Everyone should know their station in life. If you live in Pierce County, then it's located at 1001 Puyallup Avenue. That's the Amtrak depot in downtown Tacoma.
The current Amtrak train station is much smaller than Union Station on Pacific Avenue which was the station in Tacoma for about seventy-five years, but the newer station still provides rail access across America. The smaller Puyallup Avenue Amtrak station has excellent access for its passengers. I parked less than a hundred feet from the station.
After having driven more times than we can count from Tacoma to Corvallis and Tacoma to Battleground over the past eight years as my son-in-law has attended and graduated from Oregon State University and gone to work in Portland and as my son and his wife have moved to Vancouver, it was time to take the train and see some of the sights that I've missed by driving I-5. I thought it might be nice to get a different perspective and a little adventure on track.
The Coast Starlight departs from Tacoma at 10:57 A.M. and I was a little worried when my watch showed only ten minutes to train time and my wife, Peggy, hadn't arrived at the station, yet. Peggy had a hair appointment for ten o'clock. I had looked askance at her when she told me about the appointment time, but with a shrug of her shoulders she told me, "It was the only time I could get."
I arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare. Barbara Brennan, the station agent, and John Eisenhauer, ticket agent, were both extremely helpful. Barbara issued my tickets while John helped others with their tickets and baggage. I only had one bag to carry, so I decided to keep it with me and carry it onto the train.
As train time drew near, I went out to my boarding location on the station platform. John drove a four-wheel tractor out with a cart of baggage to load onto the train. I took his photograph and we talked while we waited for the train. When I saw Peg drive up and park, I asked John to mention to Peg how nice her hair looked. Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, he was a little nervous. When Peg joined me, she mentioned that she had just come from the hairdresser’s. John saw his opportunity and jumped right in with a compliment. It was well received.
The train arrived and Peg and I boarded car 1131. We chose to take a sleeping car to Portland and one of the new Talgo trains back. The Talgo's have no overnight accommodations. They're for shorter runs. The Starlight uses “Superliner" equipment for its Seattle to Los Angeles run. We had a standard bedroom from Tacoma to Portland.
Our sleeping car attendant helped us board and directed us to our room. After Peg and I settled in and the train started, he popped his head into our room and introduced himself. "I'm Walter," he said with a warm smile. He asked for our tickets and said he’d be right back.
The standard bedroom isn't tiny, but it’s compact and cozy. Two comfortable chairs face each other; a small table separates the seats. On the table was a bud vase with a flower arrangement and an arrangement of Amtrak brochures to help explain the trip. There was also a small gift basket with a wash cloth, shampoo and body lotion. Peg and I hadn't traveled in a sleeping car for years and years and didn’t realize that the new cars feature showers for First-Class passengers. A First-Class passenger has a private room, but the showers are shared. . . not at the same time, however.
After he collected tickets from the others who boarded in Tacoma Walter came back, bearing gifts. He presented us with a goody basket of chocolates, Champagne and glasses. First-Class means first class. The basket was part of a "romance package" that I hope Amtrak continues. Walter went on to explained that the Pacific Parlor car, located between the sleeping cars and the dining car, was for First-Class passengers only. Continental breakfast was currently being served. He also reminded us that lunch was being served in the dining car, and since we had a room, there was no charge. "Just tell 'em that Walter's taking care of you. That's all you gotta do," he advised with a chuckle as we left.
In the dining car we were escorted to a table for four. The window seats were occupied by Del and Maddie from Chicago, a couple in their seventies. They used to drive all over the country in their travel trailer, but now their children worry about Del's driving, so they're taking the train. They came to Seattle on the Empire Builder through North Dakota and Montana to attend a friend's wedding reception at Pike Place Market. They had a room just down from ours in the sleeping car. They really enjoyed the trip across the Northern states. Del and Maddie were on their way South to California where they would transfer to another train and head Northeast across country to Chicago. They were having an excellent time.
Since space is at a premium, Amtrak always tries to sit people together in their dining cars. I really enjoy that. You don't have to talk to your neighbors, but it's so much more friendly when you do. The time passes in a relaxed atmosphere and it's very pleasant. We talked about children, grandkids, the beautiful scenery and food.
