Dear President of Amtrak

Savannah Morning News

Sept. 24, 2017

Dear Mr. Richard Anderson,

I hear you are the new chief at Amtrak – welcome aboard! –  that you are moving over from Delta Airlines, where everyone said you did such a good job. Before that it was United Healthcare. Wow. impressive. I heard most of that from Victoria, the car attendant on the Capitol Limited out of Chicago.

She’s excited about you coming on board. Me too. There’s so many great things about the train. Like Victoria. Flight attendants don’t hold a candle to train attendants. Airline people never have anything nice to say. They’re plastic. And they’re not particularly helpful. Or sure. They tell us we can unbuckle our seat belts and walk around if we wish. But walk where? I want to ask. They act as if we’re doing them a favor when we squeeze into our seats. Trains are human. Train people are human beings, not robots.

I know you’re pretty busy with numbers and tracks and switches and all the things it takes to run a big company. But I was thinking maybe every once in a while you should hop a train, lean back in one of those reclining seats in coach, feel the gentle starts and stops and ride incognito. Then you could remember why people take trains instead of planes. It’s not because they’re afraid of flying. They just prefer the de-stress level.

A couple weeks ago I rode the Texas Eagle from Dallas to Chicago. It arrived late, which kind of complicated my trip since I had two legs in front of me. It messed up other people too. But oddly enough no one in that beautiful downtown Beaux Arts Dallas station with those 48-foot ceilings and original chandeliers (where 80 trains used to go in and out of) seemed too put out about it.  The New York deli across the street, Cindi’s, might have had something to do with that. I recommend the bagel and lox plate. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, where Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, was a pretty great way to spend some time too. The Texas Eagle is one of the longest routes in your company (well, my company too since Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation) so it’s bound to be late with the mish-mash of freight trains. But that’s another subject, right? Freight trains? Everyone knows they get preferential treatment. There’s got to be something you can do about that. If you come from the complicated, counter-intuitive world health care you can help solve this.

It doesn’t take long to get comfortable on the Texas Eagle. Even before I made it to the dining car for my 7:30 reserved dinner seating I passed through the Sightseer Lounge (using the exaggerated penguin step recommended by Victoria). That’s where I saw Danny and his son, Tim. They were sitting next to one another shoulder to shoulder in at table watching a ballgame on a laptop, a light blanket thrown over their shoulders. (Temperature control on the train might be something you look into, Mr. Anderson. It’s either really, really cold or really, really hot). Amtrak pins festooned their hats. They were tuned into an Oakland A’s – Red Sox game while traveling from Tucson to Philadelphia.

“Got a score on the Cubs?” I asked.

Danny said he’d check and get back to me.

The dad is in real estate. He likes to unwind on the train. The son, 12, is a train freak. “I hope he never outgrows it,” said Danny. Then I noticed the earplugs they both wore and the scanner sitting on the table. I asked about it. They like to listen to the chatter between conductor and car attendants. Sometimes there’s drama. In real time.

“Once they were throwing a guy off the train,” Tim said. “I think he had a knife. We were riding through Oregon going through Donner Pass and we watched the cops chase him in the snowy road.”

Note to self: get one of the hand-held radio scanners.

The next day I saw Tim sitting next to the window with another kind of device – a video camera attached to the glass. He downloads what he shoots on a YouTube site.

Not everyone sitting in the Sightseer Lounge is that productive. Some people sit by themselves and look at the scenery – fields of sunflowers, piles of tires, backyards with trampolines and above ground pools, cemeteries, silos, sand piles, solar farms, random couches in the woods. Nothing exciting. Small town America: Ned’s Barber Shop, American Legion Post 13, Senka’s Carpet, LV’s Pub, KMK Insurance Co., Growden Heating, faded Coca-Cola signs on red brick buildings.

That night at dinner I sat with an IT man who works in a fine arts museum in Buffalo. He’s from Bangladesh but his family moved to Toronto.

“If you visit the museum call me, I’ll give you a tour,” he said.

“Thanks but I’ll never remember your name,” I answered.

“Just ask for the brown man,” he said. “They’ll know it’s me.”

