I pulled away from the plaster dust from out home remodeling project, and took a short business trip to Manhattan. I hadn’t been to the city in 22 years, since I was a young drama student in the 1980s. And New York is just as fabulous and exciting as it was then. This is the first essay in my short series Trip to New York City. It was my first time taking the train (Amtrak, from Union Station in Utica), too. A marvelous experience! I can’t wait to do it again. This is my travelogue written while on the journey…
Going to the Big City
Travel by train is, generally, pleasant. The speed is moderate, the rails bumpy in a jostling, cradle-like motion, the scenery very rural (at least on the Northeast corridor). Cell phone service is spotty and I found no wireless capability at all. These ingredients make for an unusually contemplative and sleepy experience which is strange and foreign to our interconnected and frenzied modern lifestyle. I miss my Internet connection; but then again, I do not miss it. I’m happy soaking in the environment and spending the next four hours in quiet solitude. I suddenly realize that I forgot to pack my book, and I do sorely miss that.
The train I’m on must have been constructed in the 1980s or thereabouts. It’s pleasant, but slightly older, like a favorite old coat that is just starting to look a little outdated and worn from much use. I’m pleased to see tiny buttons above my head that activate small reading lights. I’m traveling in the daytime and most likely will not need lights, but it’s comforting to know they are there if I want them. An electrical outlet is nestled on a strip below the window, and again a bubble of gratitude rises up: I can power up my small netbook, if I desire.
Railroads are usually built just outside the town or city limits, situated between a thick corridor of trees to shield residents from the clatter and appearance of train traffic. The scenery outside the windows is usually desolate; running alongside the rails are numerous swamps and other algae-laden river depositories, and rusty iron rail yards, and cornfield-rimmed highways, and the occasional decrepit farmhouse sitting forlornly on a hill. In the zenith of summer, the scenery is one of constant green.
Yet every once in a while, the dense populations of trees open up to reveal an impressive Gothic or Greek Revival mansion, perched on a rocky pedestal. The house looks like a yellow-frosted cake on a hilly green dais, bedecked with sugary ornaments of white or pink architectural icing. Upstate New York experienced massive growth in the 1830s to the 1850s, and the multitudes of glorious Greek Revival farmhouses testify to its prosperity. Unfortunately, New York’s heyday has come and gone; and as if in chorus, the graying Greek Revivals of the cornfields reflect the decay. Still on occasion, a restored old grand dame rises up from New York’s green and rocky peaks. That, in its stubborn resistance to defeat, is testament of the endurance and perseverance of Upstate New Yorkers amongst a climate of high taxation and government meddling.
My route leads me eastward toward New York’s capital city. This route runs alongside the mighty Mohawk River (of Drums Along the Mohawk fame). Upstate has experienced a deluge of rain so far this summer (7 inches for the month of June 2010), so the Mohawk has raised its muddy head, and laps ominously close at the edges of its banks. I did notice on the news (before abandoning my precious Internet capability back home) a flood watch in effect for today.
The vista suddenly opens up as we enter the city of Schenectady, New York. There is nothing terribly notable about Schenectady for non-New Yorkers, other than the curious pronunciation (Sken-NECK-tah-dee) and its proximity to Albany. Still, the scenery has finally changed from leafy walls of green to scrubbed brick buildings and industrial ruins. Now that we have re-entered civilization, cells phones start buzzing and children’s voices rise with questions. Only twenty-odd people fill my train car, but within sit some of the noisiest twenty-odd people with whom I’ve ever traveled.
A group of young families in the back talk very loudly, laughing and discussing the glories of the latest music and improved technology of Huggies versus Pampers. A young Chinese traveler, situated in the seat before me, sniffles and coughs loudly with an aggravatingly dry, constant cough. His elderly father, who I assume he escorts, sits very quietly beside him. Perhaps the young man is taking his father to see relatives in New York City. How sweet of him. The young man is meticulously watchful of the older; when we boarded the train and I somehow managed to come between them in the line, the young man was constantly looking back to the older. And when the train lurched to a brief stop to pick up passengers, the older man tottered to the restrooms; all the while, the younger looked back, waiting for his elder’s return.
Across the aisle from me, an older woman sits quietly. Her hand is always over her mouth or under her chin. She spends much time looking out her window; sometimes her eyelids droop closed. A loud clatter from the train’s wheels, or a shout from the two loudly bickering children in the back, cause her eyes to pop open again. Her face is extremely wrinkled, giving her the appearance of being much older than she probably is. She wears the uniform of a busy, upper-middle income woman: a dressy, purple sweatshirt with a white polo shirt collar, sweatpants, crisp white sneakers, and a Macy’s shopping bag. Our eyes meet briefly. I smile; she turns away. She’s going to her sister’s in New York City, who is ill and needs a nursemaid (I heard her confide such to the conductor as he punched our tickets). She must have a lot on her mind. (Later, she asks me to escort her out of the train into Penn Station, because she tells me: “You look like you know where you are going.”)
We stop in Albany. I know it is Albany because we have crossed over the behemoth—a wide-mouthed, very deep, and agate blue river. It’s the Hudson. We say our goodbyes to the brown and tempestuous Mohawk, and turn our attentions to its sparkly and livelier sister, Henry Hudson’s namesake. I settle in for some good sight-seeing, as I am unfamiliar with this more prosperous portion of the state.
…to be continued…