I just stumbled across Ralph Nader in the pages of a fairly recent copy of The Sun, and the old crusader seems surprisingly full of optimism…and well grounded. He doesn’t believe the nation is really all that divided. In fact, he sees areas of general agreement…such as breaking up the banks, the ones that are ‘too big to fail’…and goes on to cite others. So, what the hell. If he can believe, I can believe.
Which brings me back to trains. Honestly, the Amtrak dining car is a downright subversive force for social cohesion…and those in the loopy right of the US Congress may even sense this. Or maybe not. Doesn’t matter. The point is that disparate Americans gathering for meals in a rattling, lurching train car a good thing. The experience literally throws people together. And this experience is utterly unusual these days. For when your dining table is bouncing, salt shakers vibrating and picture window tilting…there is enough going on to make you forget about turning on your electronics. Besides, on a train you’re off the grid and out of range of Wi-Fi. Generally. Which is good. Trust me.
Years ago, I was careening northward on a train nearing the Oregon border and took several minutes to study my Amtrak menu. Which was a national menu and included grits. The latter are not a California thing. And in fact I’m not entirely clear what they are. But they do have something to do with corn. And there they were. Someone else at my table ordered them. Which gave us something to talk about. Which Americans need. It’s a national epidemic, screen-based living. We don’t quite trust talking face-to-face. But in an Amtrak dining car, there aren’t many options. You get used to it. Non-screen-based, non-clickable interaction…just people having breakfast. Or lunch. No pixels. Food.
With space at a premium in an Amtrak dining car, strangers are thrown together. Which these days is utterly unusual. Think of it as America’s moving town square, lunch included. Not only is the actual experience one of concord. Even the prospect offers universal appeal. Would you like to have lunch on a train? From West Virginia to Idaho, who is going to say no? Sorry, can’t do that. I want to invest in more in flight testing for the F-35. Of course, there is no free lunch. And though food in the dining car isn’t free, it is subsidized. It always has been, even in the era of the Super Chief or 20th Century Limited. Dining cars have always been loss leaders. And if we can’t accept this, the loss is ours. So can we? Stay tuned. The battle is on.