I grew up in New York, and I try to go back there at least once a year to see my family and friends. In fact, a trip I took last week was the second in three months. In May, I stayed on Long Island with my high school friend Neil. We did some fun and sightseeing things: a guided Central Park bike tour, a Lower Manhattan bus tour, and a New York Harbor boat ride that included stops at Liberty and Ellis Islands.
Ellis was particularly memorable. The main building has been restored to something like its original splendor, and the educational exhibits are incredible. A century ago, my mother, her parents, two sisters, brother and grandfather all crossed the island on their way to their new American home on the south side of Chicago. My mother was born in Johannesburg, part of a cohort of Russian Jews who fled the Old Country in favor of the New. They stayed for several years in South Africa, where work was abundant and anti-Semitism rare.
“If they were doing so well in Johannesburg,” I recently asked my older cousin, “why did they come to America? “
“Better marriage prospects,” she said.
Last week’s trip, with Alan and Jim, two other high school friends, included a player practice tour for the US Open at the National Tennis Center in Queens, biking through the stunning Storm King Sculpture Park of 500 acres nestled in the Hudson Highlands and visit the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Either way, I landed at LaGuardia and came home on an Amtrak train, the legendary Lakeshore Limited.
What about trains? I always have a hard time explaining their mystique, their hold on me – and I can never do it justice. Part of it is the magic of youth. As a kid growing up in a New York suburb much like Evanston (only with hills), I frequently took the commuter train from New Haven to Grand Central Station with my father, who was an executive for a company in clothing manufacturing headquartered in the Garment District of Manhattan. As he made long distance Saturday morning calls to his salespeople, I wandered around midtown Manhattan, my eyes riveted on the seedy appeal of 1950s Times Square.
Better yet, and what really sparked my train madness was the overnight train rides from Grand Central to Portland, Maine, where I attended a nearby boys’ camp for three summers. Watching the parade pass upstate New York and New England – small towns, town squares, homes and backyards, stores and factories – we witnessed a rarely seen panorama of the American soul.
During an academic year abroad in 1967 and 68 (during which I mostly traveled), I joined three dozen students from around the world on a late December trip from London to Russia. Our two night train ride to Moscow took us through East and West Germany. The border between them was a mile-long empty hellish landscape lit by giant klieg lights from massive guard towers. The next morning we entered both Berlin. The train was sealed, which meant no one could get in or out. In East Berlin, I decided to test the limits: I walked on the outer platform of the rear car as if I had every right to be there. A soldier with a submachine gun motioned for me to go back inside. He had the strongest right.
We were met at the Soviet border by a luxury Russian train, with samovars at either end of the car.
Our group spent five days in Moscow, four in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and four in Warsaw. We saw David Oistrakh and the Bolshoi Ballet in concert. I swam in Gorky Park, the snow falling gently on our heated pool. In total 17 days, $ 170. The Kremlin, Red Square, Hermitage, Warsaw Old Town, as well as the train journeys through Western Europe have all been part of a unique and memorable experience.
Here in America, I took night trains from Chicago to New York, Austin, and San Francisco. My wife and I took the old Coast Starlight train from Seattle to San Francisco, which, true to its name, offered unforgettable nighttime views of mountain lakes bathed in starlight.
Which was a highlight of this last train ride. At one point after dark, a few hours after leaving Penn Station, we crossed a medium-sized river. The moonlight glistened happily above the surface. I took my phone and checked the GPS. It was the Buffalo River. The Buffalo touches Chicago: it flows into Lake Erie, separated from the Evanston shore by Lake Huron. All things are connected, like trains that cross continents.