21. Amtrak’s Jewel

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight runs from Seattle to LA, but today we were boarding in Portland bound for Sacramento, of all places. I have taken this overnight train before. It is arguably Amtrak’s best train, not only for its spectacular scenery, but for its Pacific Parlour car.

The Pacific Parlour car is the jewel in Amtrak’s daggy crown.  It offers sleeper-car passengers a comfortable lounge and decent dining. Onboard, they undersell the parlor car menu offerings as “lighter fare” than that offered in the main dining car, which might dissuade one from making that special (free) reservation to dine in the parlour car. Do not be fooled!

The main dining car is open to all classes on the train, which has IMG_1741advantages if you are a hyper-social creature. In my experience, though, the food in Amtrak’s standard dining cars is dreadful. Heavier fare indeed. One might even call it un-fare. To accommodate demand, they tend to seat four to a table, which works, but is a bit cramped.

The Pacific Parlour car downplays its superiority, with some effectiveness, as we managed to get a table for just the two of us, downright spacious.  The menu listed two simple offerings, Lamb and Macaroni and Cheese. 20150801_190611 These dishes turned out to be what any fine restaurant would be proud to call, respectively, Braise Lamb Shanks with garlic mashed potatoes and spring vegetables, and Penne Al Fredo Prima Vera. The wine list is also superior, although in my view it did not deserve the attention afforded it by the wine tasting, which we decided not to afford.

The train left Portland in the late afternoon, rumbling through the drought-stricken, browning forests and mountains of Oregon and Northern California before a sunrise arrival in Sacramento. The long hours of summer sunlight added much to the journey, with plenty of scenery accompanying dinner, followed by a sunset past nine in the evening.

After dinner we had a drink in the adjacent lounge where a blind American gentleman taunted a posh English family. “Is this the Observation Car? I hear it’s spectacular!” he deadpanned. Then, “What do you think I should see in Liverpool?” The poor rich poms didn’t know what to make of him. “Um, you mean sightseeing? Er—touring? You should see, I mean, don’t overlook, um, you know…”

IMG_1750Another English family from Liverpool heard this conversation and chimed right in, picking up on the sight-challenged gent’s appropriately subtle sense of torture. It came out that the elder Liverpudlian had worked for British Railways for fifty years, and the two of them took turns reciting timetables, the blind guy exhibiting savant-like capabilities in the regard, if accurate. Enthusiasts are strange and wonderful, aren’t they? Well, strange.

IMG_1725One of the recurring challenges in taking an overnight train with sleeping accommodation is getting off. The train, you pervert.  You see, if a train isn’t at its last stop, after a brief pause it has a tendency to keep going, whether or not you want to get off. Another thing is that they are late with tremendous unpredictability, yet nobody on board ever seems to know how late, or whether they might make up time. Near as I could calculate from the stations we passed, we were two hours late when I fell asleep.

IMG_1722With the schedule showing the train would leave Sacramento at six-thirty, I awoke at six and went in search of the cabin steward.  He was nowhere to be found. He had promised to wake us up, so I figured that meant we had at least an hour before actual arrival. I extracted some thin brown hot water from an urn labelled “coffee” and headed back to our cabin.

Imagine my surprise upon entering to see the signs marking Sacramento station whizzing by our windows.   “Frank! Frank! Get up!!” I hollered, causing Frank to awaken in a jolt, whacking his head on the upper bunk.

“What? What? [BAM!] What the fuck?”

“We’re here! We’ve got get off, NOW!! The train might leave any minute!” Coffee flew across the cabin from my gesticulating hands. The train screeched to a halt with a “Sacramento” sign squarely in Frank’s gaze.

“Shit. SHIT!! What the…” Steam streamed from his ears as we stuffed our bags with clothing, toiletries, snacks, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. We flew down the hallway, surprising a pair of toddlers who reversed direction and fled in horror. Down the stairs we tumbled, throwing ourselves out of the train onto the platform. Whew.

We took stock of our circumstances. Unshaven, un-showered, mildly hungover, and generally disheveled, our clothing was spotted with brown splotches, the only clue as to the fate of the two full cups of coffee I had carried minutes earlier. As if on cue, our cabin attendant appeared, assessing the circumstances with impressive alacrity. “You know you gents can join us for breakfast – but it looks like you’ve already had, ah, yours.”

