December 31st, 1976, 8:20 AM
Grand Central Terminal
New York City, NY
Through the howling wind and squalling snow raced John, his hand thrusting out to rip open the heavy, ornate door of the last remaining monument to the ego of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Frequently rated among the most beautiful buildings in the entire world, Grand Central Terminal, formerly of New York Central Railroad, was a tour-de-force of early 20th century Beaux Arts architecture in solid marble and the gilding that gave its age its name. With the business John was in, he couldn't help but admire the ornate architecture of this, New York's grandest of buildings.
But he couldn't admire this beauty for very long, for he was here not for its beauty, but for the purpose it had been built- to catch a train. John rushed with a sort of expedited smoothness down to the grand bank of ticket ticket windows along the Great Hall's south wall, noting as he moved that the time as 8:20- a mere 20 minutes from the departure of his train.
For all the beauty, the great terminal was in a sad state.
Once an art object, a masterwork, the celestial ceiling was a gunky, mottled, and tarry black, its beauty obscured. Society often speculated it was from the emissions of Penn Central's locomotives, but really it was from the emissions of the cigarette of Penn Central's customers.
Diesel smoke was not a factor, as Penn Central had inherited the once futuristic infrastructure of both the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Rail Road's electrification. Once a leading flagship of the modern era, a lighted beacon for the wonders that lay ahead, now it was just another piece of what people liked to call urban decay.
The station was filthy, with cracked masonry, dirt, and grime of millions who passed through over the years. The apathetic neglect of management was more than obvious.
But then, it was they who were forced to run a money-losing business whether they liked it or not. Their apathy was predictable.
In her filth, the grand dame of the rails somehow retained her dignity. Raped, burned, beaten, and spat upon, she failed to let her spirit break, her pride ebb, or her dreams fade. The King, her counterpart across town, destroyed, the Queen stood on her throne, holding her court of thousands, her army of trains in the largest train shed in the world ready to battle for the right to take her subjects home.
John approached a window, and smiled on more proof of that contradiction of apathy and pride.
"Where?" The gruff ticket agent greeted him without pretense of a smile. This wasn't just a railroad terminal, this was New York. No warmth. No salutation. But John had been to "The City", as locals called it, many times, and knew this was par for the course here.
"Detroit. Parlour car service?" John asked, knowing that to show warmth in this situation would merely confuse the ticket agent, and show him out to not fit in.
John had been expecting this. What he hadn't been expecting was what came next.
"This is your lucky day," the agent smiled, visibly perking up when he realized John was not just a commuter riding one of Penn Central's commuter trains up to Poughkeepsie, "They are selling some cars to the Canucks and they're live-heading a sleeper on this train. And the equipment on this train? Fuhgeddaboudit!" The agent beamed.
John smiled and laughed. "You sound like a railfan!"
"Sure am. Rail fare is $46.00, and if you want to upgrade to the roomette as a day compartment, thats a $43 up-charge. Also, there is a real parlour going on in Albany, a real treat," the agent shined.
"What makes it such a treat? And yeah, I'll go with the up-charge," John said, handing over the $89.00.
"Wait for the announcement, pally!" the agent said, handing him the tickets and smiling.
John walked over towards the gates as an announcement came over the PA system. John had to strain to hear it. Like all older stations, Grand Central Terminal was not built with acoustics in mind, and its PA system was woefully inadequate for the purpose at hand.
"Amtrak proudly announces boarding of it's number 63, the Niagara Rainbow Vista-Dome, dining, and parlour train with limited service to Detroit,"
Vista-Dome!? John thought. So that's the surprise. Wow.
"Train will take on parlour car at Albany-Rensselaer. Train to Albany, Buffalo, Windsor, Ontario; and Detroit, Michigan. All intermediate stops: Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff-Kingston, Hudson, Albany-Rensselaer, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and Black Rock, New York; Ft. Erie, St. Thomas, and Windsor, Ontario; and Detroit, Michigan. Now boarding track 28."
