Tag Archives: Rants

Another Night in Bushwick

Okay, for the past two weeks I’ve been working late almost every single night in order to issue some feasibility studies for our Very Important Client™. Yesterday morning, about 24 hours before we need to send out his stuff, he calls us up and asks us to drop everything and convert all our drawings to PDFs, burn them to a disk, and hand-deliver them to him at his office in New Jersey. So we do as instructed, pull an intern off somebody else’s project, and send him over to New Jersey with the goods. About an hour later, our Very Important Client™ calls back and tells us to forget about it; we can send the disk tomorrow via FedEx because he’s leaving the office for the day and won’t be there to receive it. We call the intern on his cell phone, and he’s only ten minutes away by that point, so we tell him to complete the delivery and forget we ever called him. He manages to do so.

Our Very Important Client™, meanwhile, raises bloody hell when we ask for a one-day extension on our deadline because we had the whole project team working on his stupid PDFs that he decided he didn’t even need to see. He reluctantly relents, but we still pull a heroic effort to get his shit sent out by the original deadline, despite a broken color printer and his other consultants dragging their feet in getting their materials to us.

While this is going on, the weather has consistently been in the upper 80’s and humid as hell. You can’t walk half a block without needing to take a shower afterwards… Gotta love New York in the summer. Being outside is like being in a steam bath, and thanks to my roommate being too much of a fucking cheapskate to run the air conditioner, being inside is like being in a steam bath as well.

So I’ve been getting home at around 11:00 PM or midnight almost every night for the past two weeks, lying in bed and sweating for a couple hours until I finally fall asleep, and then waking up at 6:30 AM in a pool of sweat and getting ready to go to work again.

Well, today was our original deadline, and I managed to get everything printed, bound, and sent out 30 minutes before the last FedEx pickup. Mission accomplished. As an added bonus, the temperature is a bit cooler today, with much less humidity. Maybe I’ll actually get a decent night’s sleep tonight.

Yeah, right.

The apartment I share with my roommate is pretty much an open loft configuration, located on the corner of the building, with lots of huge windows. Great for views and breezes, but terrible for peace and quiet. And because the bedroom walls don’t extend all the way to the ceiling, even the slightest noise is audible throughout the entire apartment. One side of the apartment faces the street, and the other side faces a service alley that belongs to the neighborhood grocery store, containing all their dumpsters and such.

First come the garbage trucks. This happens about twice a week, so it’s not entirely unexpected. Around 11:00 PM (but sometimes as late as 2:30 AM), a garage truck pulls into the grocery store’s alley, and spends the next 30 minutes with its engine in high gear while the workers bang the dumpsters around and load all the garbage into the compactor at the rear of the truck. They leave, and then another garbage truck pulls in about an hour later to pick up all the bales of compressed cardboard boxes. Again, lots of noise, and sometimes the diesel exhaust drifts into the apartment and stinks up the place. (Keep in mind that all the windows are open, thanks to my roommate being too much of a fucking cheapskate to run the air conditioner.)

Meanwhile, there’s the car alarm on the other side of the apartment. This particular car has been a nuisance in the neighborhood ever since I moved here last summer. Late model Chevy Impala sedan, silver with tinted windows, New York plates DYC 4579. It has one of those car alarms so sensitive that it start sounding if a pigeon shits on the sidewalk in Queens. You can hear it from blocks away. Tonight, the Impala is parked directly in front of my living room windows, and the alarm has been sounding non-stop for the past two hours. I’ve called the city about it twice so far, and so far nothing.

So much for my relaxing evening and decent night’s sleep. Christ, I can’t wait to move out of this fucking neighborhood.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, though. Today at work, completely out of the blue and while I was in the middle of trying to put our stuff together for our Very Important Client™, I got a phone call from somebody I had been in touch with a couple months ago about a bedroom for rent up in Hudson Heights. Large bedroom, nice view, three closets of my own, my own bathroom directly off the bedroom, and located in a nice co-op building in an upscale and quiet neighborhood by the George Washington Bridge… All for slightly less rent than I’m paying now in Bushwick. Best of all, the bedroom overlooked the bridge and the Hudson River. No garbage trucks, no car alarms. I could even put in my own window A/C unit if I wanted.

