First Person: Unexpected Amtrak rides offer chance to take in beauty, meet new people

September 15, 2015

I did something unexpected this summer: I took the train back to my childhood home in New Jersey.

I am not a train person. My father was. He took the train from Red Bank, N.J., to Manhattan and then a subway to his Church Street office, a few feet from the Twin Towers.

I took the bus everywhere. As a 6-year-old to my grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment. As a teenager to Jack’s Record Store in Red Bank. As a college student, north to Port Authority and then south to Newark, Del. Train rides were infrequent and memorable: Once or twice from Illinois, where I went to grad school. A trip to Washington, D.C., once.

And then, as an adult, it’s been almost 100 percent car travel for me.

So it was a surprise to find myself on the Vermonter in August, eight months after the Vermonter began stopping again in Greenfield.

In July, nine college friends visited me, and four had the brilliant idea of taking the train from their homes in D.C., Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. The train? I was in a whirlwind of planning for an unforgettable get-together, zip-lining and tubing and a movie at the quirky Memorial Theater in Shelburne Falls and drives in the country. But the train? It didn’t sound like the best way to start the whirlwind.

Most likely an over-long, expensive and smelly slog past the backside of the Northeast corridor.Website Insert State Supported Passenger Trains copy

In July, I stood on the wooden platform in Greenfield waiting for them, impressed by the airy, clean John W. Olver Transit Center nearby and excited to be waiting for a train. They were the first passengers out: rested and happy to be in beautiful western Massachusetts. And no complaints about the train ride.

A month later, in August, my car wouldn’t start in my mother’s Fair Haven, N.J., driveway. So I took the train my dad used to take to New York City’s Penn Station, where I would catch the Vermonter. I remember Penn Station mostly from a 1980s renovation that drove millions of cockroaches onto the platforms and my boyfriend carrying me through because I could not bear stepping on another cockroach.

This time, no cockroaches. I had an hour to blow and found a bakery with seats. And there it was: a seven-layer cake! My grandmother always brought one with her from her Brooklyn bakery, and I hadn’t seen one since she died in 1979. I sat and ate cake with a family on my right touring from Norway, with whom I discussed fjords and Norwegians’ excellent balancing of work and play. Then I taught a British 4-year-old sitting with his family at my left how to thumb wrestle (nice hearing “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war” with a British accent).

On the train, I sat next to a woman who’s lived in Burlington, Vt., for 25 years, just up from a family wedding in Baltimore. She showed me wedding photos on her phone. Then, she read an actual book: half the passengers in my train car were reading books!

My window view on both trains invoked Norman Rockwell. A man in Perth Amboy sitting with his Saturday coffee on his back steps as his two boys played near his feet. A woman in New York hosing out a cooler, getting ready to hit the beach. A Connecticut couple running on a high school track. Churches and row houses and schools and junkyards and warehouses and white jet streaks in the sky and a gorgeous marsh in New Jersey with two blue herons standing on its edge. Not a whole lot of garbage or ugliness of any kind. Just people going about the business of work and home.

Read the full story from writer Jackie Walsh in The Recorder by clicking here. Some readers will be required to register for a free log-in to read this story.

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