John rushed to track 28 to look at the train. It stood there, sitting there looking both rather motley, yet somehow proud. It was a mishmash of equipment from different railroads, and looked it. This was the tail-end of Amtrak's rainbow era, but some trains still went out adorned in the colorful cornucopia of its heritage.
The train was being led by an EMD FL-9 engine. The FL-9 was built for the New Haven as a method to allow abandoning their electrification east of Stamford. It was capable of either running on diesel fuel, or being powered by electricity drawn from a third-rail. This particular engine still wore its New Haven livery.
The train was carrying an Amtrak liveried baggage car built by Edward G. Budd Company of Philadelphia. However, it was also carrying an ex-Seaboard Pullman Solarium Lounge, five Budd 44-seat coaches of various heritages, a Budd dining car with no markings, and a Union Pacific liveried 10-6 sleeper, "Pacific Slope." This is some rainbow, John thought.
A nattily dressed attendant stood at attention beside the faded but clean Union Pacific sleeper. John showed him his ticket.
"Ah, yessir, first class. You the only one in the car, so I's taking the liberty of upgrading you to a bedroom. You can call me George." the man said, with a smile. John couldn't help but notice that the man's tag said his name was David, as he was led to the comfortable bedroom.
"I've taken the train many times, so you don't need to give me the tour," John smiled pleasantly.
"Thank you much, sir. You be letting me know if you be needing anything," he smiled as he bowed out.
The car had yet to be Amtrak'd, and mostly carried the internal livery of the fabled City of Los Angeles. Light sky blues, gentle pinks, and soft beige floral patterns abounded through the car and his compartment. The maroon seat and its matching window shade was a stark contrast to the rest of the car.
John settled back into his comfortable sofa as the train started to smoothly accelerate out of the grand old station. He glanced at his old Rolex wristwatch. It was 6:40 on the dot. The train was leaving exactly on time. For all its underfunding, bad equipment, and skeletal system, Amtrak still knew how to run a railroad, he mused.
Almost as the train left the tunnel, the PA came to life. "Amtrak welcomes you onboard its Niagara Rainbow, with service to Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff, Hudson, Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and Black Rock, New York; Fort Erie, Saint Thomas, and Windsor, Ontario; and Detroit, Michigan. Connections will be available at in Fort Erie for service to Toronto, and in Detroit there will be a train at 8:30 tomorrow to Chicago. We will be getting some Vista-dome coaches and a parlor car in Albany. The dining and lounge cars are now open for breakfast. Amtrak hopes you enjoy your trip."
John got up and walked to the threadbare dining car. Amtrak was in the process of installing fixed bench seats in all of their dining cars, but this car had thus far been spared that particular indignity. Once splendid, the interior had faded from years of neglect, but the smells emanating from the kitchen were still appetizing.
The cheerful attendant sat him at one of the 2-person tables. He soon found himself face to face with one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. She was absolutely gorgeous, a picture of pure feminine beauty.
Her figure was youthful and pleasant, and she moved with a certain graceful quality. Her outfit was casual, as if she just picked something to wear that morning without thought, and with mostly consideration for comfort. Her kind and friendly face, although youthful, had early laughter wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, while her friendly blue eyes spoke of the rarest combination of hopeful optimism and intelligence.
John was always a relatively shy man, but there was something about riding the train that made a man open up. The transience of it all, combined with the kind of people who still rode trains, he figured. He could risk attempting a connection here- if it failed, it was highly likely they would never see each other again.
"Hi," he said, "My name's John."
"Mine's Gretel," she said with a friendly smile.
"I was wondering if Amtrak's food was any good," Gretel mused.
"Amtrak has fairly good food," he said, pointing to his menu, "I have ridden many times. It's variable, but safely good."
"Anything you'd recommend in particular?" she smiled.
"Not really, I'd have to know the chef," he temporized, "But I doubt you could go wrong with anything."
She studied her menu, and seemed to select something, then she startled a little.
