As I write these words, Mrs. T and I are tightly and jointly crammed into an Amtrak Viewliner Standard Bedroom that is rolling down the rails leading from Manhattan’s Penn Station to West Palm Beach, Florida. We’ll be spending the first three weeks of January on Sanibel Island, as is our custom, and instead of flying, we decided to take the train this year. I’ve done something similar once before, traveling to and from Chicago via Amtrak in 2004 to write a Wall Street Journal piece about what it feels like to spend the night in a sleeper car:
I grew up dreaming of long-distance trains. They were in the songs I loved (“I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you”) and the movies I watched (“I tipped the steward $5 to seat you here if you should come in”). Their tracks crisscrossed the main street of the small Missouri town where I spent my childhood, and their braying whistles cleaved the night air as they carried sleeping strangers to places I’d never been.
Alas, the highways and airlines were killing off passenger trains long before I figured out exactly what Cary Grant wanted to do to Eva Marie Saint on the Twentieth Century Limited. By the time I was old enough to travel alone, I took it for granted that I’d never spend a night in a sleeper car, watching the world rumble by. So when the Department of Homeland Security raised America’s alert status from yellow to orange a few days before I had to fly from New York to Chicago to look at plays, it struck me that this might well be my last chance to satisfy a longtime craving….
Robert Frost once wrote a poem about a songbird whose autumnal task was to tell his listeners “what to make of a diminished thing.” As I laid eyes on the cramped roomette in which I would be spending the next 20 hours, I knew that would be my job as well. A Viewliner Standard Bedroom stuffs two seats, a toilet and a foldaway sink into slightly more than 23 square feet of floor space, about the size of an Upper West Side walk-in closet. If you want a compartment similar in size to the one in which Grant wooed Saint in “North by Northwest,” you’ll have to pay a lot more….
I can’t say that our trip has been luxurious, but it’s definitely been something of an adventure, one that we’ve found for the most part to be enjoyable. That said, we’ll be glad to get to West Palm Beach, where we plan to spend the night in a hotel, then pick up a rental car and drive across the peninsula to Sanibel Island, a place where we have come in recent years to feel entirely at home.
This isn’t a vacation: I’ll be filing my regular Wall Street Journal columns from Florida, seeing shows in Fort Myers and other parts of the state, and flying to and from New York to see still more shows there. Nevertheless, I have no new book to write or play to rehearse, for which I am hugely grateful. Having just put a demanding year behind me, I propose to revel in Mrs. T’s company and do as little as possible insofar as possible, and Sanibel is a perfect place to do (or not do) both of those things.
May your January be as happy as we expect ours to be.
* * *
Frank Sinatra sings “I Thought About You.” The arrangement is by Nelson Riddle: