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Amtrak CONO poster

January 9-13, 2011

-- 8 p.m. on the dot on January 9 -- that Amtrak's City of New Orleans left Chicago Union Station, I knew that the on-board experience would be the same as it has been in every other Amtrak ride my wife, Debby, and I have taken in the last year: Just fine, with a couple of niggles.

The niggles first.

The sleeping cars both ways were reasonably comfortable, but they are showing their age. They were from the original two-story Superliner order of 1979-81, and were rebuilt some time in the 1990s. Now the refurbishing has lost its shine. The interior looks OK for the most part, but seams -- especially in the bathrooms -- are gaping and no amount of caulking can bridge them.

What's more, the in-room electrical outlets in our roomettes in both northbound and southbound sleepers were not working. Fortunately this was not a writing trip laboring over a laptop, or I would have been upset. I was able to recharge my iPod Touch in the "Cross Country Cafe" dining car, which has outlets at every seat.

The closet door of the southbound roomette wouldn't latch shut. This is why veteran Amtrak travelers bring along a roll of duct tape, the world's greatest rattle-dampener.

During the night on the southbound trip, one of the two footlatches that hold down the roomette seats to form a lower bunk slipped open, causing one seat to slide partially back and giving me the sensation of trying to sleep on the edge of a ski jump. This happened at 3 a.m. and I decided not to awaken Debby in the berth above me by calling the attendant for a fix. So I got up and read in an empty roomette until breakfast at 6:30 a.m. (Later I learned that it would have taken the attendant 20 seconds to push the bed back down and pull up on the footlatch to secure it.)

These particular sleeping cars clearly are due for another rebuild, but the refurbished dining and lounge cars were nearly spanking fresh -- no complaints there.

I did venture into one of the three coaches behind the lounge car to use a downstairs bathroom, and was horrified. All four bathrooms in the tattered old coach were damp, filthy and bedecked with tendrils and scraps of toilet paper. Either the riders had no manners or the attendant was too lazy or overwhelmed to police the place.

Otherwise I found no fault with the service crews in both directions. Our southbound sleeper attendant seemed to spend a lot of time chatting with other crew in the dining car, but he was always present when we wanted him. The northbound attendant was quite solicitous, checking with us often to see if we needed anything. And the dining-car waitstaffs on both runs were efficient and friendly.

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. The bus boarding gates are at left, the train gates to the right. Although the terminal seems deserted, it handles some 550 passengers aboard three long-distance Amtrak trains every day.

Passengers head for the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles. Note the Amtrak cop with the German shepherd in the center. The officer behind the conductor and her black Lab (legs barely visible) gave the passengers close scrutiny.  The dogs and their handlers later would board the City of New Orleans for Hammond, Louisiana.

Detail of Conrad Albrizio's powerful 120-foot-long mural (restored after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) in the station depicting Louisiana and New Orleans history. It's easy to see where the city's sympathies lay during the  Civil War.

The cuisine? Acceptable American Road Food, nothing more -- and nothing less. I did not try the special New Orleans dishes. At lunch on the southbound, there was no salad to go with the gumbo, and at dinner on the northbound I decided the New York strip steak was likely to be the most reliable item on the menu. (Amtrak steak dinners are consistently superior to the other dishes.)

One does not ride the City of New Orleans for the scenery. Southbound in January, first light does not come until after Memphis, and the trackside views of Tennessee and Mississippi are unremarkable, unless one has a soft spot for derelict industrial buildings and auto graveyards.

"Don't bother" -- what? Probably "don't bother looking for something to steal -- there ain't anything here but us old rails and scrap." This was the exciting trackside scenery during a smoking stop at Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Only in the last hour (or first, northbound) of the ride does the scenery become interesting as the train speeds through Louisiana bayou country and past Lake Pontchartrain. Hundreds and hundreds of egrets and pelicans nest in cypress swamps along the tracks. Getting good photos from the train is not easy, because the City of New Orleans pounds along seemingly at better than 70 miles an hour on the straight stretches. The scenery just zips by too fast.

Dead cypresses in a bayou and passing traffic on Interstate 10 block the view of Lake Pontchartrain  from  the lounge car. This shot was taken half an hour out of NOUPT on the northbound City of New Orleans.

There was a brief item of interest on the northbound train: three security dogs (two German shepherds and a black Lab) handled by a four-person team of Amtrak cops. They all watched the passengers passing through the portal at New Orleans Union Terminal, the dogs' noses close by. The two shepherds rode in the lounge car, their handlers telling passersby gently but firmly not to pet them because they were working. The Lab rode in the crew car behind the locomotive.

All three dogs debarked (excuse me) at the first stop, Hammond in central Louisiana, and did their sniffy thing in the hold of the baggage-coach behind the lounge car as we watched. It made sense. If drug smugglers or terrorists manage to slip through the Port of New Orleans, they might think loading their contraband or bombs at a station down the line would fool the cops. I suspect the dog teams inspect the trains at random, dividing their time among three runs that begin in the Big Easy -- the City of New Orleans, the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and the Crescent to Washington and New York.

Or maybe it's all for show. When we asked a conductor in the lounge car if the dogs were hunting drugs or explosives, he rolled his eyes, waggled his eyebrows and said with a wry smile, "Sorry, I can't say."

The timekeeping? Both trains ran 20 to 30 minutes late most of the way, but thanks to schedule padding arrived in New Orleans and Chicago on time -- or close to it.

Inside the Cafe du Monde on the southern edge of the French Quarter. Every visitor to New Orleans must sample  its chicory coffee and beignets, even on a cold day in January when the outdoor tables and chairs are closed.

