John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Comfort zone abandoned during 17 hours in ette

Shocked and awed she was when we opened the door to that Amtrak roomette.

Maybe the ette had shrunk since my earlier ette encounter of only few hours duration. Or maybe it was the thought of the two of us spending most of  17 hours or more in that space. A very small space in which I was frequently reminded that the flight home was only about two hours.

“Two hours?” It was a refrain that I would hear frequently.

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We soon saw further confirmation that those Amtrak cars had been manufactured in a day when the world was lighter and more limber. There were sleeping car passengers aboard who were forced to navigate by turning sideways when they walked through the narrow hallway in the center of the car. I am not making this up. When two people meet, it’s like cars meeting on the narrow, one-lane bridges we encountered on country roads somewhere in the last century. Somebody has to back up.

So it remains a mystery to us about how those folks navigated into the ette’s top pull-down bunk. From the top of two impromptu steps leading upward, the would-be top bunk sleeper had to swing sideways, with very little overhead clearance, into the top. Once in, there was a safety netting that hooked into the ette’s ceiling to keep the occupant from rolling or being jostled out.

And only then, after the safety net had been securely hooked in place, did it occur that a call of nature was imminent.

So it went through most of a long night. We last saw the daylight as the sun set amidst mixed clouds over the Delta at Yazoo City. We next saw daylight under cloudy skies over northern Illinois farmland.

Chicago’s Union Station is the nation’s hub for Amtrak. Quickly apparent was an ethnicity different even from multi-cultural New Orleans. The trainload of Dats who had been discharged from the City of New Orleans upon its arrival were quickly diluted into the throng. I saw no one in Muslim garb to make me consider whether I should be nervous or not. I did see a number of Amish individuals. They looked quite harmless but very distinctive in black and gray.

Most impressive was a very tall man dressed in the long, flowing robe of a Greek Orthodox priest. The crowds shuffling from one train to another parted as the priest walked through, black robe trimmed in gold, his height further exaggerated by tall, brimless cap and a long, untrimmed gray beard flowing down his chest. No fear, but maybe a little awe.

We caught the Hiawatha from Chicago to Milwaukee. It is a fleet of commuter trains that leave Union Station every two hours for Milwaukee, operating with a clipped efficiency that deposits its passengers at their Wisconsin destination in 90 minutes but devoid of personality like the City of New Orleans. The Dats are far behind.

And so we came into Milwaukee on a weekend unseasonably warm by their standards. People thronged to the outdoors in tee shirts and shorts. Flowers bloomed brilliantly in their final display before a killing frost. It is by now overdue as the introduction of the long, cold winter that lies ahead.