are undefeated now) and people and noise and smells swirling all around us. A and I split an order of "frickles" which are deep-fried dill pickle slices, and then we got ribs and collard greens and some kind of roasted corn and black bean relish stuff that I simply MUST figure out the recipe and make at home. Damn. Yum yum yum.
We sat and chatted and sometime around 11:30 we headed out into the night. The women dropped me at the easiest entrance to Penn Station and we said our goodbyes as people and taxis rushed to and fro all around. The relative quiet of the train station at midnight was a welcome respite from all that is the New York street.
If Grand Central Station is a monument to design and architecture, Penn Station is a monument to the grim functionality of a modern mini-mall. The floors are utilitarian, there are pillars with arrival and departure screens on them, there are newsstands and coffee shops and places to buy Knicks and Rangers gear, but there is no beauty. It works, but that is all. It was really quite sad.
I walked for what felt like miles inside this thing until I found the Amtrak area, bought my ticket to South Station at a machine that looked like an ATM, got a cup of coffee and a puzzle book, and settled myself in for the long wait for the 3:10 a.m. train to Boston. I watched people (some entertainingly drunk) and sipped coffee for a while, then things quieted down and I did my puzzles.
The tired really began to hit after 1 a.m. The hands on my watch ('cause you KNOW I am an analog kind of gal!) seemed to be stuck. They did not move at all. The numbers on the Sudoku grid swam before my eyes. It was cold. Really cold. Like "this doesn't seem right" kind of cold. I figured I was just tired. I noticed that other people had their jackets on too, but they did not seem to be as uncomfortable as I was. Must be tired.
I had been up since 8 a.m., driven over 200 miles of windy highway in a truck, gotten no real sleep the night before, worked hard unloading said truck, and I was a long way from home. Yeah, I was tired. As 3 a.m. approached, I started to pace just a little for fear that I might doze in one of the waiting area chairs and miss my train. I asked the attendant lady about the cold. "That's because they turn the heat off," she said. Huh? Yes, I was assured, it was damnably cold and it was not my imagination and she didn't like it any better than I did. Hmph. I took a card with the Amtrak number on it so I could let somebody know my thoughts on the subject of heating the Penn Station waiting area at 3 a.m. Finally they called my train and I got to get on and find a seat.
The train seemed cold, too, but that could be because I was just three rows from the door. That was kind of dumb, but whatever. I was tired and figured I'd be able to sleep all the way to Boston. The train was due to pull into Boston at around 8, and I could hop a subway over to North Station, grab the 9 a.m. Downeaster to Portland, and another two hours' sleep before Laura picks me up at the Portland station.
If only life were so simple.
I hunkered down on the train, propped my head against the window and tried to doze. The window was cold and it rattled with every stroke of the train's wheels. I shifted around until I found a spot that might work, pulled my Turtlefur head band ear-warmer thing over my eyes to shut out the CONSTANT lights, and tried to snooze.
It was uncomfortable. I was stiff. I tried to shift and that didn't work. I fidgeted and finally managed to settle down.
Somewhere between 4:30 and 5 a.m., there was an announcement that we had stopped because our engine "has just totally died."
Our what did what?
Yeah. The train's engine? It crapped the bed.
We never got any more of an answer than "it just totally died" from the crew. But I suppose that is really all that we needed to know. The engine wasn't working and we weren't going anywhere in the dark and cold of some desolate place in Connecticut.
The lights were off in our car - which seemed like a bonus, until I realized that we had no lights because there was no power, and without power, we also had no heat. And I was three rows from the door. Which people kept opening to go to the dining car to get snacks.
Because apparently if the train is stopped in the middle of the night in December, when the temperature outside is in the single digits, everyone should have pretzels.
Remember how much sleep I have had thus far?
The last decent night's sleep I had was Tuesday night - in my own bed - and that ended at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when I woke up early to go get the U-Haul truck. It was now nearly 5 a.m. on Friday. Ugh.
Eventually there was some shouting about closing the damned door, and traffic subsided. We all grumbled, but quietly. The young couple with the five-month old infant in the seats in front of me seemed worried, but well equipped. The baby had formula and food and blankets and diapers, so if Mom and Dad could stay calm, it would be OK.
Luckily, the baby was fine. He burbled and giggled and cooed. He snoozed and napped and woke and giggled some more. His young parents kept him wrapped warmly, made sure his diaper was empty, and bore whatever discomfort that was theirs quietly and without complaint. I think they set the tone for others in the car. It could easily have gotten ugly, but they set a tone - largely without ever knowing it, I think - about priorities and caring - and others did not complain so loudly.
Eventually, an engine was sent from somewhere up the line to hook to the front of our train and bring us to the next station in North Haven. Then there were some more power outages and stopping on the tracks, and after sunup, we managed to get moving again. Of course, by now, we were several hours behind schedule, so we ran into conflicts with other trains that were on time, so we had to wait for switches and for tracks and rails to be put back where we needed them to be, and where, incidentally, they had been at 4 a.m. when we were supposed to be going over them, but never mind. You get the picture.