It all sounded too good to be true, and at the time, that turned out to be the case. The deal fell through because the current occupant of the bedroom decided that she wasn’t going to move out after all. Back to square one. Lately I’ve been getting a little panicked, because I need to be out of my current place no later than the end of August, and I hadn’t had a chance to start looking for a new place because I’ve been so busy at work lately.

To make matters worse, I’ve had to empty my savings account to pay for some emergency dental work thanks to a broken molar last month. I was hoping to go through a broker and get a half-decent apartment of my own in Hudson Heights, but that’s no longer a possibility at the moment. I had pretty much resigned myself to moving into another roommate situation for now, and was preparing myself to begin looking for a place and meeting people… With a sense of dread. Looking for housing in New York is about as much fun as a painful rectal itch, especially when you have no money and bad credit.

Well, the phone call this afternoon was from the person I had originally been in touch with about the bedroom overlooking the George Washington Bridge. Turns out the current occupant has decided to move out, and she really means it this time. I must have made a positive impression on the owner of the apartment, because she decided to give me a call and ask if I was still looking for a place.

Yes, it’s still a roommate situation, but it’s probably about the best roommate situation I could hope for given my current circumstances. At the very least, it should do until I know where I’ll be going for grad school and I have some more money in savings. The only catch is that the room may not be availably until mid-September, meaning I may need to find someplace temporary for a couple weeks.

Right now everything is verbal and nothing is official, but I’m cautiously optimistic this will work out. I’ll hopefully know more by this time next week…. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, anybody know how to silence a car alarm? I’m thinking smash the driver’s side window with a brick, pop the hood, and cut the cable to the positive battery terminal… And then torch the car. Got any better ideas?

Just Give Me My Damn Coffee Already

(image: slate.com)

I need to rant for a minute about Starbucks.

I generally like working in this particular location in Manhattan: Many subway lines are nearby, there’s ample options for lunch break, and Central Park is two blocks away. Not a bad place to spend 9+ hours a day, five days a week.

The biggest problem, though, concerns my choice of coffee purveyors in the morning. Every day I climb the stairs out of the subway, stop to grab a large cup of coffee (our office coffee is terrible), and head into the office. The total distance between the subway station and the office is about half a block, which limits my coffee options unless I go at least a block out of my way.

I don’t particularly care for Starbucks coffee, but unfortunately they seem to be my only convenient option. There are no less than four (count ’em) Starbucks locations within a block of the office, and one of them lies directly on my path between the subway and the office. This is the one I stop at every morning, if only for the sake of convenience, and every morning it’s the same routine:

1. Open door to this Starbucks, and curse under my breath when I see how long the line is. The end of the line is usually right at the doorway, sometimes even extending onto the sidewalk outside.

2. Roll my eyes at the insipid music they have playing. It’s always the same stale collection of crowd-pleasing, over-played oldies or, at this time of the year, hokey holiday music that they put into rotation sometime during the last inning of the World Series.

3. Look at what’s going on behind the counter. There’s always 6-8 people working there, and they’re yelling at each other, bumping into each other, tripping over each other, and/or socializing with each other. You’d think with that many people working there, the line of customers would be moving rapidly, but instead it creeps along slowly, as the dark green sea of humanity behind the counter froths with confusion and dysfunction.

4. As I slowly make my way to the front of the line, I have no less than three different Starbucks employees yell at me from across the room, asking me what my order is. Nothing complicated, just a large coffee with room for cream. Each time I give them my order, it gets barked to another employee, who relays the information to somebody else, who is usually busy talking to somebody else and not paying attention. Then yet another employee will ask me what my order is, and the cycle repeats itself. Bear in mind that this isn’t happening just to me, but to every other customer in line as well.

