AMTRAK RESIDENT: Lisa Schwarzbaum

Lisa SchwarzbaumEntry 1, January 21
Are you The Writer? Someone said there is a writer on this train, so be on your best behavior.”  –delightfully pleasant dining-car attendant, Capitol Limited, serving me oatmeal and Amtrak coffee somewhere near Waterloo, Indiana, Wednesday, January 21, 6:53 a.m.

Yes! Me! I am The Writer! This is my #Amtrakresidency! And I feel as honored as Meryl Streep bagging her 19th Oscar nomination, if Meryl were being honored for playing a middle-aged lady writer in Uniqlo long underwear, asleep in a snug roomette as Amtrak train #29 from Washington, D.C. to Chicago rattles and tootles through night-dark Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Sandusky and Toledo.

I am The Writer, and I am so excited by my unfurling train trip across America that I barely know which Writer Tool to pick up first: The smartphone with which to snap moody Instagram shots of mid-Atlantic industrial melancholy? The tablet on which to Tweet admiration for the satisfying menu phrase “Amtrak signature steak”? The laptop on which to shape a cogent essay about uniquely American aspects of travel camaraderie? Why, just last night, I tucked into my own Amtrak signature steak enjoying the camaraderie of two upstanding American businessmen—each of us traveling solo, the three of us seated together on the cunning whim of the dining-car hostess—and my pleasant companions compared notes on how far each would go to avoid flying. They bonded over forthright mutual confessions that the word “turbulence” made each go pale. Our train swayed—a comfort to my table mates rather than a crisis.

I settle for looking out the window. I love gorgeous vistas as much as the next armchair aesthete susceptible to TV advertising for river cruises, but I do believe I love the haphazard beauty of everydayness best of all.

This is what I see from my train window: Juan’s Auto Repair. CVS. Gas, $2.18. Sweet Holy Spirit Church. Brick smokestacks.  Graffiti. Rust-colored scrub grass. Lowe’s Home Improvement. Patches of snow. Freight train cars. (“MS Carriers—Delivering Your Future”.) Water towers. Fenced-in backyards. Above-ground swimming pools, drained. Barbecue grills, covered in plastic.

And this: In pre-dawn, late-January darkness and misting rain, a school bus comes to a stop on a stubby side street perpendicular to the train tracks somewhere between Waterloo and Elkhart, Indiana. It’s hardly a residential district, more like the unlucky remains of an outpost of a neighborhood that ran out of neighbors; there are maybe five houses on the block. The bus driver flips on the vehicle’s blinking red lights and flips open the folding stop sign; two cars behind the bus obediently pause and idle. And a lone little kid walks out of one of the houses, crosses the road, and boards for another ride to another day in school.

Who is this little kid? Why does she live here? (My eyesight can’t possibly report with more specificity, but with writerly omnipotence, I decide she is a girl). What did she eat for breakfast? What will her future be? Who is driving the bus? Does the driver earn enough money to pay her bills? (Ditto, re gender and writerly omnipotence.)

Do they see the Amtrak Capitol Limited #29 as their lives cross mine? Wouldn’t it be great if that little kid will grow up to be a writer, eager to describe the sound of the train whistle by which she measured her girlhood?

I am in a Chicago hotel room now as I write this, on a layover before I board Amtrak Empire Builder #7 tomorrow, bound for Seattle. I feel I ought to Do Something in the city. Chicago! But I don’t want to do something. I want to use this 30-hour layover as an extension of my writing retreat. Yep, that’s it, I shall pretend I am in a little cabin at an artists colony, and I shall pretend that lunch will be brought to me in a basket. The fabulously cheerful front-desk clerk calls everyone babydoll and answers the phone like this: “It’s a beautiful day at the wonderful Holiday Inn in Downtown Chicago! How may I help you?

I am being helped, every hour of this trip.

Entry 2, January 22
I recently took a train from Vienna to Bratislava. Vienna in Austria, that is, not Virginia (although sometimes the D.C. mindset emits a faint vibe of Slovakia, no?). The point is, I departed from the gleaming new Wien Hauptbahnhof, with its crisp, internationally legible signage and wide, accessible ramps. And I detrained in Bratislava’s Hlavna stanica, a chaotic welter with a broken escalator and no intuitive way to find the ticket counter.

