John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 14, 2008

South by rail, heavy and light

I thought I had this business of New Orleans by train down pat.

Catch the southbound Amtrak at Greenwood. My brother’s brother and sister-in-law in Greenwood, Tim and Betty Gail Kalich, provide for me a valet service with my car, picking it up after I leave, bringing it back to the station on the day of my return.

Step up into that rail coach at Greenwood and I’m almost there, south to Yazoo City, maybe sidetracking for a freight in between. Yazoo City south to Jackson where the smokers pile off to suck them fags, inhaling deep ‘cause its the last smoke break before the Crescent City itself.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

South through Hazelhurst, slowing, flagstopping if there’s a southbound passenger in sight, on to Brookhaven, another town deep-steeped in railside history, further south to McComb, a railroad city still, on to Hammond with its picturesque depot and  through to Pontchatoula where from the west side of the tracks, Berrytown Produce mocks me. If I had been driving I could have detoured by there, from December through May depending on the severity of south-plunging cold fronts, for strawberries, flavorful and tart.

Succulent they are, those Louisiana berries. Short shelf life, intended for immediate consumption. Tart in cool weather, sweetening as the weather warms, flavorful throughout and nonexistent after Mother’s Day when the heat ends the season until the following winter.

But unaccessible from Amtrak which blows through the Pontchatoula crossings, determinedly southbound with a 3:30 p.m. rendezvous at New Orleans’ Union Station. Through marshes to Pass Manchac where the rail drawbridge just south of Middendorf’s has lowered to allow the train’s passage.

Inaccessibility to Middendorf’s is another sacrifice made to Amtrak travel. During a recent auto trip with one of my favorite granddaughters, we stopped and ate the speciality catfish of that landmark dining destination on the spit of land between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain, catfish filets shaved thin and fried succulently.

But Amtrak at Manchac no stop does make, passing over that water of the Pass through more marshes and alongside Pontchartrain’s western shore, sidetracking briefly for her sister passenger train, Amtrak’s Number 58 City of New Orleans, northbound to Chicago. Or vice versa, depending on which train is closer to schedule.

On to the island, the Isle d’Orleans, the approach by rail underscoring the lovely lady’s watery surroundings. Into Union Station backwards. The southbound Amtrak City of New Orleans horseshoes around the Times-Picayune’s building and then backs into Union Station amidst Amtrak cars and engines undergoing maintenance for outbound destinations and old Amtrak Heritage cars staged there since 2005 in case they are needed for hurricane evacuation.

From Union Station it’s six blocks or so by hoof to St. Charles Avenue where the streetcars pass at 10-minute intervals. Except when they don’t.

After 30 minutes and the passage of four inbound streetcars, an outbound streetcar finally arrives filled to beyond standing room only with passengers whose excess has accumulated in the unexplained delay. I board with one other passenger. And my backpack luggage which is the equivalent of one more passenger and not near as maneuverable.

Sometimes the drivers of chock-full streetcars simply pass by waiting passengers, pointing their thumbs backwards in gestures toward another car not far behind. Sometimes the drivers of chock-full streetcars stop and open their folding doors for yet anyone else who wants to board.

“Keep moving back, there’s room at the back,” the driver said. He lied. The car was packed from front to back. I held to an overhead rail to brace myself against the car’s starts and stops. My cell phone rang. I was unable to turn loose from the hand grip to answer.

Clanking past the landmark cross streets, Jackson and Washington, passengers shifted off and up and I finally gained a seat, placing the backpack on my knees in front of me to get it out of the aisle.

On past Louisiana Avenue the streetcar churns up picturesque St. Charles Avenue with is polyglot of mansions, hotels and restaurants. Finally just past Napoleon Avenue, this overloaded streetcar gives it up. The driver walks down the steps and mumbles something about everyone getting off and moving to another streetcar which will take its place.

It is enough. I’m close enough home to walk from there.

By the time I arrive home, the straps of that backpack cut heavily into my shoulders. My wife is puzzled about why it took so long to get home from Union Station when the Amtrak had arrived on time.

Later, when we walk down Magazine Street to the Whole Foods store and to New York Pizza assembling the evening repast, my step is light and unbound.