5. At some point I finally get to the cashier, who asks me what I’m having. Just as I begin to answer, she turns her head and begins talking to another employee behind her, ignoring me. She then asks me to repeat my order, which now is the fifth time I’ve told a Starbucks employee that I’d like a large coffee with room for cream. She then barks my order to the people behind her, and the whole cycle described in Step 4 repeats itself. I pay the cashier and wait for my coffee.

6. I then wait with the other customers who are still waiting on their own coffee orders. And I wait, and wait some more. You’d think that there would be five large cups of coffee rapidly coming my way, but no, all the yelling and confusion in Steps 4 and 5 appears to have been in vain.

7. After a few minutes of waiting, I inquire as to the status of my order, and usually a large coffee with room for cream will somehow appear in front of me. Meanwhile, there’s always a steady pile of miscellaneous other coffee drinks that I didn’t order being placed on the counter in front of me. Apparently no other customers ordered them either, because nobody is claiming them despite repeated announcements.

That’s on a good day, if they didn’t get my order wrong.

8. I get to the condiment bar which, nine times out of ten, has been depleted of creamer and/or sweetener with nary a refill in sight. Assuming I haven’t given up the will to live at this point, I flag down an employee, who, after a long wait, will hastily shove some creamer and/or sweetener in my general direction.

9. I finally make my escape out the door, back to the relative calm and relaxation of Midtown Manhattan at the peak of morning rush hour. I marvel at how such a badly-managed operation can somehow stay in business, until I remember that I just paid almost $3 for a cup of coffee that probably cost about a nickel wholesale.

Finally, after going through this ordeal on a near-daily basis for almost six months, I write a long treatise about how I’d give my left testicle for a better coffee option — anything other than Starbucks — within a half-block of my office.

Why You Never See a Cat Skeleton in a Tree

The setting: About 1:00 AM on a rainy night in Brooklyn, New York. A series of strong thunderstorms have just moved through the region, and it’s still raining heavily.

I’m working at my computer when I hear the heart-wrenching cry of a kitten somewhere outside, near my apartment. As opposed to the sound of a garden-variety cat meow, the sound of this kitten’s howling indicates that he is in serious trouble somewhere. It’s the type of howl that says, “Help me, I’m dying.” This goes on for several minutes.

I go to the front window, but don’t see anything. However, it’s a neighborhood of densely-spaced brownstone apartment buildings, so the kitten could be anywhere. Also, my view is obstructed by the trees in front of the window.

The cries continue. Being a good Episcopalian and animal lover, and having a bishop and one close friend who are third-order Franciscans, I decide to do something. I log off my chat room, put on my shoes, grab my umbrella, and head out onto the street.

A passing neighbor has also stopped to find out where this kitten is. After some searching around, we discover that the kitten is stuck on a third-floor ledge on the building across the street from mine. Hell if I know how he got there. The windows on that floor are dark, so we assume nobody is home in that apartment.

What to do, what to do….

A guy comes out of the building, but he lives on the ground floor and has no access to the top floor apartment.

We notice a large extension ladder propped up against the building next door. As soon as we plan a rescue operation, we realize the ladder is chained to the adjacent window grate with a large padlock. Damn.

Remembering there were a couple long ladders in the basement of my own building, I run downstairs only to find that they’re gone. Shit.

A lady comes out from the building where the ladder is, but she doesn’t know whose ladder it is, nor who has the key to the lock.

What to do, what to do… It’s now been almost an hour since I first heard the kitten crying. Time for outside help.

I grab my cell phone and call the ASPCA (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Their offices are closed, and the voice mailbox for the emergency line won’t even let me leave a message, because the mailbox is full.

I call 311, which is the city’s non-emergency help line. The guy at the other end says the department in charge of cat rescues (there is such a thing?) won’t open until 8 AM.

