On Monday, May 13, Linda and I were up early and out the door at six, down the scenic George Washington Parkway to National Airport, where Linda hopped out for a flight to Dallas. I crossed the Potomac and drove north toward Union Station. Planes then trains: I was headed to New York for the day. As above, pulled another device from the geographer’s toolbox: land-rent theory, in this case finding a cheap place to park within a few blocks of the station. On-site parking was $22 a day, so I smiled as I handed an attendant $10. The fee would be reimbursed, but I’ve always treated partners’ money as my own. (The partner was Satyam, a broadly capable Indian I.T. firm, part of the huge Mahindra Group. I signed on to help them develop their business in the North American airline and travel industries, just the front end of introductions and network-building.)
Walked two blocks to the station, grabbed a cup of coffee, and waited for the 8:10 departure. My mind went back nearly 60 years, to a similar wait in the Great Northern Station in downtown Minneapolis, brother Jim, mom, and I headed to see grandparents in Chicago, via the Burlington Zephyr. I still recall the excitement of the station, the bustle. When we got a little older, mom would line us up near the entry door and when the gates opened, Jim and I would dash down the stairs and onto one of the coaches. Our mission was to grab the two double seats that faced each other, strategically at the foot of the stairs to the Vista-Dome, the “upstairs,” a glassed-in set of seats perfect for watching the scenery unfold on the way south and east.
The Amtrak train had no Vista-Dome, but it was clean, with comfy chairs and free wi-fi. And a ride on the train is still fun, especially on a sunny spring morning. We rolled through the Washington suburbs, past BWI Airport, and into Baltimore. Then north, crossing the upper reaches of the great Chesapeake Bay. The route traverses forlorn industrial landscapes, broken down, littered. Some former household names: Congoleum (floor tile), Fels Naptha (laundry soap). Indeed, the broken-down Fels plant offered a perfect vignette of old and new: the century-old brick chimney proudly adorned with the brand name now held dozens of mobile-phone antennas. Soon we were in Philadelphia, rolling past gleaming new hospitals and clinics on the east end of the University of Pennsylvania campus (health care is doing just fine, I observe, then wonder who’s going to pay for all of it). Then another memory trigger, but 30 years earlier, not 60: it was three decades ago this month that I enrolled in the program at Penn’s Wharton School that changed my life. That made me smile. North of Philadelphia’s main station, we roll across the Schuylkill River, and I see the roads on which I rode on early summer mornings in 1983.
About halfway between Philly and New York, my seatmate, an older woman who boarded in Wilmington, Delaware, started yakking with me – rare that the stranger initiated Talking to Strangers! A couple minutes into the conversation, I was reminded of the great travel writer Paul Theroux, an inveterate rail rider, who a few decades ago described train travel as like “a truth-drug serum.” Yep, she had gotten the shot. Hers was a tale of woe: she told me she had a rare immune-system disease that required her to travel from Delaware to New York twice a week to get meds “that allow me to continue to talk clearly.” There were other maladies, including something that she had since 15 that required her to sit down every so often, to prevent blood-pressure troubles, and a bad right knee that required her to use a cane. Sad, but proof of the stunning advances in medicine (if you could afford the $22K per year for the meds, not including Amtrak tickets). After recounting her medical history, we moved on to more interesting stuff, her work. She was a professor of Early American history, and spent 30 or 40 minutes telling me a bunch of fascinating stories about the early decades of the colonies and the founding of the republic. Short summary: it’s amazing we became a nation, what with squabbling over borders, Rhode Island printing almost unlimited sums of money, radically different decision processes in the original states. She did not once ask anything about her seatmate, but I sorta forgave her (I did wedge in that I was trained as an economic geographer), since it was clear that life didn’t turn out the way she planned it. I had already said my daily prayers, but paused again to give thanks for health and vigor.
We arrived Penn Station a bit after 11. I ambled through the Fashion District, always an interesting few blocks of window displays and trucks unloading stuff, across Fifth Avenue, and over to 40th and Lexington. At 12:15 I met my Satyam colleague Walter Jacobs, and we repaired to the venerable Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station for a big lunch. At two we met our potential customers, Chris and Chris, a good meeting. Ambled back across Midtown, hopped on the train, and rolled south, home to Washington. A busy day.
Two days later, on Wednesday the 15th, I drove to National Airport, parked the car, took the Metro into Washington for a quick meeting, then back to the airport and off to Chicago. We landed at 6:45 PM, and I zipped on the airport shuttle train to the stop for the PACE 250 bus to Evanston, home of Northwestern University, where I would teach the next day. Why take a taxi for $40 when the bus is more fun and costs $1.75?
Was up way early the next morning, 5:15, down to the gym, then out the door, two blocks south to the Metra suburban train station, then onto a fast commuter train into Chicago. At 8:00 I met a longtime friend, a VP for United Airlines at the Starbucks, in the lobby of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the U.S. and site of United’s corporate headquarters. She headed back upstairs and I hopped on the CTA Purple Line back to Evanston. At 11, met Anne Coughlan, my longtime host at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. I’ve been teaching in Anne’s class since the mid-1990s, an annual tradition. We had lunch, then class, and at 3:30 met her husband Chuck. All three of us were flying out, so I rode with them to O’Hare, then home to D.C.