OP-ED: I Will Pack and Take a Train – Part 2

By Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben

Now let me tell you something about the American European Express train.  And what I say is true not only of this train and this experience.  It can happen in the Russian Tea Room, or in the Steinway Piano Showroom, or at the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, or standing beneath the mythical expanse of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.  There are some places that, because of the eloquence of their architecture, the elegance of their décor, the inspiration imparted by their atmosphere, or the combination of all the above, lift us out of ourselves and make us into more.




One evening when I was new to Manhattan and bursting with an eighteen-year-old’s ecstasy in being alive, I, and two like-minded buddies, was ambling along the promenade by the East River in the Carl Schultz Park. 




It was a perfect spring midnight.  The air was crystal clear.  The skyline was etched in glass.  The river was glistening and silent, and across the river, the lights of Roosevelt Island reflected fat, dazzling dots into the still, black water.  Enraptured by the perfect magic of the night, my friends and I started to sing Tin Pan Alley tunes.  We were delightful.  We were delirious.  We were de-lovely.  We danced, swiveled, and swooped up and down park benches.  We were youth.  We were exaltation.  And that night was what life with a capital “L” is all about.  Good movies approximate that feeling.  At best, they copy it.  Art imitates life.  Then we imitate art.




But life, that extra special life in those extra special places – at the Plaza Hotel, under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge – life comes first.  And those moments of life put a patina of gloriousness on our every move.




And so, when I sit down at the piano in the St. Moritz club car of the American European Express and the sun is setting outside the window of my rapidly moving train, I am as young as the eighteen-year-old girl I used to be and life has as much potential; beautiful movie stars are pale imitations of me, realization has exceeded expectation…and the train rolls on.




What am I playing?  Nothing much, at first.  Just disassociated notes.  Then they evolved into a melody, and I recognize the tune.  It is Bless This House. 




Why am I playing that?




“Oh Lord We Pray…”




I’m an atheist.




“Make it Safe by Night and Day…”




I must really like this train.




Charlie is sitting comfortably in a plush pink armchair across the aisle.  I segue into Danny Boy, do a few bars of Embraceable You, and then lament in ivory about being Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. 




At some point, after bothered and before bewildered, the Chef de Train, Gregg, comes to life beside the piano like a reflection materializing out of a windowpane.  It is night.  The real world has been imprisoned out there, far removed from us behind a sheet of glass.  On a train, night isolates. 




We are in motion.  Aloof and apart.




Gregg sits on the arm of a chair.  We talk.  A Handi-Talkie bulges from the back pocket of his pants, reminding us of his responsibility.  But he is relaxed.  He tells us about the American European Express.  About its sister train, the Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express in Zurich.  He tells us about the location, assemblage and restoration of the cars for the American venture; about the crew; about headquarters in Chicago; and about Mr. Spann, president of the American European Express, a romantic rags-to-riches story of a man who had worked his way up in the hospitality industry until he owned an opulent Florida resort, and was now implementing his dream of operating a this incredible Shangri-la on wheels. 




Sometime in the course of this conversation, the Chief Steward, Tom Gray appears.  Tom is an unusual man.  There is a caring about him, and a gentleness.  He is obviously good at what he does, or he could not hold such an important position on the train, but he does what he does so unobtrusively that one’s memory of him is not of activity. But rather of the wake of an action, as if with Tom around, you are eating a chocolate bonbon before your sweet tooth even had a chance to ache.




We talk some more, and then both men return to other cars and other responsibilities.




Charlie and I, too, are nearing the end of our first night.  We jostle back through the corridors.  Through five, six, seven, eight cars, past our Paris sleeper, and finally arrive at the Bay Point club car, where Mr. Bill presides over his piano.




As we settle into a comfortable art deco sofa, the last of the “anniversary couples” is going to bed.  We encounter many of these on the train, and exchange pleasantries with a few.  They are people in their sixties or seventies, who, forty or fifty years earlier, had taken a train with their spouse, and now, half a century later, are re-living that experience.


All are attractive couples, either in appearance or in the loving ways that they look at each other.  All can be caught holding hands.  And the presence of all imparts a tenderness to this trip that gives Charlie and me the hope that fifty years hence, we, too, will be holding hands on a gently jostling train.




There is a couple from Chicago.  She has a lovely face.  Fine, delicate bones, like a pretty bird from a fairy  that has temporarily alighted in a secret garden.  I see the neat manicure of her unpolished fingernails and her beautifully shaped fingers.  Charlie notices that her hands are arthritic.