Finally, I call 911, hoping somebody will send a fire truck down to the place to rescue this poor kitten. It’s still pouring rain, and he’s obviously scared out of his mind. The ledge he’s on is barely four inches wide, and it’s about thirty feet above the ground. The 911 operator tells me this is not an emergency, and directs me to call 311 before she hangs up on me.

The lady from the building next door suggests walking to the fire station up the street and seeing if they can perhaps perform a rescue. Good idea. I walk up to the nearest firehouse, which is only about a hundred yards away, and ring the doorbell.

A guy runs down the stairs and answers the door, and I explain the situation to him. He goes on the loudspeaker, notifies the dispatcher, and next thing I know, it’s a scene from the movie Backdraft. Within seconds, about a half-dozen of New York’s Bravest™ come running down the stairs, get suited up, and get on the fire truck. The garage door opens, and the truck takes off with sirens wailing and lights flashing. I’m thinking: This fucking cat better still be there when these guys show up.

I run after them, and get to the scene just a few seconds after them. They’ve got their flashlights out, and have located the kitten. The guy turns to me and says, “A kitten? I thought you said there was a kid stuck on a ledge.”

I feel a sudden desire to change my name and move to a new country.

Well, the cat is still there, so now what? Neighbors tend to get curious when they see a fire truck outside their apartment building with its lights flashing, so a guy on the second floor of this building peeks his head out to see what’s going on. He lets the firefighters inside, and they march up to the third floor to see if they can get inside the apartment to let the cat in.

Meanwhile, I’m outside with a couple other firefighters. With the aid of the flashlights, we see that the window behind the cat is actually open a few inches. And what does the cat do, after sitting on the ledge and howling for an hour?

Naturally, he turns around and goes back inside the apartment.

The firefighter standing next to me turns to me and says with a thick Brooklyn accent, “You know, there’s a reason you never see a cat skeleton in a tree.”

With that, Ladder Company 114 is called down from red alert, and the guys get back into their truck and return to the fire station. I return to my apartment soaking wet and with my tail between my legs.

And now, as I write this, the kitten is back out on the ledge howling.

(Originally posted on the message board at shipoffools.com)

Amtrak / DC Metro Trip Report

Hope everybody is having a great holiday season. As promised, here is the lowdown on my rail trip to Raleigh, NC and back.

I checked in at Chicago Union Station and boarded the Capitol Limited (train 30) without any significant delays or problems. I got myself a nice coach-class window seat in the coach just behind the cafe/observation car, which itself was just behind the dining car. For those of you East Coast people who have never been out west on Amtrak’s Superliners, I highly reccomend it. I had forgotten how roomy and spacious these cars are; in many ways it’s almost like a hotel on rails. The Amtrak employees at both Union Station and on board the Capitol Limited were very courteous and helpful.

We left Union Station on time, after which we promptly sat in the yard for over an hour while they hooked up the freight boxes and did whatever else it is they do.

Once we got moving, hoeever, we had no further delays, were moving along at around 75-80 MPH most of the way until we got into the mountains. The overnight portion of the trip was through northern Indiana and Ohio, which is generally incredibly boring country, so you’re not missing much by sleeping through it. As for myself, I just couldn’t seem to make myself comfortable enough to sleep in my coach seat, so I ended up spending most of my time in the observation lounge. As boring as it is, there’s something very relaxing and peaceful about watching the sleepy little farming towns pass by in the darkness. I remember finding that same peace while taking the Cardinal down to Cincinnati and back some years ago, and it’s difficult to find on the Metra or CTA trains.

Somewhere in Indiana, I had a very nice prime rib dinner and cheesecake in the dining car.

Approaching Cleveland, we ran alongside one of that city’s rapid transit lines (I’m not sure which one) for a few miles before entering downtown. It was the dead of night, so there weren’t any trains running, but we passed a few of the stations. For the most part, they were very spartan and had very short raised platforms.