I think of this as the Empire Builder train #7 leaves Chicago on our way to Seattle. Because I can think of no grander send-off than the one I was given by the very stones of Chicago Union Station, that stately monument to the glory of American rail travel. The heft and scale of the building declare that America is on the move; the muted elegance of the architectural details–marble, brass–encourages the traveler go stand up a little bit straighter and GO somewhere. Feeling all fancy, I spent an hour before boarding in the lounge designated for Business Class and Sleeping Car Passengers. Whereupon I entertained a mad, fleeting desire to own a pair of mid-20th century travel gloves. Which I couldn’t wear, anyway, while tweeting. I briefly fancied dressing like Eva Marie Saint aboard the 20th Century Limited in North By Northwest. I settled for dressing like Liz Lemon aboard 30 Rock.

Meanwhile, New York’s Pennsylvania Station, in my home town, gives a Slovakian shrug about a stranger’s ability to find freakin’ Track 12 East. Or is it West? Yo! Queuing up in an orderly manner to descend to the tracks? Feh!

They have been expecting me on this Empire Builder run. “You’re Lisa!” says the friendly fellow leading me to my roomette. “You won the social media thing….” So much for my high literary credentials. Boasting exactly one night’s worth of experience in such accommodations after my trip from D.C. to Chicago, I now consider myself an expert in the art of storing vs. strewing personal articles: Slippers out, snow boots packed away. Also, contact lenses removed, replaced by Literary Lady Who Has Won A Social Media Thing eyeglasses.

I have made a dinner reservation that approximately coincides with our arrival in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I am, apparently, an Eastern Elite with an apartment mailbox stuffed with bedding catalogs, a consumer who knows that sheets and pillowcases come from La Crosse. I have much to learn on this trip. The dining car steward made an announcement: “We practice community seating!” I hope the community overlooks my dorky eyeglasses and teaches me.

 Entry 3, January 23

Through the night, we sped through Saint Cloud, MN, and Fargo, ND. By day, we made tracks through Minot, ND, and Glasgow, MT: flat, rough, introverted terrain. Some cattle, many oil wells. Lots of conversation at lunch (see above re “We practice community seating”) about pipelines, and the price of gas and wheat. No talk about Jennifer Aniston’s brave, brave decision to play ugly in the movie Cake. At the station stop in Havre, MT, I got off the train for some ten minutes to turn my face to the dull winter sky, while smokers grabbed a cigarette fix.

Writing in an Amtrak cocoon is hard! Well, writing is always hard for this girl. But the cocooning aspect of this long excursion is equally unsettling, in its own good way: the hours stretch and the mind drifts as the eye contemplates American scrub and cellular connection fades in and out. In the lounge car, in the morning, I fell into conversation with a guy from Duluth who works with labor unions and whose passion is fountain pens. From him I learned of a lovely red-orange-brown specialty ink color called “Apache Sunset.”

In the lounge car, in the afternoon, I fell into conversation with a Hutterite mechanic from whom I learned the lovely phrase “it doesn’t pencil out.” As in: Factoring the cost of buying a new combine against the price he can get for a bushel of wheat, it doesn’t pencil out. I also dawdled my way into a faux-heated debate with a guy who pegged me as the Yada Yada New York Left-Wing Boomer Lady. Which is fine, because I had his number as the Blah Blah Right-wing Western Kid.

I am convinced that every minute of this psychic unfurling, this drowsy gazing at endless stretches of flat, snow-crusted winter landscape, is valuable to my work–the work of writing. As if happens, I have set myself a goal, during this serendipitous Amtrak residency, to write NOT about American Sniper or Selma or even Jennifer Anniston’s brave, brave decision to play ugly in Cake, but about my father. He was a Jewish boy from the Bronx, he saw combat in Okinawa during World War II, and when he died this past December at the age of 91, he happened to be buried on Pearl Harbor Day.

