Riding on The City of New Orleans

Posted on June 14, 2009

Riding on The City of New Orleans

Back in the nineties, I rode the train made famous in the song ” The Train they Call the City of New Orleans” departing the Big Easy and all the way to the Windy City.

It all started innocently enough. I had a close friend and colleague in New Orleans who was skittish about flying. I never have suffered that fate – I figured if the plane I am on is going to go down – my number was just up and that was it. Most of my friends have questioned my sanity or suggested I might have a death wish, because I’ve hopped into a Cessna with pilots they distrusted and flown to different places – that seemed suicidal to them. As for my friend, Bea – she never flew – she was terrified. I was going to a professional conference that she was also attending. A few of my employees were going also and one of them was ‘chicken’ about flying as well. I don’t know who came up with the idea of riding the train – but I figured since I’d not been on a train since I was in kindergarten when the graduating class of Miss Irene’s Kindergarten got to board the train in Opelousas and ride to Eunice to eat ice cream and re-board to ride back to Opelousas again.

We decided it would be a hoot to ride the train. I remembered my Pa telling me about riding the Panama Limited across the country – how elegant the dining car was, how great the French toast was and how much fun they had in the club car. At night, they pulled out those funny little beds for you go to sleep. We tried to get one of those compartments, but they no longer had them on the train – so we figured we would be sleeping on those beds they pulled out. We were too excited about riding the train and too stupid to ask any questions.

The train pulls out of New Orleans, Louisiana and the ride is about twenty hours to Chicago. That didn’t seem too bad – we figured we would watch the sights, have drinks, laugh it up until they pulled out the cute little bed things and then go to sleep to be met in the morning with the wonderful French toast. Once you leave New Orleans, you are headed over Lake Pontchartrain towards Hammond, La. The train then heads northerly – through McComb, Hazelhurst, Brookhaven and Jackson Mississippi. The last three were names familiar to me because my forebears had come to Louisiana from Copiah Country – and we passed right through part of it when going through Hazelhurst and Brookhaven. I watched the rural countryside mostly – every once in a while we’d pass a town, but most of them were small. The train rocked – and more than gently – back and forth on the tracks. It felt like train’s rocking was governed by some overwound metronome trying desperately to keep up the pace – back and forth as we covered the miles eight beats to a bar.

From Jackson, Mississippi, you pass through Yazoo City and then Greenwood Mississippi before crossing the line over into Tennessee – then Kentucky and finally into Illinois on the last leg of the trip into Chicago.

We were able to get coffee in the Club Car – or what passed for it. There was a tiny bar – and down both sides of the car – little ‘booths’. The ‘bar’ served tiny bottles of liquor or mixed drinks in little bottles with plastic cups filled with ice. They had chips, mints, sandwiches and souvenirs . . what an assortment! You could get coffee in Styrofoam cups and soft drinks in plastic ones. We rationalized that things would be better in the diner. By the time lunch rolled around there was a terrible crowd to get into the dining car. There was a very long line and so we opted to go back to the club car and get sandwiches wrapped in plastic and chips. This was not so bad – we had not gotten tired of watching the scenery yet. When we did – not long after lunch, someone broke out a deck of cards and we began to play spades. Oh my, that was a lively game and I would be lying if I did not admit there were wagers being made. Every once in a while, the fellow in the little booth type bar looked at us with a jaded eye, but never said anything, so we continued. During the long afternoon, we took breaks from the game to walk up and down the cars, get another drink or just watch the countryside go by, but we always came back to the game.

Around 7:00, we made out way through the aisles and cars back to the dining car. Another huge line… Well, we had no choice but to wait – for almost an hour before hearing our name called to be seated in the dining car, then almost thirty minutes for the wait staff to appear. You ordered something – they were ‘out’ of it. Seems like the only thing left was some fish that was supposed to be stuffed with something or another – I can’t remember. The only other alternative was a sandwich. Okay – we ordered fish. When it arrived, it was on plates that had compartments on them – like ones from a school cafeteria. That did not seem to bode well with my sensibilities or ideas of it being ‘fine dining’. Oh yeah, well wait until you bit into the fish and there were ice crystals that crunched …ewwwww! Now, we hear the skinny – the real news – there is no kitchen on this train. The best they can do is heat things up in the microwave or cook something small like a burger on a burner thing they had. We took the burgers….the fish with the ice crystals just had lost its luster somehow.