Riding the train is a time warp. I felt very far away from Hurricane Irma and all the disruptions – until I got a message from Amtrak announcing the cancellation of the Silver Star, that I should call the “reaccommodation desk.” The tracks carrying No. 91 may have been compromised by Hurricane Irma.

Danny, the real estate guy from Tucson, couldn’t believe it when I told him I decided to fly back to Savannah. “You did what?” he said. I felt like a traitor.

After taking two long metro rides and one shuttle bus from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to Dulles International Airport, waiting in a security line the length of the California coast and transferring planes in Charlotte, I landed in Savannah four hours before the Silver Star would have arrived.

That’s another story. Someone before you had the bright idea to cancel the dining car on the Silver Star. Pity. See what you can do about that, Mr. Anderson. OK?






A wedding day, then back to helping others

Savannah Morning News

September 10, 2017


It’s a rare sight to see Wayne Harden sitting down. The man is a worker. Four mornings a week he shows up early at Emmaus House, a Christ Church Episcopal outreach kitchen on Bryan Street that feeds a hot meal to 200 men, women and children, 50 weeks a year. But this was Wayne’s wedding day and he wasn’t intending to work. His hair was trimmed, he was shaved, he wore a sky blue shirt, pressed khaki pants and dress shoes. He wasn’t helping people sort through clothes or navigate laundry facilities. He wasn’t opening, then collapsing aluminum chairs for the tables in the ground floor Parish House. He wasn’t bagging up recycled paper, flattening boxes, collecting aluminum cans, hauling donated food or supplies to chef Freda Payne in the kitchen or picking up donated food from generous people who would arrive at the door with their offerings. He wasn’t helping volunteers pack lunches for the weekend when there would be no hot meal.

On this day, a sunny Friday morning when the tourists were just starting to wake up and congregate, Wayne, the clinic supervisor for Emmaus House, showed up on time, as usual, at 9 a.m. with his bride-to-be Rhonda for the nuptials. They stood in Reynolds Square with officiant Helen P. Bradley, said a few words, signed the proper papers and tied the knot. Then they walked across the leafy square to the Parish House where chef Freda, who had just passed out bagged lunches and hot biscuits and scrambled eggs, an unexpected gift from the convention center, served the couple alfredo fettuccine, collard greens and red rice followed by a sheet cake offering congratulations. Emmaus House director Ariana Berkheimer sat with the couple and shared the meal.

Earlier, another one of Wayne’s employers showed up in the square to photograph the “I do’s” and to document the proverbial kiss. Alan Barnes, co-owner of the popular and venerable Barnes Restaurant, is no stranger to Emmaus House. Most Mondays this restaurateur drives downtown to deliver four to six gallons of leftover oxtail gravy from the restaurant’s popular Sunday special; he estimates the restaurant sells 500 servings, but there’s always more gravy to share. He, like other restaurants in town, also donates other food when he can – Brunswick stew, barbecue pork and beef brisket.

Wayne is no stranger to Barnes Restaurant. Alan used to see him in the well-known Waters avenue establishment, back when his late father Nesbert, better known as Bo, owned it. That was back when Bo – who worked as a typesetter at the Savannah Morning News – bought the building that used to house Carey Hilliard’s. After seeing Wayne in the restaurant so much Alan had a hunch Wayne might be a good worker. “So I hired him,” he said. “I put him to work.” He washed dishes, cleaned the vans, split the wood and mowed the yard. Years later he still helps Alan with catering jobs and is on call for weekends or nights when employees don’t show up. Alan also hired Rhonda.

Alan can recognize hard workers and hard work. He saw the same traits in his father. Before buying Barnes and turning it into a full-fledged restaurant, Bo owned a popular Dairy Queen on Montgomery street. That’s where Alan would work summers and on the weekends. But Bo was cautious, Alan said. Before buying the old Hilliard’s he and Alan would drive to the Waters avenue establishment, sit in their car and count the number of people who walked in. “Old school marketing,” Alan said.

These days Wayne also remembers to collect uneaten bread from the Emmaus House and from Barnes, which he takes to Lake Mayer to feed the birds.

“My dad used to do that, too,” Alan said. “He’d do it every day, like clockwork. Wayne does too. He told me this is his memorial to my father.”