I was more stunned than angry. “How could we join you for breakfast? Isn’t the train going to leave in a moment? Weren’t you supposed to wake us for breakfast?”

“Oh, no.” he replied. “We’re over an hour behind schedule. This train isn’t going anywhere for a while. Plenty of time for breakfast. I was just coming to wake you.” Apparently there was an hour-long layover in Sacramento, necessary for operational reasons – at least today — but not mentioned on the schedule.

Frank asked me whether I wanted to get back on the train for breakfast. I looked at the hastily packed bags at our feet. I considered the prospect of waiting for breakfast on board, knowing that if our cabin steward failed to let us know before the train left, we would end up in Davis, California.IMG_1819 It was a crisp, beautiful, quiet morning — so crisp, beautiful, and quiet that even Sacramento gleamed attractively in the sunrise. I had been to Davis before.

“Screw it. Let’s go.”

It was about seven when our checked bags re-appeared. Not that we were in a rush. We couldn’t pick up our rental car until Hertz opened at nine, and that was about a mile away. We set off on foot in that general direction, towards the gleaming buildings, hoping to find an open coffee shop.

No such luck, everything but everything was closed and the streets were nearly deserted. This should not have been a surprise, since Sacramento is California’s capital, and I can speak from experience when I say that state workers are not renowned for working at seven o’clock on Sunday mornings. There was us, pulling our wheelie bags, and the homeless, pushing their shopping carts. As we proceeded, the number of ragged folk pushing shopping carts increased to the point that it felt like a Costco on the day before Thanksgiving.

The first gleaming building we came to – it also turned out to be the last, come to think of it – was the Sacramento County Court, if one can believe things engraved in stone. It got me to thinking that in many American cities, the poor are not far from the court, the court is not far from the jail.

Just as my brain completed that syllogism, we rounded a corner to find a line of modestly dressed women, a few with children in tow, not one with a shopping cart. There was an air of anticipation. The woman at the end of the line was a buxom black woman in her thirties, dressed in her Sunday best, pink pillbox hat and all. She exuded approachability.

“What are you queueing for?” I asked.

She smiled, aware that I was from another planet. “I ain ‘t Q-ing for nothin’!  I ain’t A-B-C-ing nothin’ either! What are you on about?”

I realized I had spoken Aussie to her. “Ah, what’s the line for?”

“They let ‘em go early on Sunday.” She pointed to a sign overhead, Sacramento County Main Jail. Somehow I had missed that. “I’m here for my baby daddy.” The two women in front of her nodded with theatrical emphasis, another glowered a bit menacingly.

“Oh. Right. Thank you.” I replied. She wasn’t the least bit embarrassed, but I was. Suddenly uncomfortable, I sought to escape across the street, but stopped short when I spied a shanty town of Costco exiles there.

“You go ahead,” the baby momma said, “They won’t do you no harm.”

So we did. And they didn’t.  With our coffee soaked clothing and tatty luggage, we blended in with alarming ease. Frank mumbled “We are buying a new bags…”

The good news is that America has begun to realise that imprisoning huge numbers of people for non-violent crimes is not only completely ineffective at stopping crime, but actually counter-productive. It would be nice if we all could get to realising it is also hideously expensive and often inhumane. That is expecting too much from any electorate in a vengeful western democracy.

My nineteenth campaign pledge: The Smiling Kodiak administration will institute a Refugees-for-Felons program accepting one additional refugee for each “three-strikes” felon transported one-way to a refugee-source jurisdiction such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, or Northern Queensland.

We scurried through the fittingly green Cesar Chavez Plaza. I couldn’t help but think that some of the squatters there were once migrant workers represented by Cesar’s United Farm Workers. Ouch.

Frank sighted the welcoming beacon of the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel a few blocks further. Its immense lobby, the size of a football field, was even quieter than the street outside, with not so much as a bellman to be seen. I noticed the security cameras following us through, so we found a remote corner just out of camera range.

After making ourselves at home on the comfy upholstered furniture, we took turns washing up and changing in the elaborately equipped toilet facilities. Frank found an open Starbucks tucked away on the mezzanine, providing the coffee we both craved, having bathed in our earlier cuppa.  I found a couple day-old sandwiches in our cold-bag which appeared unlikely to kill us and made a good, albeit unusual, breakfast. We relaxed there for two hours using the free wifi. Nobody said a word to us. Balding white, middle-aged men get away with murder. Sometimes literally.