She is on the train with her husband for their 50th Anniversary.  She reaches across the table to pat his hand and reassure him.  He reaches across the table to let her know that he is reassured.  He has the unremarkable face of an old man, a face easy to disregard, as if within the shell of his body, there is no longer an active brain or an appreciating soul.  Until his wife directs a remark to him.  Then his face relaxes into intellect, warmth and humanity.  His speech is articulate.  His responses eager and adoring.




When he walks to the end of the car to go to the water closet, she watches his progress with cautious apprehension, and in a soft voice, tells us that he is dying, but does not want anyone to know.  Then she tells us about their courtship, the letters he wrote to her from the Navy, his determination that she would be his bride, his job…




She had met him when he was delivering ice to her parents’ apartment.  She had selected him as the man she would wed, because all of her other suitors bragged about their possessions and the money they were making, “But not Ed.  There were more important things than money to Ed.”




Ed and the beautiful woman with the bird bones go to bed.  I wonder if Ed has spent his entire life repairing refrigerators, or if he eventually went on to become the corporate giant of a vast refrigeration empire.  But there is no way to find out.  The American European Express train is a great equalizer.




All are elegant here.




The club car has become silent except for the reassuring rumble rumble of the train.  Only Charlie, Mr. Bill and I are left.  We reach for the occasional cashew or Brazil nut and position our drinks within easy reach.  It is still early enough to indulge in the one activity so perfectly suited to travel on a train…that of aimless and idle conversation with people one barely knows but with whom one feels completely at ease.




It would be impossible to feel anything but comfortable with Mr. Bill.  We sit opposite him and barrage him with questions.  Do you like working on a train?  Has anyone famous ever traveled in this car?  What trip was the most fun?  Did you enjoy playing Who Done It when a murder mystery was performed on board?  Did you ever go on the Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express?  Which did you like better, their train or ours? What kinds of people travel alone?  How often do corporations reserve entire cars to entertain their clients?




We ask questions.  We eat nuts.  We sip at out drinks.  Small cities, invisible farms, little towns whiz by.




Still we talk.




And Mr. Bill tells us the one thing that removes him in our minds from being just a nice, talented man, and elevates him to the stature of legend. He says that whenever anyone on the train asks him where the train is at any given moment, within seconds of being asked, he can look out the window and know.  Anywhere.  Anytime.  In the middle of a field.  At the far end of a village.  At day break.  At dusk.  And he is always right.




I am impressed.




Then Mr. Bill tells us about Lafayette, Indiana.  He says that at about 7:00 o’clock in the morning, the American European Express train will pass through the city of Lafayette, and that the train really goes through the city.  By which he means that the tracks go right down the middle of Main Street, at the same level as the street, imbedded right into the asphalt, and that cars, bicycles and skateboards can ride right along behind, beside or in front of it.




I am amazed.




We engage in a bit more talk of activities that have taken place aboard the train…of entire cars being chartered for family reunions, of marriage proposals being made, of surprise birthday parties being given, and public relations extravaganzas being held.  I look at my watch.  I yawn. Charlie looks at my watch.  He yawns.  It is close to midnight.  We thank Mr. Bill for the wonderful conversation, and bid him an affectionate good night.




We work our way back to the Paris sleeper.  In our absence, our compartment has been made up.  Our sofa has been turned into a bed, and there is an exotic, waxy red flower on our pillow, along with a gold foil-wrapped piece of chocolate.  The berths are comfortable and snug.  The motion of the train rolling along the tracks is reassuring and romantic.




I don’t care if I sleep or not, but I do.  And six hours later, I peek under the heavy fabric shade, and awaken to a dim gray dawn and the flat fields of Indiana.




In that sweet, lonely hour while Charlie is still asleep, I am able to commune with a past I never had, and with a life I was too young to have led. I look out the window at the passing landscape, and I think about my mother taking the train from Montreal to Chicago, meeting my father there, and falling in love.  I think about Carole Lombard (or was it Carole Landis?) traveling across this vast country in the 20th Century Limited during World War II, selling war bonds.  I think about adventure and intrigue.  I think about the beautiful woman with hummingbird bones who is down the corridor from us, and who has been in love for over fifty years with a no longer young man who had once delivered ice.  And I jostle the shoulder of my husband, because certain things have to be shared, and because we haven’t been married for over fifty years yet, and because it is absolutely imperative that he wake up and help me look out the window of the train.


Copyright © 2011, Shelly Reuben.  Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NYevesun.com 


Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards.  For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.  Link to David M. Kinchen's reviews of her novels "The Skirt Man" and "Tabula Rasa": http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605-kinchen-review.html





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