Penn Station

I am rolling through the Caltrain station at midday, the place surprisingly busy for 12 noon, which should be good news, but isn’t, such is my preoccupation. Perhaps it is because I am in a rail terminal that something drifts back to me. Over brunch with my friend Phila. The San Francisco Chronicle, it seems, has been reporting on the California Zephyr, the transcontinental train operated by Amtrak. The thing is falling apart, apparently. Dirty, old, broken. And now, weaving my wheelchair in between ticket machines and idling passengers, my heart is broken too. But not before the intervention of the few ‘stupids’ lodged at myself. An oddity of my personality, one I fully acknowledge. I berate myself for the most preposterous things. Taken at face value, I am currently responsible for the withering of Amtrak. By now this is a tropism, as automatic as plants sinking roots or seeking sun. I do interrupt myself, before continuing too far down this demented road. But the heartsick part, that remains.

Thing is, America is quietly destroying itself in all kinds of ways. This should be an era of shifting gears, of something akin to national downsizing. The latter referring not to the precise scope of the country or its endeavors, more to the American ego. It needs to shrink. It is not the only ego on the planet, after all, and there is only so much space available for hubris. Instead, much of the nation seems to be living in an ideological fantasy, which is to say, the past. The cannibalization of the commons, of all things public, well, it is going on apace. And the California Zephyr is only part of it. Amtrak claims, by the way, that the train is destined for improvements. Many observers feel it is destined for the scrap heap. Not this year, or next, but soon.

Which makes me pull out what’s left of my hair, scream into the San Francisco noonday sun…like so many of the constituents wandering about the Caltrain neighborhood, restless and homeless. And hopeless? Hard to say.

What I would like to say to anyone who would listen is this. Next time you drive that scenic highway to Yosemite, imagine finding it closed. Sure, consider happily tooling along as far as Cloverdale then encountering signs. Road Closed Ahead. On account of the budget being tight, and all. And this road being nonessential. Not ferrying commuters or shoppers or anything of much practical importance. A scenic highway for tourists. Now shut.

Except that it isn’t going to be shut. The big hotels in Yosemite Valley would never put up with it. The tourists, most of us Californians, would never stand for it. And logically examined, it is hard to see the essential difference between the Yosemite highways and the nation’s scenic trains…the California Zephyr crosses the Rockies and follows the canyon of the Colorado River for most of a spectacular day. Except that roads have a much more vocal constituency. No one shuts down a scenic highway. A scenic train? Of course.

The Caltrain woman who loads me aboard smiles, as sunny as the day itself. The wheelchair lift works. The train works. The system…let us call it that…works. Not all of America is dysfunctional. Caltrain has a constituency, people who are eager to keep it going, even see it improve. A.k.a., spending money, also known as taxes, and sometimes conceived of as ‘investing in the future.’ Which happily coincides with developments along the train’s route. Silicon Valley is recovering, and commuters are returning to the rails, and there is a tomorrow.

Which brings us back to the California Zephyr.

Is there any fight left in me here? Aren’t these old, slow train routes destined for oblivion whether I care or not?

I left one answer on the train. I had slotted a mailer from the California State Parks Foundation against the safety rail in the wheelchair space and forgotten it. But I remember it now. Very attractively printed, on textured paper, a magazine essentially depicting beautiful scenes from California’s threatened state parks. That’s right. In the current madness our public spaces, the natural ones, are being closed. But this foundation appears to be doing all it can. Their pitch is aesthetic. Isn’t California nature beautiful, and don’t we want to enjoy it? Crashing waves, desert cactus, islands, snowy mountains…lots of atmospheric photography here. I gave them a significant donation.

There are two groups advocating for California’s rail passengers, and there is at least one national organization. As far as I can see, none of them have ever produced a color brochure like this one…that pitches aesthetics. At least what I see on the websites of these groups and in the mail they send me are reasoned, technocratic discussions of trains and rail policy. Which, by the way, make enormous sense. The problem is that the nation makes less sense than ever. And, frankly, even at the best of times, too much sense is bad for us.

The problem is that our technocratic rail advocacy groups are confronting highly atmospheric, evocative pitches from car companies, the oil lobby…all the myriad advertising campaigns designed to keep new automobiles on the road and old industries, such as petroleum, in business forever. Wouldn’t you like to hop in your new Mercedes and drive the cliff-hugging road to Yosemite, popping in and out of tunnels, your girlfriend’s hair blowing in the wind, her eyes wide with love and admiration?

No one’s going to shut down any part of that, are they?

The message from groups like the National Association of Railroad Passengers is that the California Zephyr is part of our transportation system. It’s not something that in spirit is much like the turnouts along the last 10 miles into Yosemite Valley. No one has come to enjoy and gawk and enjoy the view with a glass of wine, say. At its best, Amtrak does attempt to sell the tourism angle. But not the advocates.

These groups need to get a little more right-brain.

In the Menlo Park Library, I once saw a coffee-table book about the old Penn Station. I had no idea. Just look at the soaring spaces, and Roman columns and statuary of what was once Pennsylvania Station. The thing was torn down, at least the above-ground part of it. The preservationists did exist, and as the wrecker’s ball fell in 1963, the New York Times called the demolition ‘a monumental act of vandalism.’ But the station went. And now with 300,000 passengers a day unexpectedly using what’s left of it belowground, the lack of foresight is obvious. Thus, hindsight. In 1963 railroads seemed to be going out of business, at least for passengers. Madison Square Garden was to be rebuilt. And so all the reasonable, urban-planning wisdom pointed one way: out with the old and in with the new.

In short, the aesthetes, the artsy types, had it right about Penn Station. No one knew that trains wouldn’t die, and that between Boston and Washington and New York they would eventually thrive. Just as no one can conceive of an era in which America does build some serious regional passenger rail lines. And in addition to these high-speed connections, people will want some low-speed vacation trips…via rail.

Or from another perspective, throughout the 1960s the big transatlantic passenger ships gradually sank, metaphorically, that is. The SS United States. The France. The original Queen Elizabeth. All went out of business. Jets were irresistible. Or they seemed so. It seemed madness to launch the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969. For what? For whom? In that era everyone knew better. But no one foresaw the shift to cruises. Or that someone like me would eventually cross the Atlantic four times on the Queen Mary 2.

The Canadians seem to understand the tourist train business. Both the state-owned rail company and several private ones seem to rake in quite a bundle conveying people through the Rockies. You can spend $1000 to cross Canada on the government-run VIA. Large bedroom. Long menu in the diner. Quite a wine list. Trains like the California
Zephyr or the Coast Starlight have the same potential, even more. But it’s a right-brain message. And one that, at the moment, I am too tired to deliver.

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