Fast-moving friendship

Close quarters and conviviality onboard the Silver Meteor

By John Koch
Globe Correspondent / December 25, 2005
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The king of Thailand was born in Cambridge, and when he grew up, played the sax well enough to be commended by another monarch, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing.

A lively rap, including the lines ''Refuse to be average in a marriage / Pushing a baby carriage / What the heck is going on in your stupid cabbage?" -- can go better with a breakfast of fried eggs than even bacon.

For her 17th birthday, Spenser Kaleky is getting her belly button pierced.

How do I know these things, and more? From traveling to West Palm Beach and back to Boston on Amtrak, most often on the venerable Silver Meteor, which has been running between New York and Florida since the 1930s.

There is much to be said about long-distance train travel in the United States in 2005: It is slower than it should be; some of today's onboard service and conditions are unpredictable; it isn't what it was in the 1950s and '60s, when I frequently traveled the Eastern Seaboard between Connecticut and North Carolina, mostly on the Silver Meteor's sister train, the Silver Star.

Still, journeying by train has singular advantages and charms, perhaps most appealing the easy intimacies it fosters. Especially in the dining car, camaraderie, if not lifelong friendship, is the order of the day. Borne along the rails in a cozy environment, otherwise mismatched people seem to cast off differences and, somehow, just agree to agree.

As the chatty Spenser says, ''It's easy to meet people on the train. . . . If you're open, you can relate to different people; we discuss different lifestyles." Spenser and I are sitting in the cafe car toward the start of my trip back to Boston. (I have been in the Palm Beach area for a short dose of winter sunshine.) Spenser, en route to visit her father, already has struck up a conversation and joined a card game with another girl her age traveling with her father back home to New Jersey. (If there are five young people on the train, Spenser says, ''at least three will find each other.")

The rocking, clacking train seems to loosen tongues -- and if Spenser is right, to open hearts.

On my first night on the southbound Meteor, which I board in Washington, I venture into the dining car shortly after dropping off my bags and inspecting my accommodations. (I am in sleeping car compartments on both legs of the trip.) White linen tablecloths, neat table settings, friendly and efficient service prevail, as do very presentable and tasty meals. Diners often are seated with strangers at the four-person tables; if you're traveling alone, as I am, meeting people at mealtime is inevitable. My luck with these serendipitous companions is excellent -- only one raging bore, a vigorous elderly woman in love with, well, herself. (''You're amazing," I compliment her. ''Yes, I am!" she says, among many other things, at length.)

But back to dinner, night falling over Virginia. Conversation flows freely as I tuck into a flavorful strip steak washed down with OK cabernet, and my tablemates equally enjoy their Amtrak food, the train swaying and clattering southward. The couple opposite me, both firefighter/paramedics from Charles County, Md., are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. They have parked their four children with relatives, left their demanding lives behind, and started their pleasure trip with a leisurely train ride to Florida, where they will embark on a Caribbean cruise.

Beside me is Somsak Panboon, a retired hair stylist from New Jersey going to the funeral of an old friend in Florida. Sonja and John Gorman, the firefighters, and I raise a toast to Somsak's departed pal. He reciprocates by telling us about Thailand. He left his homeland 43 years ago as a young man, fearing the Vietnam War would spill over into his country.

''The king of Thailand," he wants us to know, ''is a very good man, a scientist, a composer. He was educated in Switzerland and had an auto accident and lost an eye as a teenager." Indeed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, was born in 1927 in Cambridge, and has jazz bona fides. Samsak is proud of this heritage, and promises that ''anything you want to know I will tell you about the royal family."

The friendly rapport around our table is typical: Passengers at other tables are shaking hands and wishing each other well as they get up to return to their coaches or sleeping cars.

Sometime after dark, the train stops for several minutes in Richmond, one of the Meteor's three watering stations, and I see the second cook on the platform pulling a length of hose to the dining car to fill its water tank. I will get acquainted with him in the morning.

