Su Lum: Slumming
August 24, 2011
Some of my most vivid memories are of early train trips to Florence, Ala., to visit my maternal grandparents. Later, I would commute to college in upstate New York on trains, followed by a year of living at home and commuting by train to New York City.
Later still I introduced my daughters, Skye and Hillery, to train travel, culminating in a dream trip from Aspen to Denver to Chicago to New York to Disney World in Florida. We were traveling with my friend Barbie Lewis and, from Denver on, had booked the unspeakable luxury of a double bedroom.
The bedrooms were the creme de la creme of accommodations, and when the porter unlocked a secret connecting door between them there were four bunk beds and two bathrooms. We were in train hog heaven.
There were, later, European trains, efficiently run and going everywhere, but deep in my memory bank, where I’m becoming increasingly convinced the whole of our real lives live, was the Pullman car we took on my first remembered visit to Alabama.
I was 4, an age about which I could tell you little except a few snippets from nursery school (I covered a large sheet of paper on an easel with dark blue paint and, in the center, drew a circle with two eyes. When asked, I said it was a wasp in her nest, but I know it was me, trapped in New Jersey) and climbing huge sunflowers to pluck out their sweet, soft seeds.
But that train trip I remember. We didn’t lead an exciting life and this was a totally alien experience. My tonsillectomy a year later proved even more memorable, but not in a good way. The train trip was astounding.
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We boarded in Newark after a long drive. People in smashing crowds all around, unintelligible voices honking departures – “Gibbledy gibbledy gibbledy now leaving on TRACK NINE.” Trains huffing and puffing in the station, the great white whales of travel.
My father, like all the fathers, commuted by train to New York, and I always wanted to go with my mother to drop him off and pick him up, seeing the chuffer-belly smoke and listening to the whistle and the screech of metal brakes (standing as close as I dared to the tracks to feel the steam, hear the roar).
Now we were getting on the train itself. A major train, a train with Pullman cars. My sister was 8, my little brother not yet born. Now all dead – grandparents, parents, siblings, I’d rather remember the train trip than reflect on what it’s all about – what, if anything, it means.
We sat on plush seats with a table between them that pulled down from the wall. I didn’t like riding backward, but I loved lurching from side to side walking down the swaying car to the drinking fountain, where I could press a button and fill a tiny white paper cone-shaped cup with lukewarm water.
Then we went to the dining car, an adventure pushing open tough, tight doors while out in the rushing air, the tracks racing along underneath and the clanking gears of the apparatus holding the cars together – barely, I thought – for car after car until we reached the car of white tablecloths and my mother, with wobbly hand, wrote down our orders on the menu form.
The crew was the opposite of lily-white except for the men in charge, and all of them were smiling. The white ones had pursed lips.
I don’t remember the dinner except for the ice cream, but when we got back to our seats there was nothing but heavy curtains on each side of the car. Our seats had been put together to make a lower berth for my mother and my sister and a bulge above them had been opened to make an upper berth for me. Mine. With a canvas ladder to get up there to a blue night light and a little hammock to put things in.
I (the little monkey) scampered up and down, hung by my toes to stick my head into my family’s lower berth, was fascinated to watch, from my upper perch, people wrestling to undress in the berths below until I was rock rock rocked to sleep by the clakkety of the train, the most soothing sound I know.
In the middle of the night we changed trains in Chattanooga. I had never been waked up to do anything in the middle of the night but was too sleepy to fully appreciate it. Next thing I knew I was waking up in the upper berth of the second train. For breakfast, the bacon was served just barely cooked, kind of like the first time I ever had sushi, then we pulled into the station and my mother gave me two dollars to give to the porter as we stepped down on the provided stool. I had never given anyone a tip and didn’t know how to do it, but the decision was removed when the porter snapped the bills out of my hand, thanking me.
My grandparents had a round goldfish pond dug in the middle of a field of daffodils. I used to wade through the yellow flowers to get to the pond and lie for hours watching the flashing bodies of the fish in the water.
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