In downtown Cleveland itself, there is a light rail line adjacent to the Amtrak station, but the nearest station was a couple blocks away. The Amtrak station itself is small and utilitarian, nothing at all to write home about. Cleveland was as gritty and industrial as I remember it being from driving through on a couple occasions, sort of like a little miniature Chicago. Leaving Cleveland, I decided to get some sleep and found a nice, quiet corner of the observation lounge to lay down in.

After a few hours of shut-eye, I woke up and saw that we were travelling alongside a large river in a deep valley, and the area was beginning to look rather industrial and built-up. We must be approaching Pittsburg, I figured. We maintained a healthy speed almost right into downtown, and passed under several impressive bridges along the way.

The coolest thing about Pittsburg is the terrian. So much different than pancake-flat Chicago, you see entire neighborhoods of Pittsburg strung high along a ridge or nestled deep within a valley, with streets and highways skirting along steep hillsides. It reminded me a lot of my original hometown of Cincinnati, another river city about the same size as Pittsburg, and with equally steep hills. Downtown Pittsburg looked very compact and urban, laced with expressway ramps and railroad tracks. Near the Pittsburg Amtrak station, I spied a trolley loop, but no trolleys.

Leaving downtown Pittsburg, we soon passed through a long tunnel and emerged in a steep-sided valley peppered with residential neighborhoods and what appreared to be a large college campus. Anybody know what college this was? It has a very tall gothic-looking tower at the top of the hill, so it’s pretty hard to miss.

Soon afterwards, daylight began to appear in the sky, and I had a nice breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns in the dining car. These were arguably the best hash browns I’ve ever had.

The rest of the journey between here and suburban Washington was through the mountains of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. We followed the old B&O tracks most of the way, and most of the old signals were still there. I don’t know much about mainline railroad history or operations, but I could tell these signals were fairly unique. A few of them, however, have been replaced by modern standard-issue signals.

The tracks mostly follow alongside a river, and going into the mountains, you can see how the river gradually becomes smaller and smaller, with more small rapids. Once past Cumberland Gap, however, the reverse is true: the water flows east, and the mild rapids give way to wider and calmer waters. The railroad itself is an impressive engineering feat, given how many cuts, bridges, and tunnels it uses. At no time, however, did the grade seem exceptionally steep. At one point, we crossed over a bridge which led smack into a long tunnel, which itself spilled us directly onto another bridge across the same river.

Our first hint that we were entering the Washington metropolitan area was the appearance of MARC stations along the route. Soon enough, we passed Washington Metro’s Shady Grove yard, and followed the Metro ROW for several stops. While very clean and modern, the trains and stations looked a bit more dated than I was expecting; the above-ground Metro stations remind me of 1970’s shopping mall architecture. (The below-ground stations, however, still look fresh and modern, as I would later see.)

We eventually pulled into Washington Union Station, right on schedule. To our right was a train of bi-level MARC coaches, which are very nice looking, and to our left was my Holy Grail: two Acela Express trainsets. Once I had stepped off the Amtrak train, I attempted to walk over and get a couple pictures of the AE trainsets. However, a snotty prick of an Amtrak security goon chased me away. (I wasn’t even on the Acela platforms.) Hell of a welcome to our nation’s capital. I got off a couple shots anyway, despite the rent-a-cop cursing at me, before I ducked into the station itself with the rest of the crowd. I had a couple hours to kill before my Silver Star train would depart for NC, so I grabbed some lunch downstairs before heading out and doing some exploring.

Union Station itself is everything I had been told it was: an excellent restoration of a beautiful old train station. The shops and restaurants are nice, and overall it’s a very classy place. Am I correct that the main shopping arcade / food court area was once the outdoor portion of the train shed? I noticed vestibules between that space and the main hall that match the main entry doors up front, so I assume that huge space was originally a covered outdoor space at the head of the train platforms.

