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Jewish World Review / July 14, 1998 / 19 Tamuz, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Close Amtrak --- PLEASE!

WASHINGTON -- Have I mentioned that I don't like trains? That they are slow and bumpy and the seats are always broken and that the odors from their washrooms qualify as weapons of mass destruction?

Some people love trains, however. They would not travel any other way. They look upon themselves as people who want to enjoy the scenery, luxuriate in life and take the time to smell the flowers.

I look upon them as people who are afraid to fly.

I prefer planes even though I know that, like bumblebees, nobody knows what holds them up. Planes weigh about a zillion pounds, and even though they have large engines, those engines weigh a half-zillion pounds, and there is no way planes should be able to stay in the air.

But, through the power of mass delusion, they do fly (and will stay up as long as everybody on board buys into the delusion -- let one person say, "Hey, there's nothing holding this thing up!" and watch out, you soon may be corkscrewing into a cornfield).

In any case, the one time I take trains is when I go from Washington to New York along Amtrak's famed Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak's famed Metroliners deliver me to midtown Manhattan with all the luxury and speed that slow, bumpy, broken-seated, smelly trains can provide.

But this is not the main reason I don't like trains. The main reason I don't like trains is that people behave differently on trains than they do on planes.

People on planes recognize that each takeoff is a terrifying adventure, and most (though not all) of them are on best behavior in order to get through the experience.

On trains, people act is if they are in rumpus rooms on wheels.

Take the Gabor family.

I got on the 9 a.m. Metroliner and immediately began my search for that most elusive of objects on a train: A Seat That Is Not Broken.

(This is sometimes accompanied by A Footrest That Is Not Broken, but don't count on it.)

I finally found one and was feeling very pleased with myself until the Gabor family burst on board.

The Gabors were lugging 11 bags, two children and two strollers.

The strollers completed filled the aisles, making it impossible for anybody to pass. This would not have been so bad if the Gabors could have arranged themselves in their seats, but they could not.

I call them the Gabors because the matriarch looked like Zsa Zsa, and the four daughters looked like younger versions of her: tall, blonde and loud.

There were a few men thrown in, husbands, I assume, but they had no speaking parts.

The immediate problem was that all the Gabors wanted window seats and also to sit next to each other.

That this was impossible did not deter them in the least.

"Where is Toodles?" Mama Gabor kept shouting. "I want Toodles next to me!"

Toodles (I presume this was a nickname and Mama Gabor had not saddled the kid with this actual moniker) was not budging, however.

"If I sit next to you, I can't sit next to the window!" Toodles kept shouting. She seemed to take this as an excuse to stand in the aisle from Washington to New York.

Meanwhile, the kids began howling from their strollers, which by now had backed up passengers in both directions.

A conductor struggled through the car up to the bottleneck and said innocently, "Uh, those strollers have to go up on the luggage racks."

(A safety note here for all those who think trains are safer than planes: After a terrifying train crash in Maryland, which resulted in considerable loss of life and injury, some of which came from flying luggage, it was suggested that trains enclose their luggage racks, just as airlines do, to keep the luggage from turning into deadly missiles in event of crash or derailment. Has this been done? I've never seen an enclosed luggage rack on any train I've ever taken.)

In any case, the Gabors found the conductor's suggestion hilarious.

"You can't put the strollers up!" one said. "There are babies in the strollers!"

Then, they laughed again.

By this time, most of the people waiting in the aisle had turned around and retreated to other cars. I was trapped in my seat, surrounded by the Gabors.

The conductor mildly suggested to the Gabors that if the howling brats could be placed in a seat, the strollers then could be folded up and placed in the luggage rack.

The Gabors had a bigger problem, however.

"I don't have a ticket," one of the daughter Gabors coolly announced, as she stood in the aisle and examined her makeup in a mirror she had fetched from a suitcase-size purse.

This was a Metroliner train where you are supposed to have a ticket before you get on board. In fact, there are Amtrak personnel at the gate who aren't supposed to let you on board without a ticket, but he or she was probably no match for the Gabors.

"What happened to your ticket?" the conductor asked politely.

"My husband has it," the Gabor daughter said, as if he should have known that.

The conductor looked at the silent, hangdog men around the Gabors.

"Which one is he?" the conductor asked.

"None of them!" the Gabor daughter said, and the whole family laughed uproariously again. "I am not married to any of them!"

Why this was a preposterous notion, I do not know. The Gabor sons-in-law looked as interchangeable as the Gabor daughters.

"My husband is going on the 1 o'clock," the Gabor daughter said, minutely examining an eyebrow in the mirror. "He has my ticket. You can get it from him then."

If you tried this on an airline, they would boot you off. They would say, "This is your problem, lady, not ours. If your husband has your ticket, then you go find him."

But on Amtrak, they are apparently desperate for every customer.

"Well, you could buy a ticket for this train," the conductor said. "And then, your husband could cash in your ticket."

"I already have a ticket," the Gabor daughter said, talking to her mirror. "Why should I buy another?" Then, she turned away to engage one of her sisters in a deep conversation about, I assume, the relative merits of eyebrow pencils vs. tattooing.

The conductor did not know what to do. I wish I had waited around to find out what solution he came up with, but the Gabor babies were howling so loudly by now that I couldn't have heard anyway.

I climbed out onto the aisle and confronted the strollers, trying to plan my escape.

"Wait!" Mama Gabor yelled at me, and I instantly stopped.

I admit I was terrified. What did she want from me? My ticket? My services as a baby sitter?

"Your window seat!" she said. "Toodles needs it! Toodles, grab it quick!"

I ran. Next time, I'm taking a plane. I don't care how much they weigh.

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5/1/98:"Bubba v. Tabacka"
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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.