Down to ‘The Wire’: Close Calls in Baltimore

I was heading down to Baltimore yesterday via Amtrak, banging out an interview with a Media Titan, then schlepping back on the beloved Northeast Corridor.

This was the goal: Leave the wilds of Central Westchester at my normal time, take my normal Metro-North, and be back in time for one of the normal evening trains I take home. Home in time for dinner, for the reading of princess books, for the assembling of Legos.

I needed Amtrak to cooperate to make it work–always a dicey proposition. My 2:46 out of Charm City (no, really–Baltimore’s nickname) was due into Penn Station at 5:21–leaving me 25 minutes to make my Grand Central train.

Upon boarding yesterday morning, I realized by the blue signs on the ceiling I’d entered the Quiet Car. I didn’t envision many phone convos for my morn, so I grabbed a two seater near the front of the car. Running this little commuter blog and all, I was also curious how things play out in the so-called Quiet Car–if the sshhhh! of passengers would negate any benefits of the supposed quietude.

Here was the problem with the Quiet Car–a middle aged guy got on at Newark, and walked under the QC sign in the vestibule without noticing it.

First thing he did after sitting was whip out the cellphone.

“I’M IN THE CAR RIGHT BEHIND THE ENGINE! YEAH! RIGHT! BEHIND THE ENGINE! GOOD! SEE YOU IN A BIT!” he fairly bellowed, no idea he was in the QC.

Then a trio of women got on at Newark Airport, and also failed to see the 8 x 10 blue sign, chatting volubly in a four-seater.

Later, the conductor came through. He bent at the waist in front of both parties–the middle aged guy’s pal joined him in Metro Park–and quietly told them they were in the Quiet Car. They had no idea. They took the news well.

I figured they’d be quiet for about five minutes before resorting to their old form. In fact, they stayed quiet.

Me, not so much. I suddenly had an 11 a.m. interview pop up, so I grabbed my Blackberry and notepad and headed to the Cafe Car. The call was 15 minutes late; afterwards, I grabbed some lunch from the cafe car, a joyless turkey-and-gouda wrap, though I was pleased to see “Dog Fish”–the hoppy pride of Milton, Delaware–scribbled on the menu board under Beers.

Things I take pictures of when I go on trips.

I returned to my seat around 30 minutes after vacating it.

Upon my return, an older Indian woman was sharing my two-seater. Her bag was on my seat. She sat on the newspapers I’d left on hers. She practiced full-contact knitting, letting me know right away her elbows were sharp.

The trio of women that had boarded at Newark Airport were conversing quietly, but that appeared to be too much for the woman in the otherwise empty four seater across the aisle, who told them they were in the Quiet Car, and should not be speaking.

The elder of the trio, a stout black woman of about 50, stared her adversary down. “You’re allowed to talk quietly,” she said. “Mind your seat.”

The ride was otherwise uneventful until Baltimore, and we were about five minutes late at Baltimore Penn Station.

I’d researched the Baltimore light rail, which went right to my destination outside the city, and figured I’d save the company a few bucks (light rail round trip $3.10, versus cab fare of $50 each way).

I was surprised to see no one–no one–waiting for the light rail just outside a major city’s major train station. It was 12:20. My interview was 1 p.m. and my subject did not suffer tardy fools.

I checked the sked, which said the next train was due in at 12:30. (The thing ran every 30 minutes during peak hours.) A few people entered the platform.

At 12:33, a train pulled up, a little two-car outfit better suited for the Isle of Sodor than a major metropolis. I asked the driver if he went to my destination, which was eight stops away. He told me to take the train one stop in the opposite direction, then hop a different train.

12:35. Sitting on the train a few more minutes, awaiting departure, I made the call to abort the light rail.

I ran upstairs, and saw the light rail driver chatting with someone in the station, no apparent plans in the near term to drive his train.

I found a cabby and asked about my destination. It was 12:40. He said it was 55 bucks and 40 minutes.

Fortunately, both proved incorrect. It was 50 bucks, and the ride took about 20. I was on time. I asked my cabby, Paul from Nigeria, how I might get a cab after the interview. He said he’d wait.

Once inside, escaping the freezing rain, I spied the light rail stop across the street from the corporate headquarters. I asked the company CFO if people took it. He said no one did. What a shame–a great looking little light rail that stops across the street, and everyone–including me, a dude with some sort of thing for trains, and saving money–drives from downtown.

Paul was indeed waiting when I concluded. We had 36 minutes to cover what took 20, and we needed every minute second of it.

We hit awful traffic heading back to the city, and ended up taking local roads for the final third. It was 2:46 when he spat me out in front of Baltimore Penn, Paul having the good sense to fill out my credit card slip (they write them manually in B-more) at the various red lights before we got to the station.

Here were my options if I missed the 2:46: Do the bum’s rush onto the Acela at 3:34, and get kicked out (arrested??) in probably Wilmington, or wait for the slow boat at 3:45–definitely missing dinner, princess books, Legos.

I saw a giant LAST CALL for the 2:46 as I made my way into Baltimore’s tiny station. I bolted down the stairs, yelling “WAIT FOR ME!!!” as a young black woman and her toddler son, exiting the train, stared at this strange interloper. I boarded with 20 seconds to spare.

The train was full. I was just happy to be on it. I walked forward looking for an empty two seater. The crumbling row houses last seen in The Wire ambled by. I asked a conductor where my best chance was. He pointed to an empty one seater–yes, a one seater–at the front of the next car.

The seat had miles of room around it, and levers for a footrest, and a cafe car six feet away.

I’d stumbled into first class.

I marked my good fortune with a can of Bud (alas, Dogfish was $7.50), and poured it into my cup. The seat had no tray table, so I placed the cup on the floor under me.

My Blackberry slowly slipped toward the precipice of my slick seat, and finally plunged to the floor–landing square in my beer cup.

I would’ve taken a photo of it, but my camera is on my phone, and that was stuck in beer.

Foam flew everywhere. I gingerly wiped down my Blackberry BlackBeery and hoped I wouldn’t have to tell that guy in IT. It was sticky, but–thankfully–it worked.

All we needed to do was get into Penn Station on time, or even 10 minutes late, for me to make my 5:46. If I missed that, it was 25 minutes until the next train.

We got to NY Penn a few minutes late, and then sat…in…the…dark…tunnel…for an interminable several minutes. It was classic Premature Evacuation–we were all standing with our bags. The guys behind me–two dandys in fine suits who’d gone to Baltimore to do a deal with Johns Hopkins Medical, then got blasted on cheap wine on the ride home–were driving me nuts with their boozy blather. We just wanted to get off, me more than anyone.

But…still…we…sat.

It was 5:32 when we finally moved the final 100 yards, and hit terra firma. I had 14 minutes to get to my train across town.

I recalled a similar situation last year, when a cab obtained at 33rd and 8th simply sat in gridlock, and I missed my connection at GCT.

So I took off on foot.

Those loooonnnng stretches between avenues–7th to 6th, 6th to 5th–ate up huge chunks of precious time. So did Usain Bolting through the teeth of Penn Station-bound commuters on narrow sidewalks. By 5:39, I clearly wasn’t going to make it on foot.

I saw a cabby cleaning out his trunk at 36th between 6th and 5th. It was 5:41. I asked him to drive me. He said yes.

“I have a 5:46 train,” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders: Not my problem. I missed Paul from Nigeria, and thought to call him with my beery Blackberry to tell him I’d made my Amtrak.

We pulled up to GCT at 5:45. There was a problem with my credit card, but it went through on the fourth try.

I made the 5:46 with 10 seconds to spare.

Dinner, princess books and Legos awaited.

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