When we finally were towed into North Haven, someone had the good sense to meet us at the station with coffee and donuts, which were given to us for free. Caffeine and sugar may have prevented a full-scale riot that morning. Take note, Secretary of State Clinton: Dunkin Donuts can be used effectively to diffuse a very tense situation! Just sayin'.
After sunup some hours later, one girl (18 to 22 years old, I am guessing) did hold a loud-ish cell phone conversation with someone complaining about her situation, but that was more amusing than anything else. Her words "this is the worst train ride ever" caused me to wonder if there were anyone on the train who maybe had parents - or grandparents - who rode a far nastier train to Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Dachau. I think the consensus was that the girl was just whiny and we paid her no mind.
In North Haven, while we were eating out donuts and sipping coffee, there were technicians and engineers scrambling in all directions trying to make repairs. When we got started, we moved only a few feet. Seems our brakes had seized up on the tracks and had to be un-seized. Oh, it was just one thing after another.
For a while, every time we slowed down to stop at either a station or for some traffic light or switch thing, we'd lose power and heat in the passenger car. One of the staff guys would go back and open the door to the control panel with his special key, hit some switches, and the lights and heat would come back on. It got to be routine.
Now I know I was very tired, and when I am tired, it is easy for me to get cold. My toes were numb from the cold by the end of the trip. I felt frozen from the knees down. I was glad for the relative comfort of my thin sneakers, though. Especially when I consider that my other option would have been my steel-toed boots. Having my toes wrapped in cold-absorbing steel for all those hours? No thanks. Ugh.
Once during this trip, the staff had to change shifts. There are laws, they told us, that prohibit crew members from working for more than 12 hours in a row on a train. So local crews were called to the station (while we waited) and our crew took off their uniforms and went to lay down somewhere in the swanky Business Class car. Apparently there are no laws limiting the number of hours passengers can stay on a train or the number of hours a rail car restroom can go between cleanings. The crew on the train contained no cleaning people. Just engineers, the guy at the dining car, and conductors.
Remember that little slip of paper with the contact information for Amtrak? Oh yeah, I can hardly wait for Monday morning to make that call. I plan to write a letter as well, and send copies to my Congressman Mike (the impotent) Michaud and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (because she might actually get something done). Seems Amtrak is federally funded.
I called Laura in the morning and she got on the computer to find alternate routes home for me. She was in Portland staying with a friend (who had also ordered cookies) and used the computer to learn that there was a bus leaving out of South Station in Boston that would drop me in Portland where she could pick me up. Huzzah! I was going to be almost three hours behind schedule, but I would, eventually, get home. The celebration was muted by the tired factor, but it was still there.
A woman from the train also needed to be on that bus, so I followed her at a dead sprint around South Station (I had never been there before) from the farthest corner of the train terminal all around the concourse, down the other side, down some stairs, up an elevator, up an escalator and to the ticket counter, leaving ourselves just six minutes to grab a cellophane-wrapped sandwich that had apparently been made in time for Thanksgiving, and arrive breathless at gate 20 to get on the bus.
A word about buses.
I can't generally ride in a bus.
I can drive a bus, but I can't ride in one. I get carsick. Maybe not actual power-puke carsick, but headache and nausea and misery kind of carsick.
I didn't give a rat's ass about carsick by the time I got on that bus. I was so tired I wanted to cry. My carry-on rolly bag wouldn't fit in the overhead compartment, so I hauled up my knees and jammed it in front of my legs. I ate my tuna sandwich from the previous month and sipped a bottle of water I'd purchased in Penn Station and I sat. I claimed the seat immediately behind the driver so I could ogle his station. The new Greyhound buses are very nice - real motor coaches, with lots of buttons and switches and levers and lights and things. I was a bus geek for a little while, was very impressed with driver Dave's skills in getting the bus around some of Boston's tight spots and out onto Route 1 North, and up through Saugus to the Interstate. He did a nice job in a very nice bus, and I was able to nap. I woke in Portsmouth for the four minutes he allowed people to smoke if they wanted while he checked the local terminal to see how many riders he had, and I was awake when we crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge into Maine, but dozed again right after.
I woke again when we pulled onto St. John Street in Portland, where the Greyhound station is. I don't know that there has ever been a time when I was so glad to see such a seedy little corner as that intersection of Congress & St. John. Laura arrived a few minutes later and took me to a noodle house for a bowl of soup before we drove north again.
We finally arrived in Ellsworth, a little late for my last class to be a new member at the UU church there, but the minister was very understanding. If I fell asleep during the class, nobody said anything to me about it. We finally got home around 10. I called my aunt in Massachusetts to tell her I was home safe and sound, that it had been an awful trip, that I was exhausted and headed to bed and to NOT call in the morning. I was home. I'd call her when I was awake. I showered and ate the rest of my leftover soup from Portland and crawled into bed with Laura and Quinn and some heated socks filled with rice. It was the first good sleep I had had since I woke up Wednesday morning at 5:30 a.m.
At 9:30 Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was my aunt.
She has no recollection being woken or of our 10 p.m. conversation.
Saturday, I resolved to not wear any piece of clothing that is not either flannel or sweatpants. Or my slippers.
I also resolved to NOT strangle my aunt.
The first resolution was far easier, trust me.