City of New Orleans Travelogue by Ed Alexander
Thursday, Aug. 26, 1999
Took the nearly full California Zephyr from Omaha to Chicago. Never did find a single seat in coach. When I boarded about 7am, most people were still sleeping, or were pretending to be. I thought I'd wait until after breakfast to find a seat. Well, by the time I'd finished eating, the train was even more packed. I ended up in the lounge car, where I usually spend most of my time anyway. However, after a few hours on the hard seats, I looked in earnest for even a singe coach seat, and found not a one. I missed having a "home" seat to go back to.
In Chicago, I checked into the Metropolitan Lounge with two hours until the City of New Orleans was due to depart. The desk girl checked my ticket and said I'd need to be back by 7:30pm, which was a half hour to train departure time. I spent the interim luxuriating in Union Station's Great Hall, drinking in the wide open, sparkling inner city spaces. Hoofing up a half dozen blocks up Canal Street, I marveled at how the bridge over the Chicago River shook when busses passed over it. And I savored the grassy
area across from the main entrance to the Sears Tower. Figuring to spend some minutes back in the Metropolitan Lounge, which was typically full when I arrived at 5pm, I got back at 7:15pm to find the train already boarding! Just as well, since I never saw anything but crumbs at the pastry table. The ice dispenser was empty, too, so I'd had just a warm pop.
7:16 pm Thursday, Aug. 26, 1999 Chicago Union Station
On the train! After having no seat of my own on the Zephyr earlier today, climbing up into the hallowed upper level of the sleeping car was like a trip to heaven. Ah, the soft, dark walls and the quiet were so relaxing.
7:43pm Final announcement for visitors to detrain
1999 Aug 26 Thursday 7:53pm (8:00pm) CDT Chicago Moving!
8:00pm The engineer had backed up as far as the bridge over the canal.
There was a new, grassy park along the canal with trees and benches. Never had seen that before. Our sleeper attendant is Shana, a short, black woman about 25. She tells us to make ourselves at home. With her, it's "you guys" this and "you guys" that, but the phrase makes it sound like we are hers, and she's going to take care of us. "I've got orange juice and coffee for you guys." This will be a good trip.
8:11pm Passed train-washing building as the announcement was made about supper. Choices would be prime rib, red beans and rice with sausage, and a vegetarian offering. I got the first seating and had the red bean meal.
When I found out it was with turkey sausage, I was about to change my mind when the server assured me it was good. I figured she must know what she was taking about, and was she ever right! It was as good as real sausage! Flavorful, just spicy enough, and moist. A typical Amtrak masterpiece. Sat with a mother and her son & daughter. The daughter was going back to college in New Orleans. The son was a graduate, and he was going to spend some time before joining the workforce to live for awhile in Ireland, and maybe get a job in a pub while there. This family knows how to live! The girl had plenty of tips on where to go in New Orleans, like the Napoleon House bar that was built by Jean Lafitte the Pirate and his brother for Napoleon to live in if he ever came to exile in the U.S.
1999 Aug 26 Thursday 10:37pm (10:37pm) CDT Champaign, Illinois
Spent 3 minutes at the station, which has a beautiful new four story terminal. Five minutes out of the station, slipped past an airport with a small-town-style green searchlight. Went to sleep after that.
3:04am Awoke after my usual 4 hours sleep on the train. Once I arise, there is so much new territory to look over that I can't bring myself to ignore it. Small town lights in the middle of the night are a pleasant sight from the darkened sleeper compartment.
1999 Aug 27 Friday 3:47am (3:40am) CDT Fulton, Kentucky
Stop at Fulton station, which is just an Amtrak single-wide trailer home on the west side of the tracks. We pulled out under a double highway bridge, then slowly by a metal shed in a well-lit, most open area warehouse section of town, then under a single bridge past more town lights, also to the west.
The lights thinned after passing a bulbous-topped water tower, and then a power plant substation. On the east side, the tracks thinned to one, paralleled by a well-lit gravel road.