Finally, the Metro. I put a few dollars into a machine and grabbed a farecard, and took a Rohr Red Line train to Metro Center, where I trasferred to a Breda Blue Line train to the Smithsonian stop. My first impressions:

  • As I alluded to earlier, the underground stations are architectural masterpieces. They looked good when new, they look good today, and they will continue to look good when DC Metro is as old as the IRT now is. The flooring and signage looks a bit dated, but that’s small potatoes. I point out with no small measure of pride that the entire DC Metro system was designed by a Chicago architect, Harry Weese. (Weese himself died a couple years ago, but his firm still continues work for WMATA.)
  • Like the above-ground stations, the rolling stock looks mostly modern but is beginning to look somewhat dated. Also, 25 years of wear and tear are beginning to show. But overall, the cars look and sound good, run nice and fast, and are comfortable to ride in. I’m sure they’ll look a lot better when they get their well-deserved overhaul soon.
  • I thought the signage and wayfinding, while better than Chicago’s, could still be potentially confusing to tourists and newcomers. New York and London seem to have the clearest and easiest signage systems; I was easily able to navigate both complicated systems upon my first visit to each city.
  • Being the lazy slob I am, I’m always in favor of escalators in subway stations. However, this assumes the escalators are working. More often than not, the escalators were either inoperational or under repair, sometimes leaving only a single escalator for arriving and departing passengers. This must be a nightmare during rush hours. The escalators are nice, but I think there should always be at least one stairway to serve as a backup.
  • The differences between the Breda and Rohr cars are fairly subtle, but obvious enough that I could tell them apart after only a couple trips. The Rohr cars have different weatherstripping around the windows, different lights down by the floor at the doors, and stainless steel grab bars on the seat backs, as opposed to brown rubber-coated grab bars.
  • The automated female “doors opening” and “doors closing” voice sounds a bit sultry. I’m surprised the Religious Right hasn’t raised hell about it. (Hey, they’ve bitched much louder about more pointless things.)
  • As cool and modern as the DC Metro is, it still seemed to lack the character of London’s Tube, Chicago’s L, or the NYC subway. I guess maybe it seemed a litte too clean and sanitized. Also, while I appreciate the WMATA’s reasons for keeping the stations a uniform design, it seems a bit monotonous. A little variety, a.k.a. London’s new Jubilee Line extension, would spice things up a lot.
  • Now that I’ve ridden the Washington Metro, I’m proud to say that I’ve now ridden every major subway system in the country!! (I haven’t yet ridden Baltimore or Los Angeles Metro, but they hardly count as major.)

Getting off at Smithsonian, I walked down the Mall past the Washington Monument and to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. I’m far too young to have served in Vietnam, and I don’t know too many Vietnam vets. My father was in the Navy during that era, but served at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. But for some reason, I’ve always felt drawn to The Wall, and going there felt sort of like a pilgrimage for me. The names, I knew there would be thousands of them. But I didn’t fully appreciate just how many there were until I got there and saw how big the wall is. What really struck me, though, was how the light plays differently on the granite surface. From some angles it’s a deep black granite. From other angles, the reflection is so strong it’s like looking into a mirror. Subtle and yet incredibly powerful, the wall is another masterpiece of modern architecture. Naturally, my thoughts led to the WTC site and what sort of memorial could possibly do justice to such a tragedy. My own ideas on a WTC memorial probably aren’t much better than the next person’s, but I think the Vietnam memorial, in its stark yet powerful simplicity, can show us a possible direction.

From there I walked up 23rd Street to the Foggy Bottom-GWU station. The surrounding neighborhood along the way reminded me a lot of Boston. From the station, I boarded a Breda Blue Line train back to Metro Center, where I transferred to a Breda Red Line train to Union Station. Arriving at Union Station, I walked around for a few minutes before heading over to the Amtrak gates to wait for the Silver Star to leave. The same security goon who chased me away from the Acela trains eyed me suspiciously through a set of doors. I almost gave him the finger, but didn’t want to risk missing my train on account of being interrogated by a bunch of Amtrak security goons in some gulag in the bowels of Union Station.

