Editor’s note: This is the first half of a two-part column. The second will appear in Friday’s edition.
“God! I will pack, and take a train, and get me to England once again!” – Rupert Brooke
A little less than a lifetime ago, I had a dream date with my late husband on a train.
Both now exist only in the Land of What Used to Be. But lately, thoughts of him and of that intimately sweet adventure have been poking gentle fingers into long forgotten corridors of my mind, and as I try to concentrate on paying bills or making deadlines, words pop into my head to lure me away from occupation and obligation.
Evocative words like Pullman, porter, and 20th Century Limited. My mind dawdles over these words, and I hear a sound – a drawn out whistle as lyrical as a wind chime echoing through a tunnel – and suddenly, I am no longer sitting at the desk in my office; I have been transported back to the polished mahogany, plush upholstery and gracious personnel of the offices of the American European Express.
My husband and I have just arrived at Penn Station in New York: I, manicured and coiffeured, my red suit without a wrinkle. Charlie, a silver blond hunk of diamond blue eyes, affection and perfection. We are on our way to an escapade – or do I mean an escape from the mundane? One complete day, twenty-four hours of gently jolting, with a sweet, rumbling sleep tossed in between. We will be on the American European Express.
What is the American European Express?
It is a train.
It is a train.
It is 9:30 on Thursday morning. A uniformed man behind the desk cheerfully informs us that he is the Chef de Train.
Chef de Train?
What is s Chef de Train?
Is he a chef, as in gourmet cuisine?
Is a chief, as in “Hail to the…”?
What is he?
Ours is a cross between Huckleberry Finn and a Medicine Man. He is the guy who stands at the back of a Conestoga wagon selling miracle potions, but unlike the hucksters of old, our miracle man promises nothing and delivers everything with all-American, boyish good looks and an easy-going manner. Chef de Train, such an elaborate title. Gregg Edwardsen, our Chef de Train, a good-natured, efficient, unpretentious nice man.
He gathers his travelers in front of the American European Express office and herds us, designer-original sheep, through the dingy waiting rooms at Penn Station, down the escalator, down the dark, long, narrow, magic carpet platform, to the train.
And as I sit here at my desk so many years later, a stolid, steady earth beneath my feet, my pencil follows the drift of my mind backward to the motion of the train slipping out of the Penn Station gate. So subtle. So swift a motion. No jerk. No jolt. Like an elegant stripper slipping a long black glove of off graceful, slim fingers.
We are moving faster.
The heavy train begins its massive roll. Forward. Forward. Out of the tunnel. Into the day. Bright, dazzling sunlight without. Soft, polished twilight within.
And music. Cole Porter, as Charlie and I are led to a club car with the name Bay Point engraved elaborately on the door. I tap the door, expecting it to slide into the wall with a pneumatic swoosh, like on the commuter trains in Chicago. It doesn’t budge. I look down and see a handle. A real door. Like on a real train. I push.
The luxuriously decorated club and dining cars had been described before in the dozens of articles we read prior to being enticed aboard. They are attractive as we had been led to believe, but much warmer and more comfortable. And bigger. Wider. Train photographs somehow project an all-pervading narrowness. Even in the wonderful movie of Agatha Christe’s Murder on the Orient Express, I felt cramped as I observed the passengers edging cautiously between tables and around awkward-looking chairs.
Not so in the Bay Point, where a glossy black Baldwin piano sits center supreme, teasing us with the Shakespearean notion that here, if nowhere else, the world is, indeed its own stage. Lounge chairs, sofas, crystal bowls of nuts abound. More soft music. Is it Gershwin now?
Gregg, our Chef de Train, leads us past other crewmembers whose smiles and faces we will soon get to know, and we are taken to our cabin in the Paris car.
I’m pinching myself. I’m pinching my husband. Paris car! Are we awake! Is this a movie? Are we still ourselves, or have we been mysteriously transformed into star-lighted creatures from our own imaginations?
Gregg turns to see if we are following him. Charlie and I stop pinching each other and try to act like grown-ups, but he smiles and sees through us.
He leads us to a car D.
Since then, D has become my favorite letter. I love D.
He opens the door.
We have a drawing room.
It is small. Plush. Compact. A place where our knees can say hello to each other. There are two gigantic windows opposite the door to the corridor, a comfortable sofa that turns into a bed. A table with orchids in a silver vase. Textile window shades. And polished mahogany walls and trim everywhere.
We glance around. We open and shut doors, looking for secret compartments. Bathroom? Found it. Closet? Here it is! Mirror. Luggage hook. Upper berth. Another lower berth? My, oh my. It’s absolutely adorable.
Gregg smiles again. He is energetic. He is active. Whenever he is motionless, he seems only to be temporarily at rest, yet he never rushes or makes us feel rushed. In his back pocket he carries a Handi-Talkie. Like a cop. Like a fire marshal. Like a trainman. Noticing our confusion, he says, “Everybody knows what to do on a cruise, but nobody knows what to do on a train.” He explains that there are twelve cars on the train today, including 6,000 horsepower engines: Two dining cars. Two club cars. Six sleeping compartments. And at the end of the train, the observation car, recently restored to more that its original splendor when it had graced the legendary 20th Century Limited.
Gregg invites us to explore the train if we feel like it, and he is off.
Charlie grabs our camera.
