The kids and I survived our train trip to Maryland—no potty accidents, no sick kids, no fussing, no major mishaps at all. In the past I usually over-pack in terms of entertainment for the kids and most of what I bring doesn’t even make it out of our carry-on bag. This time I around I packed sparsely: just a few stickers and paper, some play-doh, a Ziploc bag of Legos for L., and two Beverly Cleary chapter books—the kids have moved on from Ramona now to tales of Henry Huggins and his scrappy mutt Ribsy. But mostly, we spent the train trip walking up and down the aisles and spent a great deal of time yesterday in the Café Car section of the train. The name implies some cozy, picturesque setting, with warm-toned curtains framing windows through which you can sit, sipping a hot tea or a cappuccino, and watch the landscape roll past in that hypnotic, rhythmic way particular to trains. But instead, if you’ve taken an Amtrak train lately, you’ll know that they don’t serve cappuccinos, but tepid, weak coffee instead, and that the seating is usually far from cozy. And we didn’t have curtains on our windows, only greasy, scratched formica sills and pockmarked plexiglass.
My son, however, thinks the Amtrak pizza is the best pizza he’s ever tasted, so I stood in line at the Cafe Car counter for a solid fifteen minutes, and chatted with a 73-year old woman who was on her way home to New York. She’d just attended her brother’s funeral in South Carolina and, she told me, had buried her youngest son in January.
Liver cancer, she told me, nodding sadly, and her face drooped down at the corners at the memory. He was 42. He drank too much.
I murmured my sympathies, keeping a watchful eye on the kids, who were waiting for me at the table, and arguing over some magic markers.
The woman tapped my arm, and fixed me with an earnest stare. Nothing is like losing a child, she said. You can lose your mother, or your husband, or a friend, but there’s nothing like losing your own child.
And I murmured my agreement to her, of course, but her words were too horrible to even think about. I had eyes only for my two kids seated at the table, T.’s golden hair catching the sun, and L. bending close to her, his eyebrows knitted together in a frown.
Both times now that I’ve taken the train with the kids we’ve shared the Café Car with individuals who seemed totally oblivious of the fact that there were small children a few feet from them. This time around, a small group of four scruffy-looking men, sipped beers (at 11:00 am), and talked colorfully and at length about a) how to avoid being caught for drug possession b) how police treatment of drug possession charges varies in South Carolina versus New York c) the joys of being able to drink beer for breakfast d) why can’t Amtrak re-establish a smoking car and e) how unfair it is to have to pay child support for a bratty kid you didn’t even want.
That last one explained a lot to me; it explained why those men ignored the fact that my kids were sitting within earshot at the other end of the Café Car, and why they ignored me when I hinted to them that they might want to clean up their language. It was also the last straw for me. I scooped up the kids and we retreated to another car, empty and quiet in comparison. Those men made me feel unbearably sad and angry—not so much because their words were just so ugly through and through, but because I thought about the kids in their lives; the ones who might look at them, see them as examples, and grow up thinking—that’s what it means to be a man.