Maddie had Ivar's clam chowder as did Peg and I. Maddie had salad to go with her soup, but I chose the chicken fried steak. So, did Del. Peggy had the chicken pot pie. My steak was crunchy and tender, just the way I like it. For dessert Peggy had the turtle pie and I had chocolate cake. Both were good but Peg made me trade the rest of my cake for the ice cream.
After we had all finished out meals, we were encouraged to leave so that others could eat. I'm glad we went to the dining car as soon as we did. I had a feeling that it might fill up, and it did. Peggy and I weren't ready to go back to our room quite yet, however, so we decided to stop off in the Parlor Car. Peg went to the room to pick up her sketch book and I sat down and listened to the Parlour Car attendant talk to a passenger about trains.
I recognized the attendant from six years ago when I produced a training tape for Amtrak in Los Angeles. The tape was an instructional tape for sleeping car attendants. Edwin Byrd was chosen to act in the presentation and here he was in action on the train. When the passenger he was talking with left for the dining car, I introduced myself and we talked. Edwin remembered me and even recalled the name of the production, Good Service Never Sleeps. He had his own copy.
When Peggy joined us, we all three had a great time. Edwin told us all about the coming changes in the Parlor car. The car we were in was one of only five in service now. The changes call for fancy wooden interiors and a small movie theater. Our car was next for refurbishing.
Edwin is on-call from his Palm Dale, California home. He doesn't have a regular position but he would love to be a permanent sleeping car attendant. I asked, "Do you want to be another Walter?" Edwin joked back, "I don't wanna look like him." Most of the Amtrak personnel on board are friendly and warm to each other and the public. They joke, kid around and make you feel welcome. Another attendant came through the car looking for something. Edwin asked him, "Ya comin' back in the Barney outfit?" They make you think this is their home and you are a guest. . . a very welcome guest. I like that.
Edwin had been asked to be in charge of the Parlor car on its run two days before from California. Someone was off sick. Since he had never had Parlor car training he declined. They called him back and asked again. He finally agreed to do it. He figured it had to be mostly common sense and friendliness. To get on board, he had to drive to Los Angeles and fly to San Francisco where he had several hours to prepare the Parlor car before passengers boarded in Oakland.
I asked him if he always traveled between California and Washington and he said that he often travels between Los Angeles and Chicago and sometimes as far as Orlando. I said, "What about your social life?" Edwin said, "I don't have a social life. That's why I'm talking to you. YOU are my social life."
Edwin takes an interest in everyone's social life. As passengers came through his car he’d greet them. If they were returning from the diner he'd ask what they ate. The people would cheerfully recount their meals for him. He asked Peg and me what we had. He asked about dessert. We told him about the turtle pie and the chocolate cake. "You didn't have the blueberry cheesecake? That's my favorite," he said. "I didn't hear the waiter mention it," I replied. Edwin offered to fetch me a piece from the diner. Patting my belly I said, "Yeah, like I really need it." Edwin said, "You can't gain weight on the train," and off he went. He was back in a flash with the cheesecake. It was delicious. I ate over half of it and then Peg helped finish it off.
After eating the cheesecake we were nearly in Vancouver. The three hour journey from Tacoma to Portland was nearly over. It went by so quickly. Peg and I returned to our room, so we could say that we had at least stayed in it for a while. Walter told us what we'd be missing by getting off. There was a Champagne party planned that evening for First-Class passengers in the Parlor car. The next afternoon there was going to be a wine tasting party. It's too bad Peg and I weren't going to Los Angeles. It would have been fun but we relaxed for a while in comfort until the train pulled into the Portland station.
We brought a bag with us for jackets, magazines and books, so we checked that at the baggage room and walked seven blocks to Powell's Book Store, a favorite shopping haunt of Peg's. The station is right downtown, so access to shopping is easy. It’s a short walk or bus trip to downtown and the International District. Maybe next time we’ll try a Chinese meal.
Powell's isn't as large as the Tacoma Public Library main branch, but it is extensive, and it seems like they cram as much as they can into their wooden shelves. I knew better than to expect Peg to window shop. I looked at titles and found many of interest.