Finally, the Silver Star (train 91) began boarding. The gate agent barked orders to the customers in line, and we eventually headed downstairs and boarded the train. In contrast to my previous train of spacious Superliners, this train of worn-out Amfleet coaches felt very much like a Greyhound bus on rails. The train was crowded and dirty, and the air was stuffy. The cafe car was filled with cigarette smoke, and the employees seemed a bit harried. To top it off, the scenery through Virginia and North Carolina was even more boring than Indiana and Ohio. While the train ride from Chicago to DC was a pleasure, on this trip I found myself counting down the hours until arrival in Raleigh. I had dinner along the way, a fillet of red snapper, which was very good. The PA system on the train wasn’t working, so I was afraid to doze off in fear of missing my stop. This must be what the Amtrak-haters think of when they villify Amtrak, I remember thinking. Mercifully, the train went pretty fast the entire way down, we arrived in Raleigh on time at around 10:25 PM on Christmas Eve.

Raleigh in general, and my parents’ suburb of Knightdale in particular, was the same as it always is, with the addition of a few more strip malls. I spent the next four days in awkward conversation with my parents, being chewed on by the family dog, being ignored by the family cat, and occasionally venturing out with my mom on errands to the grocery store or to Wal-Mart. Oh, joy.

Raliegh is in the process of building a second expressway loop around the city, part of which will almost run through my parents’ back yard. My father is convninced that this will solve all their traffic ills. I also had to feign interest as my father pointed out all the strip malls being built in the area, as if that’s progress. Seemed like he was trying to convince me that they don’t really live in a semi-rural backwater, but sometimes it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself. (My parents are from Cincinnati orginally, and moved to NC from the Chicago suburbs about four years ago.) To his credit, he’s strongly in favor of a proposed commuter rail system they’re apparently planning down there, and my parents are talking about maybe moving back to Cincinnati after they retire. So maybe there’s hope for them after all.

All that said, I generally had a nice time down there. Seems I need trips like this once a year to remind myself why I moved out into my own apartment, but it was nice having some actual home-cooked meals for a few days and being “home” with the family even though I consider my home Chicago.

Saturday morning at 5:00 AM, we arrived at the Amtrak station in Reliegh to check in my bag and board the Silver Star (train 92) back to Washington. The train, which originates in Miami, was a half-hour late getting to Raleigh, and the return trip was essentially a carbon copy of the ride down. The major differences: The dining car was nicer, but we often crept along the tracks at slow speed or stopped altogether for extended periods for no apparent reason. Also, the sun eventually came up, so I was able to see outside for at least part of the journey. We eventually arrived at Union Station at around 1:00 PM, about 90 minutes late, which seriously cut into the time I was hoping to use to explore more of Washington.

After grabbing a bite to eat at the Sbarro eatery at Union Station, I got back on the Metro. Destination: DuPont Circle. The escalators there are certainly impressive, but painfully slow compared to what I got used to in London. I went up to the surface, looked around a bit, and headed back down. My next stop would be Judiciary Square, where I stopped at the National Building Museum to look around a bit. I bought a cool coffee table book, Metro at 25, which has a lot of interesting info and some cool photos of the Washington Metro system. And it was only $10. There was also a moving photo exhibit of the World Trade Center on display at the museum, and I stopped to pay my respects before going back down into the subway. From here, I went to Metro Center to seek out the Sales Office where I hoped to pick up a Metro coffee mug or something like that, but found it closed. I grumbled my way back downstairs, and caught a Breda Blue Line train to the Pentagon. The Pentagon Metro station itself is very cool, reminding me of the Porter Square stop on the MBTA Red Line. After a little nervous hesitation, I headed upstairs to see the Pentagon itself and the damaged section. I didn’t see the damaged area itself, but some construction cranes belied its location. Also, the bus stop shelter up at street level has a very nice architectural design. I snapped a couple photos and headed back down to the subway.

