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Weekly Column by Andy Grieser
Column by Andy Grieser

September 6, 2002

I’m taking the train in two months, and I couldn’t be happier. Forget what you saw on Sex and the City — Wow, am I using it as column fodder two weeks in a row? Time to find inspiration elsewhere — but train trips really can be luxurious, even in the waning days of Amtrak.

I have a horrible, irrational fear of flying. As it turns out, flying can trigger multiple neuroses (claustrophobia, lack of control, heights and so on) which, joy of joys, I suffer from. Worse, many of those plagued by the fear are creative types, because we imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios. I tried a few remedies. Xanax seems to work, but I’m uncomfortable asking doctors for it, and besides it absolutely ruins my sense of taste for a few days.

Funny side note: We discovered the sense-of-taste thing during the few months the Sunshine Girl and I were living halfway across the country from each other. During one of my visits, she made a chicken pot pie and I told her it tasted off. Which is odd, because SG is amazing in the kitchen. She was surprised, but figured she’d made a mistake in the cooking. So we went for beers.

People, when a beer tastes bad to me, there’s a problem. Sure enough, we found Xanax can alter your sense of taste.

Back to the column. The one remedy that seems to work is getting me liquored up, and once on the plane (and in an alcohol-induced daze) I turn on the Game Boy Advance, put on the headphones and zone out until it’s time to turn off the electronics. Oh, and I lift my feet every time there’s turbulence, and squeeze my toes on takeoff and landing. Hey, it helps.

I’ll be flying a few times this fall, and when the opportunity came to instead take the train for a work convention, I leapt at it. The chance, not the train.

In case you missed last week’s Sex and the City, two of the characters take a train from New York to San Francisco. They’re shocked to discover, after booking first-class tickets, shoebox-sized rooms, horrible dining conditions, food consisting of chips and sandwiches and other tragedies.

Okay, so I haven’t been on a train overnight since Amtrak almost went bankrupt. But I did book tickets two days ago, and things don’t seem to have changed. First, only certain trains have true first-class rooms. Most have sleeper cars, but and trains with sleepers but without first-class service do indeed only serve sandwiches and snacks. But book Amtrak’s version of first class, and there are indeed dining cars with incredible food (I usually get a steak), tables with tablecloths and silverware, the good stuff.

Better yet, each first-class sleeper car has a porter who takes your mealtime reservations. Certain times are open only to sleeper passengers, and afterward the rest of the train is notified that the dining car is open. (Meal cost is included in the cost of sleeper rooms, an added bonus.) Yes, passengers are directed to fill the tables, but I’ve never not had an interesting conversation during a meal. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist.

Oh, wait, so is Carrie, supposedly.

Second, room size. On the show, Carrie and Sam seemed to get the smallest sleepers available. (This is what I get, because it’s all I need, since when I take the train I’m by myself.) Yet Carrie seemed to think she’d be getting the deluxe room. I’ve never needed a deluxe room myself, but I have been allowed to poke my head into one, and they’re much larger than shown.

What galls me is that these terms are clearly defined, both on Amtrak’s Web site and by its phone customer service reps. There is no way Carrie would be allowed to think she’d be getting the full treatment, unless she completely ignored all the options and then was lied to.

Yeah, train travel is slow. You have to be ready to amuse yourself — I pass the time with books and my Game Boy. I also spend lots of time actually seeing the U.S. countryside, something few of us do any more. (And incidentally, last time I took the train, the sleeper cars had in-room movie service.)

I’m excited to be taking the City of New Orleans in November. It’s my chance to kick back, relax and see the nation. Don’t let TV fool you into thinking that’s a trial.


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