Table Talk is a series that chronicles what happens when Sarah Federman, a professor and conflict resolution expert, seeks out others at a time when she might usually eat alone.
What better place to begin this Table Talk series about eating with strangers than aboard Amtrak? On May 18, 2017, I began my Amtrak Residency, a fellowship enabling me to crisscross the United States while working on my book.
In addition to my work as a professor at the University of Baltimore, I write about the role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust and the contemporary conflict in the United States over whether the company has made sufficient amends to do business here. It was a natural fit for Amtrak’s program, and it enabled many shared meals along the way.
Dinner Outside of D.C.
We pull out of Washington, D.C., at exactly 4:05 p.m. and head, slowly, toward Chicago. The concierge helps me settle into my roomette: No. 007! I’m feeling very James Bond. I kick back and listen as an announcer explains that we should have made our dinner reservations at the station. Reservations?
I arrive at 5 p.m. on the dot. I’m only fifteen feet away so it’s hard to be fashionably late, though many people were. I show up to an empty dining car. The hostess points to a seat. I settle in and look down at my phone. I just received a text from my stepfather, “Remember to follow your own advice – don’t dine alone!”
Luckily, on Amtrak you don’t have a choice. Unless you take your food to go, you eat with whomever they seat next to you. As we pass through Harpers Ferry and old mill towns, Joe, Stephen, Egbert, and I have a lovely meal. Joe arrives first. He’s a ceramicist. Stephen works for Verizon on the help desk. Egbert, looking most professorial, actually is. He works for the Smithsonian at a university in Panama.
When they hear about my Amtrak award, Egbert says, “Oh, good, I thought they only gave that to young people.”
Wait, does that mean I look old?
Today breakfast is served somewhere between Indiana and Ohio. It took two melatonin to sleep through ’til morning, and I kept awakening thinking I was swinging through trees. Feeling a bit grubby, I groggily step into the breakfast car to find a couple full of energy. They are experts on this journey. They’re from Pennsylvania and going to see their grandson graduate from Oswego High School. She’s transporting a heavy bag full of presents for the kids.
“I’m so glad I won’t have it on the way back,” she says.
“No, she’ll go shopping and fill it right back up,” her husband says, laughing.
We chat for a few minutes until the next woman arrives. When I tell them about the Table Talk series, she chimed right up. Being alone since her husband’s passing, she is used to eating by herself. The gentleman across from me says he’s fine eating at a restaurant alone but his wife cannot imagine doing it.
By the end of breakfast, I realize that what’s lovely about Amtrak is that you’re given instant friends.
A Chicago Favorite for Lunch with Locals
Luckily, lunchtime hits during the five-hour layover in Chicago. Instead of train food, I hit the streets and walk until I feel drawn to Luke’s, which boasts the slogan, “Voted Chicago Favorite.”
Friday lunchtime and the place is hopping. I hesitate walking up to the line, overwhelmed by the huge menu posted above the registers. An elderly man behind me pushes me forward. I look around for help.
“What’s the best thing here?” I ask the locals.
Two gentlemen told me I had to try the Italian Beef Sandwich. I don’t really eat meat or white bread, but they were so adamant, I took their advice.
“It’s a Chicago specialty,” they add.
And for $6.50, what do I have to lose?
It’s astonishing! Mouthwatering. Unforgettable. I can’t finish it, though, and fear it oozing all over my things on the train. I hand the second half to a man out front sitting in a wheelchair begging.
He thanks me, but as I walked away he yelled, “Hey, did you get it with the peppers?”
Dinner on the Old Miss
After writing, I get to chat it up with fabulous fellow travelers overlooking stunning views. Tonight, we watch the Mississippi for over an hour. Luckily, Sister Lorie is a resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, and knows about the river and the many bald eagles flying beside us.
“The Mississippi is so wide up here,” I said as we rolled by an intersection of three rivers, making the river look more like a lake or an enormous marsh.
I start to doubt the Indigo Girls. In the song “Ghost,” Emily Saliers sings, “The Mississippi’s mighty, it starts in Minnesota, at a place that you could walk across that’s five steps down.”
I ask Lorie, our river expert, if the river really does start in Minnesota and could it be walked across in five steps. Yes, she says!
“Phew, I thought the Indigo Girls were giving me false information,” I say.
Joe perks right up
“Seriously?” he exclaims. “Were you just thinking of the song ‘Ghost’? I have been singing it in my head for the past few minutes. That’s crazy you were singing it too!”
