Sidetracked by trains

In the heart of Boston's South Station, you'll find an open-air bookstore called "Barbara's Bestsellers." You can buy anything from the much-discussed "Against all Enemies" by Richard A. Clarke to such literary works as V.S. Naipaul's "Magic Seeds." Across the room at the newspaper stand, the relatively highbrow Wall Street Journal is advertised in gilded letters.

This says something to me: Reading America still rides the rails. Maybe that's why trains are going out of business - because, like train travel, reading America is well past its prime.

No matter to me. I'll be one of those on the last train to pull out of the station. Where else but on Amtrak does a voice come over the loudspeaker and announce, "Please throw out all your paper plates and bottles in the receptacles at the end of each car. We'd like to help, but they fired all the janitors"?

Where else does the cafe-car man correctly pick out the woman giving him instructions as a teacher and then tell her, "Ma'am, I know you teachers like to help us all live life right, but I've been doing this job for 30 years. Thirty years! I was a platoon leader in the Army. And you know what? I believe I can do things right all by myself"?

Where else do you see a stylish woman decked head to toe in expensive leather and a full-length Pendleton coat sitting across the aisle from a guy with a two-day-old beard and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes?

Amtrak's trains are always ready to surprise. They'll be on time one day and four hours late the next. You'll fall asleep one hour to the steady rolling of the car over the clickety-clack rails and awaken sometime later to see a swan floating pristinely on a pond near the Long Island Sound.

Trains are more than a way to get from here to there. They're a way to journey from now to then, too - a place and time to dream. My memories drift to a street in New York, where I'm headed for the first time in about a year.

Each Christmas, as a boy, I'd go to that street - East 86th - with my father, in the heart of the old Yorkville area that died with the Germans who filled its bakeries and delicatessens from the 1940s to the '70s. They ordered Kaffee und Kuchen and the rich, dark chocolate sold by three generations of candymakers at the Elk Candy Co. - the magical store with the four-foot-tall gingerbread house in the window, inviting shoppers in. It's there no longer. Nor is the schmaltzy violinist, with black tails and white gloves, who would entertain the diners at Cafe Geiger. Dad, in his glory, would spread his white napkin there and eat steak tartare - raw ground sirloin with capers and a raw egg on top.

The train rolls along and I dream not just of times past but of times that never did happen, the roads not taken of my life. But there's a gentleness to the rails that takes the sting out of "What if?" that simply lets the mind wander - and wonder, "Why not?" I believe a book title is taking shape as I rock to the train's rhythm. "Sidetracked: A Journey Across America by Rail."

I like it. Now all I have to do is figure out the rest of the story.

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