When we left the dining car, we made tracks straight back for the club car to get a drink. Seems we got there just in the nick of time – it closed at 10:00 p.m. Jeeehosephat! This was another revolting development. I bought a bunch of those little bottles and put them in a paper bag. While I was there – I asked the man if they would be handing out blankets to sleep with like they did on the airlines – he said, “No”, but they sold “souvenir” blankets and so I proudly became the owner of the tackiest white blanket I’ve ever seen on which was silk-screened the logo of the Illinois Central Railroad and in smaller letters ” The City of New Orleans”. That blanket was later that evening to keep me warm -even if they didn’t tell you it would fall apart the first time it hit the wash. Considering the few creature comforts I was finding on this magical mystical train ride; however, the money spent for that blanket was a hell of a good investment. We had just been seated and I was opening a little bitty bottle of my old friend Jack Daniels and putting it to my lips, begging for peace when what to my disappointed eyes did I see! The biggest Black woman I ever saw in my life and she just came and sat down with us. Turned out she was a biker mamma. Yeah – you heard me right. She showed us pictures of them in various places. Interesting woman, I’ll tell you. She wanted in on the spades game. Okay – the more the merrier. We started the game again and she was more than a worthy opponent. I never thought of bikers as being big spades players, but she was something else. If you weren’t careful, she would clean you out. Around 11:00, a conductor came up and told us that the club car was closed.

Closed- why – we are still sitting here! I was beginning to think the railroad didn’t much give a hoot about customer service. The fellow said that he had to cut the overhead lights out in the car because it was closed – that was the rules and he was not breaking them for us. He did agree not to attempt to roust us – probably because of the biker mamma…who was also very displeased at this small man trying to give us the boot. There were map like lights that shone just on the table – that’s what we had on to see the cards anyway. We decided to just continue like that, because we weren’t drunk enough or tired enough to go to our pull out bed things yet. Now, it was getting cold in the club car, so I pulled out the blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders like a shawl.

About this time, one of the others who was not imbibing or indulging in the card game came along. They all had been wondering where we were on the train. He reported that two of our co-workers had been seated in their reclining chair type seats when they fell apart under them. Yikes! How did that happen? Seems they had reported it to the conductor and he just came in a proceeded to rig the seats back together for them to sit in. There were no vacant seats.

“But why don’t you just go get in your little pull-out bed things”, I asked. They laughed at me and my heart sank. I knew before they spoke that I was saying bye-bye little pull out bed thing. “They don’t have that anymore” he answered. “So, where are we to sleep?” I foolishly asked. “In the same seat you were given on your ticket” he replied, grinning sheepishly.

Oh, great – either we sit in a darkened club car all night playing spades with my new best friend or risk falling asleep in a chair that might or might not fall apart under us in our sleep. That biker mamma was looking better by the minute to me. If I got too tired, I figured I was going to lay my head down on her shoulder and let the chips fall where they might. Any port in a storm, eh? Besides, it was getting really cold now and the Illinois Central did not seem to care if we were freezing or not -that’s how they were going to keep it. I took the blanket, unfurled it, draped part over my head and wrapped it about me. I kept thinking that sooner or later, Jack Daniels would warm me up and so I opened a couple more of those darlin’ little bottles, gave my ticketed seat to my friend and opted to stay put in the club car for the remainder of the night. As I poured my little bottles into my plastic cup – no more ice – she said …”let’s play” and I hoped she only meant cards.

When the sun came up in the morning, we were in Illinois. After my first cup of coffee, I thought I might feel better if I went into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my face and freshened up. I was proud of my attempt at being cheerful. Have you ever seen the inside of train bathrooms? They have itty-bitty stainless steel washbowls – about the size of a salad bowl. And there was another line – mothers, sons, daughters – all that was missing was the family dog. By the time I got to the washbasins, they looked like the wreck of the Hesperus. Would the torture never stop?

We went straight to the dining car. Luckily, they were serving some kind of scrambled eggs – probably microwaved things as well, but we didn’t much care anymore. We were hungry and tired and wanted something warm to eat. I got an extra cup of coffee – in another Styrofoam cup. Somehow, this was beginning to feel more like camping in some kind of metal tent flying across the country than riding what we had believed would be the ‘elegant’ train.