"Write our order on the card?" she asked.
"That's the tradition," John replied, "It avoids confusion."
Gretel picked up her order card and a pen, and wrote that she would like "One, Orange, Sunny, Bacon, English Muffin, and Coffee", while John wrote "Three, Orange, Cheese, Toast, and Coffee", indicating that they wanted Club Breakfasts One and Three, chilled fruit juice, toast or english muffin, and coffee tea or milk, with eggs any style and a cheese omelet, respectively.
The server came and took the order cards, and they started having a bit in the way of conversation. It started out as light conversation, but asthey got more deeply into each other, the conversation started to become more and more meaningful.
In time, the server came by and served them their orders, with a swift flourish that indicated that he distinctly liked the career he had chosen. The food was well prepared, and attractively laid out on striking blue china and elegant silverware that matched, and marked out sharply on the crisply laid table linens.
As they ate their breakfast, the climate between them continued to become more comfortable, as they realized the had a lot in common. They both shared a fairly strong sense of wanderlust, although Gretel, at only 19, had never had much of a chance to quench it. John, on the other hand, had a lot of travel experiences, relating to his various jobs over the years.
Over the course of the meal, they became more and more intimate. He became Johnny, she became Grets. There was a growing awareness of each other. He was a 44 year old man freshly retired early with a pension, and she was a 19 year old, but the attraction between them was apparent.
The bill came, and Johnny insisted he pay it- after all, he was retired with a pension.
They then retired to the Ex-Seaboard Rail Road Solarium Lounge, a good walk up the train. Walking briskly through a moving train is a skill acquired through experience, which John had and Gretel did not. This lead to some amusement, but they reached the car at the front of the train.
They sat in the old Ex-Seaboard Solarium Lounge, an aptly named piece of railroading. Back then, many railroads had dome cars, but not trains that ran into New York because of the clearance issues in the city's stations. To work around this problem, the customer focused Seaboard Air Line had Pullman build a car that had glass skylights for its premier train, the Silver Meteor.
No sooner had they sat down, however, then the Conductor made an announcement.
"Good morning, we will be pulling into Albany-Rensselaer in five minutes. This stop will see some cars added to the train. As a result, we will be in the station for 30 minutes. Amtrak apologizes for the delay, but we think we can make most of this up and should arrive in Detroit on time."
"I wanna go see the switching operation," doing an exceedingly poor job of concealing his railfanesque enthusiasm.
"I'll come with you," Grets said, trying not to roll her lovely blue eyes.
Together they watched the FL-9 pull off the baggage car, saw two dome coaches added, and the baggage car backed back into place by two of Amtrak's gleaming new SDP40's. As they started to walk back to John's car, Johnny gave a start. Attaching to the end of the train was a Budd-built, gleaming silver, Ex-Twin-City Zephyr Parlour-Lounge-Dome-Observation car, "Silver Vista."
"Oh my god, wow." Johnny said, and jumped aboard his car, briskly followed by Grets.
As they coupled, Johnny marched inside and up the stairs into the dome, sitting down and lounging in the seat. Grets sat down next to him.
Gretel found herself attracted to John's boyish enthusiasm. Having just entered the world of adults, and having just decided to leave home and strike out on her own, a man who had not entirely succeeded in leaving behind his childhood, yet had enough experience in life to understand the way the world worked, was a very attractive proposition.
Looking out the dome, she looked at the train station. Far from the abused beauty of Grand Central Terminal, this building was distinctly ugly. A squat, brick building, it was practically an eyesore. Clearly built to a nearly prefabricated plan, and clearly of the modern Brutalist style, it was depressing.
John followed her eyes and her disgust, and said, "They call that thing an 'Amshack', and they are popping up all over the system. The cost of maintaining the big old terminals for as few as three trains a week is just getting too much."
"Did they have to make them so ugly?" she replied.
"Of course," he laughed mirthlessly, "Beauty was outlawed a few years back. Hey, you better beat it, I hear they are going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing-"