I don’t yet know how this personal piece will emerge from days and nights of train travel–the vistas, the Amtrak dinner menu, the roomette with its origami ability to turn seats into beds–but I know it will. And it will be richer for the opportunity to see an America far from the Bronx my dad the Jewish kid could have ever imagined.

Meanwhile. Well, meanwhile, not to bring the quality of discourse too far down, but the guy in the roomette next to mine snores something fierce, and I had to rearrange the pillows to rest my delicate cranium at the other end of the bed. Also, not for nothing, but all signs point to the likelihood that I will neither shower nor poop while aboard the Empire Builder to Seattle.

That, though, is material for a different blog post.

Entry 4, January 26

My weekend in Seattle was confounding. First because the weather was mysteriously, cheerfully sunny and mild, so I don’t understand what’s with all the hoo hah about rain. Hah. Everyone was jogging and biking and smiling and wearing every item of Seahawks paraphernalia that could be loaded onto a human body. I considered joining in on all the jogging and smiling while scarfing down a glistening salmon sandwich at Pike Place Market. Yes, I’ll have fries with that. And also a Moscow Mule. Go Seahawks! 12! 12! 12! I’m in!–if only for the weekend.

Second, I was confounded that no one had warned me about the paranormal singularity known as Amtrak Legs. (I’m talking to you, @JennyBoylan.) That’s what I’m calling it, anyway–the neural sensation that, after two continuous days and nights on a long-distance route, I’m still riding the rails, even though my feet are on solid ground. In the middle of the night, in my hotel room, I felt, like, WHOA.

I became briefly obsessed, too, with the 1898-1899 Klondike Gold Rush that, in its way, boosted Seattle into modernity. The lively, inviting little Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, run by the National Park Service downtown in Pioneer Square, reveals the economic undergirding of the city at the turn of the century. It’s a delightful (free) exhibit–Thank you, U.S.Department of the Interior.

Now I reverse my commute and head east again: I’m on an overnight train from Seattle to Whitefish, Montana, where I will hop off (or at least step carefully down the Empire Builder steps) to visit with friends for two days. It’s very odd to be engrossed in my #Amtrakresidency journey of discovery, contemplation, writing, drowsing, procrastinating, chatting, blogging, thinking about writing, thinking about not writing, eating of Amtrak signature steak, and drinking of Amtrak coffee while my NYC hometown is being mowed down by a blizzard.

It’s also very odd to think of Whitefish as anything other than a delicacy I have been known to indulge in from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on Broadway and 90th Street. I guess you can take the girl out of the Zip Code, but you can’t take the Zip Code out of the girl.

Have I mentioned how delighted I am to be liberated from air travel?

That piece about my father is going well, by the way.

Entry 5, January 29

Word to those bringing smoked salmon from Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market to friends in famed Whitefish: The bagels in that otherwise faultless Montana town have the look, feel, and taste of the kind of plastic pastry you buy for a child’s toy food set–very Fisher Price, very My First Bagel.

For anything with huckleberries in it, on the other hand, you’re in exactly the right place. Also for good massages, yoga, and coffee. And for snow, too. At a very mini mini-mart outside Glacier National Park in the town of Hungry Horse, the old fellow behind the counter, name of Bob, put the recent northeast weather, uh, event into perspective: “We got 51 inches of snow and it didn’t make the papers. But a few inches in New York and…” He shrugged.

Had I wanted to show true New York spirit, I could have given Bob the finger. Instead, as a mellow cross-country traveler who has now been chugging along on my splendid #AmtrakResidency adventure for a week, I chatted with this fine fellow about train travel, and sent regards to Carolyn, the enterprising cook who runs Carolyn’s Cafe in the back of Bob’s shop. I met Carolyn a few days earlier when we shared dinner on the first leg of the Empire Builder run, between Seattle and Whitefish. I’m of a mind to return to Hungry Horse in the summer, just to sample Carolyn’s huckleberry pies. (I’ll bring my own bagels.)