4:01am Stopped past a lighted area for 3 minutes, then rolled by a huge water tower on the west side and then a distance signal. Went to the shower from 4:10am to 4:40. Found no towels there or in my sleeper closet, but the nice lady across from my compartment who detrained in Carbondale hadn't used hers. So, back in the shower I lathered up in that nice smelling Amtrak liquid hand soap. It's good for shampoo, too. The shower's push button gave a :30 spray of water, although I had one give me a continuous stream on another trip. The Amtrak shower is well engineered, providing just enough room to wash off while allowing you to brace yourself if need be. A foot long grab bar is positioned perfectly to hold on to while picking up your feet to wash them. Then, there's that notice on the shower wall: "You may find it easier to shower while seated." You'd have to be quite infirm to have to do that, or be spinning in a tornado.
Showering on the train is such a pleasant experience, perhaps because it's unnatural. Where else can you shower and move along at 79mph? I dried off, got another cup of coffee to go with my Bailey's, and rested comfortably in my sleeper. The coffee urn has never been unplugged or empty since I got on in Chicago.
4:52am Finally gathered speed, whizzing past a tall water tower in a small town with old wooden sheds in a trainyard. Then we disappeared full speed into the trees.
4:58am Emerged from full tree cover into pine-treed small town on the west side. Trailer homes stand by the track, and there is a lighted cross on a hill in the distance. The sleeper opposite mine is empty, and there is usually nothing on that side to see.
1999 Aug 27 Friday 5:11am (4:24am) CDT Newbern, Tennessee
Two policemen meet the train at the station. We resume after :30 seconds, and pass the main street and almost immediately plunge back into the trees, then pop briefly into a warehouse block.
5:17am Pause for three minutes at some little burg (Dyersburg?) with tin awnings on buildings across the track. Pass the lighted station house on the west side, then travel across open country, broken up by a few dozen streetlights a half mile off, paralleling the tracks.
5:30am Fowlkes, Tennessee is a decent sized town on the west side. More people on the train are stirring. Some portly man is obviously on his way to the shower with his chest hanging out. I pack a lightweight bathrobe for just such an occasion. Dressed and went through the diner, where the staff is already setting up for breakfast. Then, went through two coaches to the empty lounge car. Yes, we are strangely configured on this run. Downstairs, I note it has a single windowed counter with the menu tacked up beside it.
5:43am Halls,Tennessee Just a house on a hill(east.)
5:48am Ripley, Tennessee is out to the west, about a half mile distant. We go through a tree lined ditch, past streetlights up high, and then through town.
5:54am Could be Henning, Tennessee, whiz past new brick post office (west) and old-west-looking main street paralleling the tracks.
5:59am Over some creek and immediately into town limits and big blue water tower, then by a warehouse in an open field. Must be Covington. Has a Super 8 Motel. South end of town has a long red shed with a classic silver water tower at each end.
6:05am Past Covington station, and in a minute, disappear into the trees.
6:09am Small, fog shrouded lake on west side.
6:10am Brighton, Tenn. flickers through the trees.
6:14am Mumford, Ten. flickers through the trees, then pass through outskirts.
6:19am "Kerrville" is written on the side of a building. Don't see it on map.
6:22am Millington, Ten. trailer park to the east, burned out tin warehouse to the west, then pass the rest of town. After going under a double highway, in a few minutes pass a row of neat homes by the tracks. Sunrise is making some occasional wispy clouds pink.
6:26am Tall cylinders of an industrial plant to the west are followed by another to the east.
6:28am Woodstock metal shed
6:30am Over creek and metal bridge to leave industrial area and enter thick forest with meandering streams. Forest is broken up by electrical transmission lines and then it thins.
6:34am Still in the empty cafe car, get a return wave from a guy in a gravel classification tower, then pass a single communication tower and go under a bridge. The attendant shows up, and I make him aware that the toilet in the car does not work. I ask, if there is only one nonfunctioning toilet on the whole train, why is it usually in the cafe car? This has happened on 3 of my 12 trips this year.
6:40am Transmission lines over a swamp
6:42am Rumble over creek and a metal bridge, then by crumbling warehouses and next a tank farm.
