In 2007, I flew from Columbus to New York City —- my first time visiting the Big Apple, and what I figured would probably be my last time. Or, maybe, I’d visit the city again one day just for fun. Either way, the enormity of it all overwhelmed me and while I enjoyed my time there, I had no intentions of learning about different districts and boroughs (“isn’t it all the same?” I thought) or even where they were located in proximity to where I was standing at any given point. And I sure as Hell had no intentions of navigating the subway system or trying to blend in with the locals. I was touristy AF, that was okay, and anyway, the academic job market would move my husband and I somewhere else, probably the South, I was sure of it. No need to feel acclimated to New York City, nope, no reason at all.
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Every time I ride Amtrak’s Empire Service from Albany-Rensselaer Train station to Penn Station, I reflect on how cute my thoughts were when I was 22, 23 years old. My preferred time slot on train 236 rolls out of Rensselaer at 8:25 a.m., travels along the Hudson River, and rolls into Penn Station approximately 2.75 hours later, which is perfect timing for getting your bearings just before lunchtime. Train -> eat -> coffee -> frolic. My routine is always the same every time I hop off of 236 and onto the Penn Station platform, and I love it. For two straight years, a bloody handprint decorated the wall of one of the stairwells passengers climbed to the main level of the station, and despite the degree of disgustingness, I kind of liked it — an old friend, waiting to greet me upon my arrival to NYP. Hello again, buddy, I thought to myself each time I arrived for a day or weekend trip.
My mom learned what the Empire Service was when she visited Albany in 2012. She knew my secret — that I was trying to get pregnant — and so she operated along the assumption that I could be pregnant at any given time and not know it yet, therefore I should protect myself from everything potentially hazardous at all times. She didn’t let me lift her luggage into the Kia when I picked her up from the airport, so I knew she was going to be extremely protective of a possible unborn grandchild. In the case of our ride down to NYC on 236 that Friday in late September, I made sure to avoid my favorite bloody handprint and steer her toward a nearby escalator that was free of visible body fluid stains. She loved riding the train; she also loved all the street vendors and chatted up nearly everyone before they even tried to sell her anything. Mom was a trip. And the trip was a trip.
Sticking with the pregnancy theme, two vivid Empire Service memories I have are at 7 weeks pregnant and 7 months pregnant. At 7 weeks, I experienced a nearly constant, burning, disgusting feeling of starvation that nothing except cans of pineapple could satisfy. And I never liked pineapples before. Clearly, my body was in need of something pineapples provided at that early point of growing a human being, but I didn’t want to eat straight out of a Dole can the whole morning ride down the Hudson, or throughout the Knicks game my husband and I were going to that afternoon. The ugly flip side of this craving was how repulsive the more filling breakfast foods, like oatmeal, were to me. I was so hungry I was in pain. A passenger sitting near me noisily munched on a Subway breakfast sandwich the first 20 minutes of the trip and I started to rethink the whole day and whether or not 4th row Knicks seats were worth it. I was more than ready to jump off at the Hudson station stop, but instead, I sat with my face scrunched together, fighting hormonal tears. This, I believe, is what created the wrinkles in my forehead. I should’ve just brought some damn pineapple with me. I survived the ride, and the mid-January scent of the city violently forced me into the closest sandwich shop where I discovered that a hot turkey sandwich with cranberry mayo had the same effect as pineapple (thus began my two-month long cranberry mayo eating, cranberry juice-drinking binge). A few months and a trimester and a half later, my husband and I were watching our unborn child’s feet nearly pop through my abdominal skin as we rode my favorite morning train route to NYC to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary weekend. We were equal parts excited and freaked out. (Pregnancy is as strange as it is beautiful.)
When I’m heading south via the train for a day trip or work-related event, I get to sip my very first coffee of the day over the course of 2.5 hours while I read, think, and chat. I can’t do anything else, really — i’m boxed inside the train! Knowing I have a busy day in the city allows me to scrap the small things that tend to exhaust my mind, at least temporarily, so that I can focus on and enjoy the day. The morning train experience is equivalent to psychological therapy… unless you’re deathly afraid of a train derailing.
Those who use public transportation on a regular basis are totally allowed to think that I’m a complete weirdo — I mean, it’s just a train that I’m rattling on and on about, for God’s sake. But, look — I never envisioned riding a train, to NYC or anywhere for that matter, until I moved to Albany and discovered that I could, in fact, board a train and get to pretty much anywhere in the U.S. and Canada within a few hours. Amtrak’s Empire Service has enabled me to learn the geography of the city, become familiar with several areas and feel completely at ease (and aware of where I am in proximity to other locations) when I’m there. Every time I ride alongside the Hudson I reflect on how much I’ve grown since discovering Empire Service, and let me tell you… it feels like a crazy (and good) dream.