I grabbed a Breda Yellow Line train to Gallery Place-Chinatown, where I transferred to a Rohr Red Line train back to Union Station. One more round of being barked at by Amtrak gate personel before boarding my train, and I was back on board the Capitol Limited (train 29) bound for Chicago. The ride itself was relaxed and uneventful, similar to the ride down. The train in both directions was booked solid, but the Superliners don’t seem nearly as cramped and crowded as the Amfleet coaches. 17 hours on a Superliner is vastly preferable to 6 hours on an Amfleet. Again, the Capitol Limited crew was very nice and helpful. I had another meal of prime rib along the way, and while not quite as good as the prime rib I had on the way down, it certainly beat the mac & cheese that I’m used to having for dinner.

Darkness soon overcame us shortly after leaving Washington, but with a bright full moon and a fresh coat of snow on the ground, we could easily see outside the train once they dimmed the lights on the coaches. The mountains and villages took on a different look in the moonlit darkness, and every so often the train would round a curve and allow me to see the two Genesis locomotives casting a bright ray of light on the tracks ahead. The only sound was the steady rythm of the wheels against the rails, punctuated every so often by the lonely cry of the distant horn was we approached a grade crossing. I was in heaven.

I stayed awake until we got past Pittsburg, and then got some sleep. I was dead tired before even boarding the train, so I slept much better than I did on the way down. I woke up a few hours later somewhere in the middle of Indiana. It was still dark out, but the dining car was open for breakfast. I had a very good breakfast of a ham and cheese omlette with some hash browns (also very good). Not too long thereafter, I found the passing landscape looking familiar was we passed the massive steel mills of northern Indiana and made our way into Chicago. For part of the way we travelled alongside the Chicago Skyway, which is undergoing a massive reconstruction, before turning north and heading up through Bridgeport past Comiskey Park and into the Union Station yards. We pulled onto the westbound BNSF tracks where they disconnected the freight boxes from our train, and after a short wait we backed into Union Station itself.

As we got off the train, we were greeted with an icy blast of wind and temperatures in the teens. I had planned on taking the CTA Red Line home, but as tired as I was and with these temperatures, I sprung for a taxi once I had picked up my bag. For the next several hours, while sitting at my computer and checking my e-mail, my body still felt like it was bouncing along the rails.

Some concluding remarks about my Amtrak journey:

  • While the Silver Star was tedious and boring, I was very impressed with the Capitol Limited. Maybe it was the scenerey or the spacious Superliner coaches, but the Capitol Limited just seemed a lot nicer. Some people argue that long-distance trains have no reason for being, but I think the ride on the Capitol Limited is living proof to the contrary.
  • The Amtrak personel at Chicago Union Station and on board the Capitol Limited were very courteous and helpful. The personel on the Silver Star seemed nice but harried and overworked, and the personel at Washington Union Station seemed like just plain assholes.
  • It’s a shame the Superliners can’t fit into some parts of the East Coast, as I think they would be a vast improvement over the Amfleet coaches.
  • Despite my generally negative experiences on the Silver Star, my trip overall was vastly preferable to flying. How many people fly because they enjoy they actually enjoy being stuffed into tin cans? On flights, people are generally bitchy, high-strung, and usually just grunt at each other. On the train, people are more relaxed and actually feel comfortable talking to each other.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This country needs a decent high-speed rail network. The advatanges of high-speed rail for distances of 600 miles or less are already a given. But based on my experiences aboard the Capitol Limited, I believe a strong case could be made for high-speed rail for distances of at least 1000 miles, if the right ammenities are offered on board. Maybe it’s just the effects of 9/11, but a surprisingly large percentage of people on the Capitol Limited were travelling all the way between DC and Chicago.
  • Chicago Union Station has a lot of room for improvement compared to Washington Union Station. It’s okay, but in some respects it’s like a slightly dressed-up version of NYC Penn. We could do much better than that.

Okay, that’s about all I have to say right now… I’m sure I’ve left something out, but I’ll probably add it later.

(originally posted on the SubTalk forum at nycsubway.org)