I returned to my seat in the club car and was greeted by the queen of leather. She had opted to skip breakfast. I waited patiently for the little booth to open and quickly seized the opportunity to buy more of those little bottles in a paper bag. When I returned to my seat, they were promptly poured into our coffee. There was about another hour and half to go and neither leather nor lace saw the benefit of riding that distance stone sober.

It finally happened – we were pulling into Grand Central Station – Chicago, Illinois. That was an amazing sight – it’s huge! Believe me, as the tracks narrow down next to other tracks – that is an ‘Kodak’ moment. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Train tracks crossing one another and then pointing towards a big building – sort of like a spiderweb of tracks full of trains. You pull in to this large train shed – dozens of other trains – sort of like the concourses at airports. One difference – there’s no baggage conveyor belt bringing your luggage the distance for you. They take them off the train and you pick up your luggage and walk and walk and walk until you enter the lobby of the building from the train shed. I’d never have packed all that if I knew I was going to be toting luggage for several city blocks full of Jack Daniels and powdered eggs. Nobody told me there’d be days like these!

Once you get into the lobby – you just have to look around. It was built at the turn of the century and it’s gorgeous. That almost made up for being a pack animal. Well, until I saw the stairs that lead up, up, up and outside to the street. No porters – no escalators – no one to carry your luggage. Good luck, eh?

Well, we made it up and out and onto the sidewalk with our luggage. We began the process of flagging down a cab and loading it with our luggage – no one seemed to be of much help there. On to the Omni, where we were greeted by colleagues who had flown up the afternoon before and had showers, real food and a bed to sleep in! We were sleep-deprived, hungry, hung over and tired. All I wanted to do was check into the hotel, take a shower, call room service for a real breakfast, a Bloody Mary and hit the sack.

Of course, those well rested, well fed and happy souls had not shared with us the privilege with of riding the Illinois Central’s pride and joy – the train they call the City of New Orleans for the last twenty hours! I reckon that no matter how rough it seemed at the time, I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity either! We rode a train that was part of history…right up through the Mississippi Delta and smack dab through the heart of America. It had been immortalized in the song made famous by Arlo Guthrie “The Train They Call the City of New Orleans”. Looking back and hearing the song, I am ashamed. I grumbled and carped while riding one of America’s beauties – ‘the magic carpet made of steel’ – right through the heartland. Without having realized it, we played cards – though not for a penny a point – just like in the song and passed the bag that held the liquor. I saw fields of crops that would clothe and feed us all and yeah – graveyards full of old Black men and rusted automobiles, just like the song describes. I’d gone most of that distance seated next to someone who was what seemed the polar opposite of me and found out we were more like sisters than either of us realized at hello. I think perhaps that train was magic because remembering it now brings a warm feeling to my heart and a smile to my lips. I wonder what happened to my leather-clad friend? If I close my eyes and sit back in my chair, I can feel the rhythm of the rails as surely as when we went down the tracks – and I’m sad to know that something as wonderful as a train they call “The City of New Orleans” truly has the ‘disappearing railroad blues’. One day ‘fore long, it will just be a memory, and all people will know about it was what they read or hear in the song – they’ll miss the experience. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a ticket to ride.

Last edited by katie on June 19, 2009, 10:42 am


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1 response to Riding on The City of New Orleans

  1. With a positive twist towards the end. I thought it was going to be one drawn out tale of disaster.
    Many years ago, I thought it would be romantic to try a train ride from Kingman, Arizona, down to Lafayette.
    I called train information, and spoke with this… person. She was quite horrible. Being a European, I might have used terminology that was unusual for her. She brought some of her colleagues on the line with her, and made sarcastic jibes at my choice and expression of words! Her buddies all burst out laughing! She was simply 100% unhelpful, discouraging, and a total deficit to the P.R. Department of the railway company. I politely excused myself, and never bought that train ticket.
    Seems to me the American railways have declined sadly since the glory days. They don’t even much try anymore.
    I wonder if the Airlines will go/are going the same way? Pity in many ways. I’m sure many folk would willingly pay extra for a first class travel ticket, if it really WAS first class….
    Oh well, kudos to you for thinking of the old Black men, who lived, toiled, suffered, and died in those fields. Strong image.
    And kudos for the nostalgia. How times have changed.

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