John Howell Column
“Feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor.”
— From the City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman, covered by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, among others
The food from the Cross Country Café Car has noticeably improved since the rail car was introduced less than two years ago to replace the two food service cars that had previously served passengers on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.
My observation is seconded by my fellow diner, an older, dignified lady with fine tan skin and straight white teeth. Her home had been damaged by Katrina, she told me. She has a daughter in New Orleans who is a doctor whose speciality is pediatrics, she said, and another daughter in Memphis who is a lawyer whose speciality is medical malpractice. She stays with one for awhile, then the other, dividing her time between them.
Her damaged New Orleans home was further compromised by a a fraudulent contractor’s repair, her story goes. “God’ll get him; that’s what keeps me going, knowing that God will get him,” she said.
I had boarded the train at Memphis for a change, wanting to see what I had missed in all my previous trips boarding and returning to Greenwood. The Amtrak station at Memphis is easily accessed from I-55. It is beautifully restored and the parking is secured by the presence of dozens of police cars and their drivers who share the lot with Amtrakers.
South through the Delta, skirting the edge of the hills, my coach is shared with Greenwood-bound passengers, the dispossessed of the Delta making a pilgrimage south from the northern cities of the their exile for reunions with family, food and nourishment for their souls.
Let me off, and I’ll catch a big ole bass, my companion across the aisle laments each time we slow or stop next to a river or slough to switch around a freight train heading in the other direction. He spots fish-stirred ripples on the water’s surface. He has been living in the north long enough to prefer the taste of the walleye to crappie, he said. Yet he’s still familiar enough with the rail-crossed ground to recognize the Coldwater River when we cross.
Southbound further we travel, dispersing passengers bound for homecomings and funerals among Mississippi kin, gaining those southbound for a party weekend in New Orleans.
Back northbound, after an uncommonly cool and dry August weekend in the Crescent City, for the first time I step past coach class passengers and board as a sleeping car passenger.
In Amtrakspeak it is a roomette. I approach with trepidation anything with an “ette” attached to it.
The roomette is accessed through a sliding glass door that opens into the sleeping car’s center aisle. Inside, two large, single seats face each other. The small space within which all of this is contained at first impresses me as claustrophobic.
Only after I have successfully pushed the two seats down to make a small berth do I begin to appreciate the features that have been incorporated into this economy of space.
The upper berth is folded up against the ceiling when not in use. It is easily pulled down for use. It looks comfortable and there’s a safety net to restrain once the sleeper gets up there, but I don’t try it.
Instead, I recline after my excellent meal on that lower berth, and fall asleep to the rail’s rhythm, the car gently swaying and the wheels’ clackety-clackety-clackety cadence toward the north on the endless steel ribbons.