Immediate simpatico. You don’t find many men who love this acoustic group from Atlanta. But Joe does. He knows all the albums. A man of many surprises, he tells us about living in Singapore, learning Thai, taking the long train voyage from Singapore to northern Thailand, and taking trains in Burma that threw him and a neighboring monk three feet in the air on a regular basis. When he’s not zipping around the planet, Joe is in Seattle thinking up apps.
Like Joe, Sister Lorie enjoys the chatting that comes with train travel. When she’s not riding the rails, she visits eagle reserves and writes her monthly sermon.
So here we were, three strangers leading totally different lives, coming together to share a few laughs, eat mediocre train food, and sing Indigo Girls songs.
Coffee on the West Coast
I arrive in San Francisco at 8 a.m., a little ahead of schedule. Amtrak offers a free bus into the city, from which I take a BART train to the Castro. I walk over to the Mission and find a little coffee shop called Maxfield’s House of Caffeine to get some writing done.
Over coffee and a banana, I meet Donna Mena. Her job is to improve basic city infrastructure, and today she’s writing about adding LED indicators at dangerous intersections, like the one at Castro and Market. If you’ve ever crossed that intersection in a car, on foot, or on a bike, you know the massive confusion created by the multiple street feed and the trolley. I used to live in this neighborhood and remember being afraid even on foot. Donna told me her proposed project will illuminate the pathway for cars confused about where to go.
She is filled with wonderful ideas, which you can read about on her website. She wants, for example, to improve bus stop signs to make them more visible. To activate fountains year round, she proposes filling them with nerf balls in the winter. She also has some cool ideas about mobile libraries and ways to use office stairwells to create more opportunities for chance encounters.
I picked, by chance, one of her favorite cafés in San Francisco. Even in an increasingly gentrified area, it puckers along in deep need of a paint job and new floors. But it’s a community spot. This morning over twenty senior men were allowed to arrange the center tables for their Saturday morning bagel and coffee reunion. The place was abuzz with community and connection.
Somewhere in Nevada
This table wins for the most academic degrees per seat. Together we could build a city. All of us boarded in Emeryville, California, and all of us are traveling in some way related to our studies.
Amy is headed back to Rhode Island to finish her sociology PhD at Brown University. She’s trying to assimilate back into the United States after over a year in the Bahai region of Brazil where she studies the cacao industry. She has been exploring how more producers are investing in making the actual product; it’s a worldwide pattern, that the folks producing the main ingredient of anything tend to make the least money. The money isn’t in the cacao bean. It’s in the more complex product: chocolate.
Amy reveals that she spent time studying agriculture in Beijing, where Chenhlong is from. He’s here studying civic engineering at UC Berkeley, heading to Chicago just to get a peek at the great architecture. He loves the bridges we keep going over.
“They’re all steel. It’s fun to see them,” he muses. “They are so old. We don’t make bridges that way anymore. They are more complex now.”
I ask if we should be worried about their integrity. He says, no, we should be okay. Benjamin wasn’t so sure.
“Sometimes they do fall apart,” he says.
Benjamin is also on his way to Chicago, his hometown. In the fall he’ll make his way to the University of Minnesota where he will study urban planning. He’s new to the field and excited. Since he has not been to Minneapolis more than a few times, I tell him about the great food trucks (especially the portabella fries), the tremendous amount of theater (No. 2 in the country for most theater seats per capita), its affordability, and the way those folks just love their city. He feels a bit reassured.
We spend the meal enjoying this incredible view and scoping out wildlife. Total sightings: five jackrabbits, twenty horses, dozens of cows, and one lone antelope.
The Way Home
The conversations with strangers continue as I make my way back toward D.C. One morning, while watching the sunrise in the observation car, a group of Mennonites behind me begin laughing uproariously.
I listen in to hear what is so funny. They are swapping stories about kids refusing to take care of the horses. I feel too shy to insert myself, so I just enjoy this talk while we roll by a landscape untouched by the twenty-first century. The train trip often feels like traveling back in time.
When I reach Washington, D.C., at first I feel strangely lonely. I exit Union Station a single person, no longer part of the travelers, and no longer an Amtrak resident. I realize the trip could have been quite lonely without all those strangers for mid-day laughs and story swapping. After so many meals with new folks, my fear of strangers has decreased even more. Even though I am back on my own now, the folks I see on the streets look like possible friends or, at the very least, meal partners.
Loneliness now seems totally optional.