By Jane Fishman
Trains are a gift of time. They’re a philosophy. At 79 miles an hour, you pass through small-town America. You see a Little League game, a city hall, an old-timey hardware store, an opera house in the middle of North Dakota. They remind you that life is about the journey. My life as a newspaper columnist on deadline is always rush, rush, rush. There is no rushing on a train. But there are stories. There are people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet. That’s what I look for. There’s time to just stare out the window or read or doze off. They’re not cheap. They’re not fast. They’re not like the high-speed European models. They’re just what we have – which is why you’re always bound to meet someone from England or Belgium. They know the value of trains (even Amtrak). They know the value of time.
I started taking them on a lark. The Silver Meteor to New York City put me smack in the middle of Manhattan. You can’t beat it. A direct train from Savannah to Washington D.C. introduced me to the drop-dead gorgeous Union Station, one of a couple dozen Beaux Arts depots in the country. After that, I started piecing together routes that would take me to Minneapolis, Eugene, Ore., Los Angeles, Austin. Riding the train encourages reflection, observation and time to do nothing. They suit my temperament.
Time to Bust Out of Town
It’s over and boy howdy am I ready. I’m tired of cooking, tired of washing dishes, tired of surreptitious shopping in the supermarket, tired of feeding the compost pile and the worm bin, tired of separating plastic (is it No. 3 or No. 6? Who can read those small numbers?), tired of my own juicing. I’ve had it with soba noodles, butternut squash, fish tacos, feta cheese, avocadoes, smoothies, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs. I’m tired of looking at the same white plates. Cooking and eating at home was fun for the first eight months. Now? Not so much.
What does John Berryman say?
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn, and moreover my mother told me as a boy (repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources.”
Time to bust out. Time to board Amtrak’s Silver Meteor for South Florida, with your bike ($20 extra) and your wife. Time to read, sleep, stare out the window, stopping only to say things like, “Florida’s different than Georgia, isn’t it?” Time to watch people say goodbye to their pets at the depots and crowd near the conductors, who use yellow pencils and a yellow stool to help folks board and detrain (yes, that’s a word). Trains are so analog, so human. They have personality.
“Mr. Appleman,” Carmela says to the car conductor, who stops to talk about how much easier it is to clean Naugahyde than cotton after I compliment him on the upgrade of the train seats in coach. “Mr. Apple-man, meet Miss Fish-man.”
We laugh. She tells him I wrote a book about trains. He says, “No shit! I’m going to buy one.”
Later when Carmela leaves her book, Where the Crawdads Sing, and return ticket on the back of the mesh seat in front of us, Mr. Appleman calls. Leave it with Delores or Ruben at the Savannah station, I tell him. Will do, he says. And he does.
The ride is long, twelve hours. I don’t care. I’m not in charge. My eyes are cast somewhere new. I never realized how much the train signals sound part-harmonica, part- squeezebox. At 4 o’clock p.m., as we might at home, we crack open the gingersnap cookies and dunk them into Amtrak coffee, which isn’t half bad. Note: post-pandemic Amtrak only takes credit or debit cards. No cash.
Julio meets us in Hollywood, Fla., outside Miami, affixes my bike to the top of his car and carries us off. He seems to know what he’s doing. That night we walk across the Hollywood bridge, pass more varieties of palms than I could imagine, pass stucco homes with Spanish-tile roofs and clean lines. My favorite tropical tree – a frangipani – is blooming. We eat ceviche at a Peruvian restaurant across from the Atlantic Ocean. In the next two days, we eat Greek, Korean and Vietnamese, where I have ramen for the first time. It’s not the old-fashioned cheap ramen I remember.
We indulge. Somewhere else. We drink someone else’s coffee, stretch out on someone else’s couch, pick up their books. We get massages. We go out on their boat and pass the Port of Ft. Lauderdale. When the boat acts up and we have to go back early, I feel sorry for Julio but I don’t really care. Look at the gnarly roots on those mangroves, I say. We play tennis in the courts across from Julio’s house where, unsolicited, a retired alta cocker from Russia tries to give us some pointers. We indulge him. The Russian community in South Florida is huge.
On the way back from the Old Florida Book Shop in Fort Lauderdale, a real find with carpeted narrow aisles, chandeliers and at least ten stacks of books, we pass the looming Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the shape of a guitar.
Through a random text, I learn a friend’s son lives seven blocks away.
“How old is Che now?” I ask Billy. “20-something?”
“Jane, he’s nearly 40.”
Who can keep track?
The ride back on the Silver Star is uneventful. We’re on time. In Orlando, we get out for a “smoke stop,” which really means they’re topping off the water in the cars, and watch 89 people board for the ride north. In Savannah, where we arrived on time, we call Rancho Alegro, our very own Cuban restaurant, and order dinner.
Where can we go next?
So What's The Hurry? Tales from the Train
Jane Fishman’s got a great life in Savannah. She gets to grow garlic, write newspaper columns in the Savannah Morning News about any wacko she can find (and get paid for it), publish books (her latest: I’d Rather Be Seen Than Viewed, a collection of her columns; preceded by So What’s the Hurry? Tales From the Train ; I Grew it My Way, How Not to Garden; The Dirt on Jane; and The Woman Who Saved an Island, the Story of Sandy West and Ossabaw Island), listen in on conversations with her two grandchildren, Baker and Benny, while going on morning nature walks as they debate which is better, living in the country or the city (“I like both habitats,” says 7-year-old Benny). Fishman owned a laundromat in Eureka Springs, Ark., cooked in a French restaurant in Key West, won a bunch of journalism awards in Savannah for humorous and serious columns. When she lived in Chicago and worked at WTTW public television, she met Fran of Kukla, Fran and Ollie and watched Abbie Hoffman rant at the trial of the Chicago 7. Fishman grew up in Detroit (Huntington Woods, really), where she never owned a car. She was the sports editor of her high school newspaper (The Acorn) at Royal Oak Dondero. This is her first wedding.