Like so many rail workers and some inveterate riders, Raymond Ashley, 52, is passionate about trains. Raymond (everyone on the train is on a first-name basis) says railroading is ''in my blood." Originally from Waycross, Ga., which he describes as a ''hump yard" for CSX Corp. and a place where virtually everyone works for the big freight company, Raymond was once a CSX ''switchman and trainman." He moved into cooking, as a chef at Disney World and later a banquet cook for the Marriott chain, but he missed ''the adventure" of working on the railroad, which he chiefly defines as ''meeting new people all the time."

Divorced, with grown children, Raymond works the run between Miami and New York, sometimes in the dining car, but he plays other roles on the train as well, serving as a kind of utility man. He talks animatedly about a couple he met from Canada, and how he enjoys learning about other cultures from travelers. He remembers them telling him about ''how sweet the air smells" north of the border.

I don't get a great night's rest riding south (though I sleep like a top coming back a week later). The small sleeping compartment, which can accommodate two resourceful people in upper and lower berths, is hardly spacious in sleeper mode, even for one passenger. But the quarters are cozy and the privacy welcome. The ''roomette" has a toilet and a washstand that pops out of the wall -- and in daytime converts into a bright little space with facing seats that would be fine for two people who like traveling together in close quarters.

Rocked by the rhythms of the train, the roomette is an ideal place to daydream and read in solitude -- and also to soak up the passing scenery through its large windows. A word of advice: If you travel in a sleeping car, request an eastside room for one leg of the trip, a westside one for the other, in order to see all that your journey has to offer.

One memorable sight I cannot promise you will see for yourself is a large white bird, an egret or a heron, perched on the haunches of a brown steer grazing in a stubbly Florida pasture. The state supports a lot of beef on the hoof -- more than 1.5 million head, according to an article in the Palm Beach Post -- and the train passes through a lot of flat cattle country.

One signal that you are in the South is the number of turkey vultures -- ominous but graceful, wide-winged creatures -- floating in circles high in the warm air. You don't see many exotic birds from this train. In fact, it must be said in general that New York to West Palm Beach isn't among Amtrak's especially scenic routes. For sheer beauty, it's hard to match the California Zephyr (its route is Emeryville, Calif., near San Francisco Bay, to Chicago), which climbs the Rockies along the Colorado River through a striking landscape often replete with eagles, hawks, elk, and deer.

Another surprisingly beautiful ride is right here in New England, from Boston to southern Connecticut, where the tracks often hug the coastline. Out of the eastside windows, you can see a panorama of inlets (some featuring swans), tall-masted pleasure boats at rest, narrow beaches surrounded by lovely summer homes, and tiny rocky islands visible in Long Island Sound.

Other images from my trip last winter include orange groves with their short, round, storybook trees, and pretty, simple farms beginning to green up in Virginia. Though not typically picturesque, the passing scene of Rocky Mount, N.C., is hard to erase. It was not yet 7 a.m., and the northbound train ran parallel to the city's shabby Main Street, a worn-out relic of the 1950s that looks more like a deserted movie set than a real place. Indeed, much of the real estate hugging the tracks offered a glimpse of hardscrabble life and sometimes serious poverty.

But the story of the journey is aboard the train, among the friendly passengers and amiable train crew. There is an esprit that is almost palpable. How often are you likely to sit down to an excellent breakfast of eggs, grits, and sausage patties across from a heavily muscled young man, cornrows tightly bound under his black do-rag, who wants to serenade you with his latest rap?

Michael Brown (a.k.a Dice Stylez), 32, of the Bronx, works in retail security, sometimes undercover, he says. But his passion is writing and performing songs: R&B, love songs, blues, and hip-hop, many of the lyrics in Spanish. He has an artistic dream and a gentle intensity that make you believe you might see him one day soon on a CD cover. Michael implies that despite his having seen some hard and dark corners of existence, the power of positive thinking makes good medicine and viable art.

''I really love songs, emotions, and I like to make people happy," he says. His version of hip-hop is part of ''the solution to revolution and rap pollution," he says with a winning smile.

At the time, we are pulling away from Jacksonville, moving south under low gray clouds. But it feels sunny in the dining car under the spell of Dice Stylez, and the truth is that train travel doesn't get any better than this.

Contact John Koch, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at

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