Now making my way between Whitefish and Chicago–another overnight itinerary, with a scheduled Chicago arrival of 3:55pm (Central) on Friday, January 30–I feel quite the sleeper-car pro. I know enough to step out for air whenever the conductor announces a station stop with time enough to do so. I know how to charge my phone, tablet, and laptop efficiently. I drink plenty of water. (Train travel is drying!) And I know that the Amtrak angus burger and the chocolate mousse for dessert are really tasty, but the la-di-da diner who goes for the “Healthy Option Light Entree” at dinner only has herself to blame for the bewildered plate of shy cooked carrots, war-torn pearl couscous, and valiant square of protein dutifully presented by the consistently friendly and efficient dining-car staff.

I appreciate the Healthy Option. I love the baked potato with my Amtrak Signature Steak. (Full, sit-down meals in the dining car, by the way, are included in the price of a sleeper-car ticket; coach passengers can purchase meals there, too. Snacks, drinks, sandwiches and such are sold in the cafe car.)

Most of all, though, I love the Lounge Car, with the big domed windows, the swivel seats, the companionable fellow travelers. Writing, for me, is best done in the cocoon of my sleeping car. But the experience of meeting, talking with, and sometimes just observing fellow humans–equally vital for any writer who wants to write from a place of vivacity, curiosity, and compassion–is unsurpassed in the lounge. Also, the light is great for knitting or getting lost in other kinds of needlework. I have easily knocked two months off the completion date for a big, gaudily complicated project I have got going on. I reckon that only leaves about three years before the !#&$!$!! thing is done. Onward!

 Entry 6, January 30

After all the train hopping and roomette sitting and Amtrak Signature Steak ordering, I suppose it had to happen: I have an Amtrak Signature Cold. This has me drowsing, schnuffling, and writing with pen and notebook for comfort. (Wow, pens write anywhere! No battery recharging! No danger of making a typeface faux pas!) My personal wintry mix also has me warning the dining car staff that, much as I am happy to practice community seating, the community might not want to practice seating with ME. I was grateful for quarantine seating as I quickly ate my breakfast oatmeal this morning, after which I repaired to my roomette, feeling, for some reason, very much the 19th-century lady with a case of the vapours. Minus the lady’s maid to remove my hiking socks.

Thus ensconced as the Amtrak Empire Builder makes its way east through Red Wing, Winona, La Crosse, Tomah, and Wisconsin Dells, my thoughts turn to…Snowpiercer. Have you seen Snowpiercer since it came out last year? The eye-popping Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho created a gorgeous, mad, post-apocalyptic saga about a train fated forever to circle a frozen Earth, with passengers sorted into a class system of brutal deprivation at one end and depraved excess at the other. And among my cinema-centric set, eager to pin a movie reference onto my real-life Amtrak adventure, Snowpiercer topped the list, even ahead of Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Trainspotting, The Great Train Robbery, The Lady Vanishes, and Throw Momma From the Train. (You can add your own contribution _________ here.)

I don’t disagree with the choice. We pass through snowy landscape a lot of the way west once we get past Chicago. The northern American landscape I love so much is often stark, jagged, dramatic in its peaks and plains. Farms and oil fields, mountains and junkyards look all the more eerie when dusted in frost. Bong Joon-ho would approve.

Too, with none of the dystopian chasm between haves and have-nots–chips, diet soft drinks, and iffy wifi connection with which to Snapchat on your smartphone are available for all–there is, nevertheless, an economy-based hierarchy in levels of train-travel comfort.

No, you say, you really really like sleeping in your seat on an overnight route, wrapped in your hoodie, legs pretzeled to approximate a sleep position, jostled by those lurching past you to use the toilet or refill on beer? Ah, then, to you I apologize for my assumption that it is always preferable to sleep lying down, and even more luxurious to be granted privacy while doing so.

Anyway, lest I get too fancypants about the good fortune of my Amtrak Residency (and, have I mentioned, I feel really really lucky to be here!), I should note that there is a level of comfort above mine, just barely glimpsed. Me, I use a shared toilet down the hall. And I have the theoretical use of a shared (er, one-at-a-time) shower. Theoretical only because, dear reader, I can’t even.

But behind certain doors, curtained in velvet with door frames of brass (I made that part up) I spy even bigger rooms with bed AND chair, private toilet AND private shower. American luxe!

I can only hope that I will find Tilda Swinton from Snowpiercer there, gorging on Amtrak Signature Steak.

