THE OLD LADY AND EFFINGHAM
Many years ago I was taking the train, The City of New Orleans, from Chicago back home. One of the passengers in the coach section was an elderly black lady whose gaunt frame suggested a life of hard work. Her gray hair was set in a bun.
Our Cover coverage this month is our Travel section, which has a theme of culinary destinations. The old lady comes to mind because sometimes there are people whose appetites just call for the simple things.
As downtown Chicago began moving past the window the woman started telling anyone who would listen about her trip. She was going to Effingham in southern Illinois to be met by her son who lived there. Since the son would not be there for a couple of days she decided to take the train all the way down to New Orleans. There she would have nearly a six hour delay before taking the northbound City of New Orleans back to Effingham. She had never been to New Orleans so she wanted to use her time there to see a little of the city and to have lunch: “a nice salad and an iced tea.”
There are 880 railroad miles between Chicago and New Orleans and for each one of them we in coach heard about the nice salad and iced tea. Her longing was expressed through the afternoon and into the evening when she nodded and dozed off for a few hours. She did not miss much, because somewhere north of Memphis the train stopped. A freight train ahead had derailed. Crews were rushing to its aid. Throughout the darkened morning The City of New Orleans started and stopped moving timidly before being diverted onto another track and then slowly making a loop around Memphis away from its intended route. By sunrise the train had not traveled very far. It crept along seemingly inch by inch.
Once the old lady was awake she began talking again about seeing New Orleans, the nice salad and the iced tea. She sought advice from passengers about where she should go. I suggested the restaurant at what was then the Howard Johnson Hotel near the train station. She seemed interested.
Just past Jackson the train resumed normal speed but was running seriously late.
A flashback: Right after graduating from college a friend and I had taken a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. At Phoenix, a man got on and sat in the seat behind us. Between there and Los Angeles he told the other passengers how excited he was because he and his ex-wife were getting together again. They had recently talked by phone and decided to give the relationship another try. He was thrilled that she was going to meet him at the Los Angeles bus station. When I last saw him, he was sitting in a chair at the station with his head bowed. He was a crushed man left alone because nobody had been waiting for him.
When I last saw the old lady a conductor at the New Orleans train station had her by the arm and was hurrying her to catch the northbound train. The southbound had arrived nearly six hours late. There would be no time to see New Orleans, nor for a “nice salad and an iced tea.”
There can be joy and discovery from travel and sometimes disappointment. That’s when the road home can be the longest road of all.