The efficiency of a train’s dining car can be frightening for the introvert. All the seats are filled at a table, by friends and family or strangers. It’s the way it is. It’s the custom of train dining. No wasted chairs. No being alone or only with one’s people. There’s an empty chair? It will be filled.
The times I’ve been on a train, I’ve dreaded this since it’s often hard enough for me to have a conversation with people I know, much less strangers on a train. The club car seems a better environment for me, a big cushy chair by myself with a beer and a bag of peanuts. Once travelling across the country with my young daughter, I loosened up enough in the club car to meet a cowboy named Bart. Seriously, that was his name. Or so he said.
Bart was good looking and played the guitar. We had a flirty conversation or two and then he got off in Laramie, Wyoming, of all places. I sailed on alone, spending the rest of the trip fantasizing about having gotten off the train with Bart and being childless again. Being footloose. But that wasn’t me. And there was the small matter of the small child who would then have to panhandle her way back to Milwaukee.
So when I ventured again on a train many years later with two of my other children, middle-school age, to attend the first Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., I thought about the prospect of the dining car versus the club car. I decided it would be a good thing to have dinner at a table with a white tablecloth, china, and flowers in a little vase. We would all feel adult and elegant. And it would be the full, true train experience. So much better than working our way through wrapped turkey sandwiches and a shared bag of Doritos in the club car.
The three of us were seated for just minutes before an older man, I want to say older ‘gentleman’ sat down at our table. The polite conversation began. About train travel, was it our first time on a train? About the weather, did we think it would be warm in D.C.? About why we were going to D.C., had we heard about the Million Mom March? We responded like puppies to petting, answering questions as fast as he asked, laughing and joking. If he ever noticed that my two Nicaraguan children looked a lot different than me and probably held some kind of story, he didn’t show it. And I appreciated that, the rare chance to be ordinary out in public with my kids.
And then we asked him what brought him to take the train, where was he going? He said his wife had died just a few months before and he was at loose ends. He had been visiting his son’s family in Chicago and was headed back home to the east coast. By the time he told us this, the dinner plates had been removed and we were waiting for dessert. I remember his nice, big hands folded on the white tablecloth. Every now and then, he’d pick up a fork and handle it fiddle with it, and then put it down. His hands were lovely and made me think of his wife, how she probably thought so, too.
We started to talk about his cooking adventures, now that he was living alone. And I remember this as clear as day, he said, “You know what’s really good? You peel a whole big onion and you core out the center of it and put a big pat of butter in it and then you put it in the microwave for a few minutes and then you take it out and just eat it. It’s just delicious. You should try it.”
The man with the onion recipe. I’ll never forget him. I liked him even more than Bart.