6:48am Jefferson Davis Bridge to the west, downtown Memphis to the east
6:50am Beale Street, then Beale Street Landing Restaurant
1999 Aug 27 Friday 6:56am (6:29am) CDT Memphis, Tennessee
Arrive Memphis station, which is just a single wide trailer. In it is a small
ticket counter, under the glass of which are train trinkets, including a nice City of New Orleans shirt with a gas lantern logo, but nobody around to sell it! I suppose the station master will be back it when the train leaves, but that won't do me any good! A wonderful aroma wafted a few cars down to me from the diner. Our attendant, who was smoking outside, said it was the French Toast. Construction was going on around the station, which had a large grassy area divided from the 30 car parking area by a small iron fence.
1999 Aug 27 Fri 7:26am (6:55am) CDT Memphis, Tennessee
7:32am Container yard with cars stacked five high
7:50am In Mississippi, Horn Lake to the west.
7:52am Walls, Mississippi water tower. Countryside is made up of cotton fields, trees and occasional swamps.
9:06am Glendora Clinic to the west, along with nondescript brick Post Office. Most cotton plants around here are green, bushy, and a foot tall.
9:14am Cross Highway 8 and a river.
9:21am Post Office in a rusty mobile home
1999 Aug 27 Friday 9:34am (9:10am) CDT Greenwood, Mississippi
At the station only 4 minutes, then pass the Viking appliance factory and
accompanying line of newer brick homes.
9:38am Baldwin Piano & Organ Factory (west)
9:49am Cruger, Miss. with mobile homes & blue water tower (west)
10:00am Tchula, Miss. Classic old hardware store with tin roof on main street (west). Small tank farm south of town with rusty pipes sticking out of one giant, odd tank
10:20am Ten rectangular settling ponds (west)
1999 Aug. 27 Friday 10:27am (10:09am) CDT Yazoo City, Mississippi Spent only a minute here.
10:32am Wastewater ponds (west), then forest, swamps and hay fields
11:00am Bentonia, Miss. Water tower to the west. Road sign visible: 433 Junction.
11:10am Flora, Miss. (Sign on Business) Rusty silver Water tower. Mobile homes south of town. Blew by motor vehicles parallel to us on US49, past grassy airfield with two hangars with planes (west). More scattered cornfields as we approach Pocahontas. Very odd structure just past junkyard.
11:21am Horse ranch
11:22am Lumberyard, then powerplants
11:33am "Jackson is 3 minutes away." Rumbling through railyards.
1999 Aug 27 Friday 11:44am (11:19am) CDT Jackson, Mississippi
Spent :08 at the station. Only one sitting at a short lunch. Choices were a burger, chicken sprinkled salad, or ham & cheese poor boy. I had the burger, which was served on a toasted bun and was, as usual, quite tasty.
12:10pm Crystal Springs, Miss.
1999 Aug 27 Friday 12:19pm (11:58am) CDT Hazlehurst, Mississippi
Having desert right now. Choices were the famous turtle pie, a bread pudding, and cheesecake. Since I don't like the last two, I go for the TP.
12:29pm Beauregard, Miss. with a lake to the west, then another lake with a pier.
1999 Aug 27 Friday 12:40pm (12:20pm) CDT Brookhaven, Mississippi
A :02 stop at this now typical long, low brick station. I saw the waiter wrap up leftovers in tin foil and sculpt it into a swan! Over the PA system back in my sleeper, I hear some Park Service volunteer give a narration about some specific homes that we passed back in the last town 8 minutes ago. Thanks for being timely! He gets to a building description and has to spell out "octagonal." Luckily, he says that to hear more, we have to come to the lounge car. I think I'll stay where I am. Our car attendant, Shana, has made up my room and stood my folded-out central U.S. map on end, just like I had it. Pretty good.
12:59pm Summit, Miss. with lake and rural homes
1999 Aug 27 Friday 1:05pm (12:49pm) CDT McComb, Mississippi
Stopped :02 at this 1920's style beautiful new wood paneled station.
1:16pm Magnolia, Miss. is just a strip town by the rails
1:24pm Louisiana state line! Many old-west style streets front the tracks
1:37pm Arcola, La. has mobile homes across the track (west)
1:40pm Amite, La. Is a pleasant, grassy yarded town. We blow by cars along US51, past more homes with tin awnings.