Entry 7, February 2

I was grateful for a return-trip layover on Saturday night at the Holiday Inn in downtown Chicago before my final long ride east to hometown NYC.  I used the familiarly generic (or is it comfortably impersonal?) environment profitably to bathe and moisturize, not to mention wheeze and cough my way through my Amtrak Signature Cold, so that when I boarded the Amtrak Cardinal on Saturday evening I had rounded the bend to recovery.

And I further perked up as I learned how my Cardinal train, a Viewliner, differs from my previous Empire Builder trains, which were Superliners. For one thing, each roomette is equipped with its own mini folding toilet and sink. The plumbing is cheek by cheek with one of the roomette’s two folding seats, so sitting or…more than sitting…is accomplished in a matter of shifting a few inches. Delightful or disconcerting? I’m of two behinds.

The menu on the Viewliner is different (goodbye Signature Steak, hello Chicken Cacciatore), and so is the whole car configuration. This is a grand scenic route—even in the dead of winter, the beauty of the New River Gorge, Shenandoah Valley, and Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains is thrilling. And to accommodate tunnels along the way (including the Great Bend Tunnel under Big Bend Mountain—cue up any handy recording of “The Ballad of John Henry”) we’re in what’s called a Single Level Sleeper. Which means we are riding closer to the ground, and feeling more of the wobble of the tracks.

I kind of dig it, even if my Amtrak coffee cup does not approve. A small drawback: This is NOT the route on which to count teeny-tiny cross-stitch squares. On the other hand, I have no problem reading. Last night I devoured Jenny Offill’s lovely, melanquirky relationship sketch novel, “The Dept. of Speculation.”

By the way, I’ve been calling this train the Cardinal, which marks me as a rube. I apologize. It is, of course, Train 50. Or just 50 will do. As opposed to the Capitol Limited, which is the 29, going west. Going east it’s the 30. This kind of shop talk is right up my alley, after my years as a movie critic. As far as my colleagues are concerned, the Oscar race is on between The Linklater and The Iñárritu, not Boyhood and “Birdman.” Although I have never heard anyone refer to Unbroken as the Jolie.  But then again, I have never heard anyone refer to Unbroken.

I am finding my way to a satisfying structure for the piece I’m working on about my Dad. I am gazing out the window. Also, I am listening to music. Specific music. There are three albums I return to again and again on long journeys. One is Mozart’s Requiem. Because I’ve sung it in choruses, I’ve played the viola part in orchestras. And I can rattle off the Latin verse “Ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum” the way the interns at Entertainment Weekly can reel off box office statistics.  I especially enjoy blasting the glory of it all through my earbuds while walking for miles down long, unpopulated Hudson Valley roads. Turns out Mozart also works beautifully while bouncing for miles on tracks through West Virginia.

Then there’s the original cast recording of The Book of Mormon. The music of this genius Broadway show goes particularly well with cleaning house or driving, when I can belt out the brilliant dirty lyrics at full volume. But it’s deeply satisfying to listen in secret, too, tucked ever up so decorously and wearing my in my Middle Aged Literary Lady With Eyeglasses in a roomette on Amtrak Cardi—uh, train 50 and silently cheering as the splendid Andrew Rannells, playing Elder Price, declares his Mormon belief that “in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!”

As for the third. Well. Sometimes I think I need to justify for my love of Andrea Bocelli’s “Romanza”—that big, fat, best-selling collection of blowsy Italian love croons (are they love croons? I’ve never looked for the lyrics translated from the Italian) that swept a certain portion of the world around 1997. I feel so very…Carmela Soprano when I join the swoon. Then I refuse to justify, because swoon I do. I use the album as a kind of aural emetic with which to heave up stray churning emotions that may or may not have anything to do with love. Or Amtrak.

Between that last paragraph and this one, I’ve arrived home again. My little bag of overworked train garments has been emptied, the items placed directly into the washing machine. I have a stack of train route schedules to remind me of routes I would like to take next. I have the Dad Story under way. I also have ideas for a few projects I haven’t even told you about because, well, we’ve just met on the train, haven’t we?

It’s been great riding with you.