When we first checked into the American European Express office, I had specifically asked the Chef de Train for a cabin where the seat faced the direction in which the train was going. Gregg assured me that we would be given such a compartment. Then he paused and said, “I think I gave you a forward facing seat, but …” And we could see his brain doing a few calculating pivots before he added, “Which way you’re going gets confusing on a train.”
I remember this as Charlie and I begin our explorations. Is the Chicago dining car ahead of us or behind us? Are we walking towards the front of the train, or towards the rear? Since the direction in which we were going was all so perfectly obvious to me during the first two minutes of our ride, why don’t I have any idea now? I had thought I’d get dizzy going backwards. It turns out that I never even know when I am going forward.
And I don’t care.
We find our way back to the Bay Point Club car and begin chatting with a happy looking man behind the bar. We say something about coffee; he begins a sleigh of hand that results in two cups. He is fair-haired, with merry eyes, a trim mustache and a general air of being perfectly at ease in a universe designed to dole out delight. He introduces himself as being “Mr. Bill,” the train’s “entertainment.”
We apologize profusely for thinking he’s the bartender, which results in a big smile, a second cup of coffee, and the tender sprigs of our understanding that on the American European Express train, even if nowhere else on this planet, it genuinely is the staff’s pleasure to serve.
Never before have I seen solicitousness without subservience. Any waiter serving tea or porter, turning down a bed or bartender mixing a drink does so with such an air of skilled courtesy that I don’t feel that sneaky guilt when surrounded by too much luxury, as though I am secretly resented by those who are catering to my every wish, and come the revolution, he who is polishing my shoes now will be knitting my shroud then.
The staff on the train project professionalism. Professionalism denotes self-esteem, and self-esteem implies equality. After only seconds of conversation, I realize that the individual who is now putting a pot of tea in front of me might well be the man sitting beside me humming excerpts from Tchaikovsky the next time I see Swan Lake.
This fact is made even clearer at breakfast. We are being served baby lamb chops and an assortment of pretty green things with scrambled eggs by a polite waiter with the face of a gunman. I hear a familiar melody coming, seemingly from the woodwork (on this train, everything is lyrical; even the draperies seem to sing), and comment to Charlie, “What’s that tune? I could swear Mr. Witz tried to teach it to me on the piano when I was seven, but…” Our waiter with the face of an assassin stops grinding pepper over my chops and says brightly, “I’ll find out what it is for you.”
“Oh, I don’t want you to bother.”
“No bother. We’ve got an expert in music on the train. He knows everything.”
Thirty seconds later, our waiter with the face of a hangman grins out the word, “Polonaise.”
And I am in love.
With him. With the Chef de Train. With our Chief Steward, Tom Gray (more about Tom later), with the American European Express, and with James.
James, apparently, is our musicologist errant. He has a round face, a barbershop quartet mustache, serious, attentive eyes, and a manner that makes you think of words like “rubicund” and images of Friar Tuck defending the territoriality of his tree. James has a doctorate degree (or something) in music. It is James who had mysteriously identified Chopin’s tune for us. And James, at dinner, who impeccably serves our duck pâté.
The evening progresses.
I am hesitant to ask the pleasant man who brings me a drink if he likes working on a train, for fear he may say that he prefers it mightily to the days when he was a professor of ancient Egyptology at good old Cairo U.
It is afternoon.
We have taken our naps and arisen eager for adventure. The Bay Point car and familiar faces are to our left. We turn right. As we walk down the narrow (mahogany of course) corridor of our sleeper, we are buffeted by the motion of the cars rolling over tracks at speeds that can attain 120 miles per hour. Jolt to the left. Jolt to the right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Rumble. Rumble. Rumble: The inadvertent exercise of the train traveler.
A fat woman encounters us as we negotiate an exaggeratedly geometric curve. We do a dance of deference. Who will go first? Charlie and I step back and press ourselves against the wall. The fat lady smiles an embarrassed smile. On a train, self-delusion about size doesn’t work.
We exit our Paris sleeper. The jolting is most severe between cars. And most exciting. If Alfred Hitchcock could shoot suspense sequences for his thriller North by Northwest in this train, what delicious bit of mischief is in store for us next?
We jostle through the cars. Most are empty. This particular trip hosts the press from New York to Philadelphia, a courtesy jaunt during which the American European Express will announce its new winter service to Florida. The presence of the press also explains why there are so many unnecessary cars. Two dining cars. Two club cars, and twice the necessary sleepers. All to demonstrate to the media people aboard the stuff of which the American European Express is made.
We are in heaven. No. We are in a movie. Yes. We’re definitely in a movie. We walk through an empty dining car. The Zurich. It is a stage set. Charlie photographs me. I photograph him. It is like sneaking through your great Aunt Ingrid’s hereditary mansion and passing down isolated corridors to cordoned off rooms, the doors of which open into...we know not what. We creak open a door, expecting something secretive and perhaps a bit scary. The door opens wide, but instead of secrets, we find ourselves confronted by sparkling, friendly, welcoming…opulence.
We continue our expedition. We are Burton and Speke looking for the source of the Nile. No, we are Astaire and Rogers, looking for a top hat and cane.
How many cars have we walked though?
In which direction are we going?
Where is everybody?
We open another door. Enter into another club car. This one is called the St. Moritz. This one has bright, cheerful pink lounge chairs, geometric patterned green walls, lots of brass and ebony, a mountain scene painted along a narrow path between the walls and ceiling, and a big, glossy black grand piano waiting silently in the center of the car for the plink plink of my fingers.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2010, Shelly Reuben.