1:46pm Independence, La. Many homes have just carports. Another old-west main street. One house has banana trees!
1:49pm First above-ground cemetery on southern outskirts of town (west)
1999 August 27 Friday 1:59pm (1:55p) CDT Hammond, Louisiana
Stop :02 at this well-cared-for 3-part brick station.
2:05pm Ponchatoula, La. East side of train, alligator in cement pond behind chain link cage. You really have to look hard. Parking lot adjacent.
As we approached the suburbs of New Orleans, Shana gave us all sorts of tips on where to get a Hurricane (Pat O'Brians) and other tidbits. Someone asked about walking, but she said all the attendants use taxis to get places.
3:00pm Continuing through railyards, then past neighborhoods with bars on all windows.
1999 August 27 Friday 3:20pm (3:40pm) CDT New Orleans, Louisiana
Arrive New Orleans Station! Typical early arrival. Good thing, because I have to be at the Marriott on Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter by 4:30. I'd given Shana her $5 tip as she made her final rounds.
Cabs were right outside the station. Got to the Marriott by 4:00pm. After touring the hotel, went out to the Napoleon House bar/restaurant, but the only beer on tap was Bud Light. Not a pirate kinda beer, so I abandoned ship. If I'd been thinking, I would have had rum! Arrr, matey! Off to the Crescent City Brewery for their beer sampler. Best was Grolsch, with a foamy taste...sudsy and smooth. But looking at the huge cook cutting out slimy oysters right in front of me was gonna make me gag. I know it's an oyster bar but all I want is fresh beer! Walked all the way down Decatur past Jackson Square to Jimmy Buffet's, ambled around the tropical main room, then stopped on the way out when I heard some fine banjo pickin' and washboard playin' in their nearly empty side bar. Had Avida lager and some bean soup. It was about 9pm, so I wandered off to the ghost town of Planet Hollywood. The busiest room had 5 patrons. And this is Friday night! I sat at the bar with 2 others and had a Terminator, which is no longer on the menu but the bartender remembers how to make it. At $6.50 a drink, no wonder nobody is there! On the way back to the Marriott, stopped at the outdoor Cafe du Monde for beignets, which look like small squares of fried pastry in the Amtrak travel planner. But it's really just frybread like you get at a carnival. At about 8" long in an oval shape, I had a couple bites and figured it wasn't that exciting after all.
Back at the Marriott, flopped on my bed about 11pm and slept eight hours. Then, being Saturday morning, I thought it a good time to see Bourbon Street. Now I know what the "Bourbon Street Ladies" are in the old Gene Watson song. That's where the strip clubs are. But only about 6 of them. The only strange looking person I'd seen in the French Quarter last night, though, was a black guy who'd painted himself silver.
When I was all packed up and ready to leave, I asked the bellman in the lobby about a safe, scenic route to walk to the train station. He said it would be a long walk, and I'd be sweating when I was done. It was about 80 that day. But he told me what streets to go down, that they were busy, main streets and I'd have no problem. All I have is one carry-bag that I have 3 changes of clothes in. Ol' Trainweb Steve estimated an hour, but it took me just 21 minutes. The only difficult part was a block from the station, when I couldn't quite see it through the trees. At Loyola Street I found Howard Street, then saw the Mardi Gras style "pills dropping into water"
sculpture. Beyond that was Union Passenger Terminal sign over the station.
The Magnolia Room inside did, indeed, have 2 couches, a double rocker, and coffee. But it was in the 80's and no pop was evident. Just a cranky lady in a wheelchair who insisted that the girl behind the counter come out and face her so she didn't have to turn around when she spoke. The lady demanded that the conductor let her on the train early so she wouldn't have to wait in the station. The Amtrak girl explained that the train was not ready yet. The woman kept complaining. The main waiting room was pleasant and relatively quiet, so I finished my notes in there. Amtrak would be a great job if not for having to deal with thoughtless malcontents. We were set to leave right on time, and we did.
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