One book I had to purchase. It's called Neanderthal by John Darnton. The screen rights have already been purchased by Steven Spielberg. I found a hard bound copy for only $1.50! I took it to the register where it was rung up for $17.95. I yelped, "It's only a buck and a half." I led the cashier to the section where I found it. There was a little piece of paper on the shelf stating the title, author and $1.50. The clerk was astounded. She sold it to me for that price, though. I'm a good shopper.
I took the book to the Powell coffee shop, bought a bottle of juice and sat down at a table with other book lovers. About thirty to forty people were scattered about the coffee shop. Even in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon there were no empty tables. I sipped juice and read until Peg found me. She had an armload of books, including one as a gift for a friend celebrating her 50th birthday. Her friend had admired A Season of Birds when Peg had given a copy to a calligraphy teacher they shared. She also found a vintage, tiny, chafing dish cookbook that she liked with quotations on every page. That book was a bargain as well with a $1.50 price tag. AND she found one in a Susan Branch series of books that she didn’t have and hadn’t been able to find at the discounted price that Powell’s offered.
Peg is a thorough shopper. She sat down and went "on-point" as she spied a book on the shelves that she had been searching for for months. It was the work of Marijo Koch and featured charming calligraphy and watercolor paintings of plants as fruits and vegetables.
Another man reading at the table remarked about his garden and Peg and he talked about growing things as I continued my novel reading.
Peg and I stayed at the bookstore until nearly 4:30 and then we paid for her books and her cashier offered to call a taxi for us when we asked where we could call one. We waited outside for a few minutes and then the cashier came out to tell us that he had been unable to get through on the phone to the cab company he’d told us, so he had called another taxi firm for us. He was really nice. We thanked him. Just like Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, we always rely on the kindness of strangers.
For less than $6, including tip, we were carried back to the Portland Amtrak station. We collected our bag and sat on the dark wooden benches enjoying the architectural highlights of the depot interior until it was time to board our return train.
This northbound train was the Talgo. It's manufactured in Spain but built in Seattle. It's design is sleek and well thought out. Peg and I sat in coach for our Northbound journey. We were fidgeting in our seats trying to get them to recline until Larry Gray, a sixty-ish frequent train traveler from Tacoma, stepped over and showed us how to work the seats. Larry had gone from Tacoma to Portland the day before and was returning. He told us that he liked riding the train. The day before he had watched the Mr. Bean movie on the television screens positioned throughout the coach car on his way down to Portland. He hadn't enjoyed it, so he was anxious to find out what the movie was for the return. A younger passenger mentioned that he had enjoyed Mr. Bean and was a Rowen Atkinson fan. He also was returning to Tacoma.
The trainman, Jim Hunter, came through and collected our tickets. We asked about the food service. He told us to walk back two cars. Larry replied that he was going there, too. He was anxious to have a bowl of Ivar's Clam Chowder. I like Ivar's as well. I hear that it's better near the end of the trip, however. By the time the train gets into Tacoma the clam chowder has sometimes been reduced and thickened to a pudding-like consistency. I like chowder that you can cut with a knife. Larry, Peggy and I all had the chowder. It wasn't thick, but it was still good.
The diner actually is only available on weekends, but the snack car was open. We ordered our food from Erik and then took it into the dining car to eat. Peg and I sat at a table for four while Larry sat by himself at a table for one. He finished his chowder off quickly because he had found out the movie that evening was the Brad Pitt epic Seven Days in Tibet and he wanted to see that. Peg and I talked to Trainman Hunter for a while, then Peg went back to coach while I stayed in the dining car by myself. The seats were soft and I was tired.
Trainmen Arnie Peterson and Jim Hunter counted their tickets and worked on their reports while I read my book. Jim joked with me because I hadn't eaten the crust on a sandwhich I had. He told me that it was good for me. I told him that I had a suggestion about what was good for him. We both laughed. I think we both laughed.
I continued reading and then finally joined Peggy after the movie was over. She hadn’t bought the earphones so couldn’t hear the movie but she enjoyed the scenery.
I looked out the window but I couldn't place where we were. In the darkness it looked like we were passing a large parking lot with scads of lights. I couldn't think of any buildings anywhere from Steilacoom to Tacoma that would have a parking lot like that. I felt disoriented.
What I was seeing was our Tacoma waterfront park along Ruston Way. I drive by this everyday, but I was looking at it from a different perspective. Viewing life from another perspective, now, isn't that what journeys are for?
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