BEFORE TAKING a train trip anywhere, I consult the habitues of the TrainWeb RailForum's Amtrak group, an invaluable repository of unofficial experts full of information about hotels and restaurants as well as trains. This time I wanted to know where to eat in New Orleans that wasn't either touristy or budget-busting, and the collective wisdom of the forum came through again.

Go where the locals go, they said, not the pricey establishments of the famous TV chefs, and they came up with a number of suggestions.

On our first evening in New Orleans, Debby and I dined at a highly recommended Cajun bistro called Cafe Maspero at 601 Decatur Street, cattycorner from the old Jax Brewery on the southeastern edge of the French Quarter.

We weren't disappointed by either the prices (low) or the portions (huge). Or by the house merlot, remarkably good for $4.50 a glass. I passed up the much-praised muffaletta and jambalaya for a dish I've always loved, redbeans and andouille sausage over rice with a side of French bread. First-rate, and so large I couldn't clean the plate. (In the interest of full disclosure: Debby said hers was OK, only OK.)

The next morning we did the touristy thing and, after a few minutes photographing the sights at Jackson Square, broke our fast at Cafe du Monde, the historic coffeehouse in the French Market on the waterfront. As always, the beignets and cafe au lait were delicate and warming. The weather being unusually cold for New Orleans, just above freezing, the cafe's famous outdoor tables were closed, but there was room inside, where French Quarter workers grabbed take-outs for the office.

After two hours of camera work in the Quarter, we stopped at another highly recommended restaurant, the Camellia Grill on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres. (There's another on St. Charles Street near Tulane University, and branches in Baton Rouge and Destin, Florida.) Now this is where you find the locals on a workday morning.

A grillman at the Camellia Grill in the French Quarter builds an enormous omelet. Debby and I shared one,  and
 even half of it was way too big to finish. No wonder this eatery is popular with the locals on their way to work.

This Camellia is an unprepossessing place in classic American Diner Style, with two large U-shaped counters flanked by fixed stools. On one side lie two grills and half a dozen workers.

On the Trainweb forum I was warned that the Camellia Grill omelets were hubcap-sized, way too big to finish. So Debby and I shared a ham-and-cheeser that was cut and served on separate plates, with separate piles of hash browns -- and still was way too big for either of us to finish.

I considered the omelet excellent, and Debby thought hers nonpareil. But the real attraction of the place turned out to be the chattering camaraderie among countermen, grillmen and customers. Amusing conversation ebbs and flows and surges all day, and the staff seemed as friendly to the two lone tourists as they were to the locals, telling stories of deep freezes of past years in the Big Easy.

And the prices are standard for diner fare -- inexpensive, but not dirt cheap.

After haring with our cameras all over frozen New Orleans all day, we returned to our hotel tired and cold, and both my back and knees were bothering me from the unaccustomed activity. At dinnertime we looked at each other and decided not to hobble out in the frigid wind again, but to remain snug and warm at the Omni Royal Orleans and dine in its Rib Room, no matter what it cost.

The Rib Room is definitely pricey -- two entrees, two glasses of wine and a shared chocolate mousse set us back more than a C-note, with tip. But this is New Orleans, and even the hotel dining rooms -- so often disappointing elsewhere -- live up to the city's high standards. Debby still swoons over her blackened salmon over stone-ground grits, drizzled with tabasco butter sauce. I was not in the least bit disappointed by my grilled black drum, fresh from the Gulf.

On this trip, life was finger-lickin' good, if you'll excuse the expression.

A Perley Thomas streetcar turns around on Canal Street before heading back southwest on St. Charles Street.

FOR THE TOURIST who is an unreconstructed rail buff, the streetcars of New Orleans are a powerful attraction, and of course I just had to ride them during my recent two-day visit to the Big Easy.

Actually, we had time to patronize just one of the three lines -- the oldest, the 7 1/2-mile-long St. Charles Avenue line, which has existed since 1835. One morning I rode it for several miles west from Canal Street along the Garden District all the way to Tulane University, and was struck by the fact that native New Orleanians, not just tourists, ride the line heavily. That should not be surprising, for each ride costs just $1.25, and seniors and people with disabilities get a discount. (In Chicago, the regular fare for a CTA ride s $2.25.)

The St. Charles line has an interesting history. Originally steam locomotives pulled the cars, but when those who lived along the street finally had their fill of smoke and cinders, horses and mules were employed as motive power. That's backwards. Usually early streetcar lines began with horses and later moved to steam.

In 1893 the line was electrified.

Rail buffs notice instantly that the distance between rails spans 5 feet 2 1/2 inches, not the conventional 4 feet 8 1/2 inches of American railroading. Supposedly broad-gauge tracks give a better, stabler ride with less rocking.  One of the other two lines, the Riverfront line, was originally built in 1988 to the 4 feet 8 1/2 inch standard, but was regauged in 1997 to broad gauge so that its cars could run on the other two lines to the storage barns.

The streetcar motorman's view down St. Charles Street.  Note the unusually broad gauge of the tracks.

The colorful red cars on the Canal St. and Riverfront lines are fairly new or recent rebuilds, but the classic green Perley Thomas streetcars on the St. Charles run date back to 1923 and 1924.

When Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city in 2005, all the lines were badly damaged and the red cars were ruined by floodwaters. The green cars, however, had been stored on high ground and escaped damage. Not until late 2008 were all three lines fully restored to service.

New Orleans clearly loves its streetcars. Debby and I noticed that the motormen and motorwomen, like service people everywhere in the city, are unfailingly kind to everyone, locals and tourists, and are quick to give directions when asked. That, in our experience, rarely happens in Chicago or New York.

That shouldn't be surprising. New Orleans still has not completely recovered from Katrina, and its people know that the best way to attract tourists again is to make them feel welcome and perhaps valued for something more than their money.

They sure did me.

FEBRUARY 7: The New York Times' transit blog reports that New Orleans plans to expand its streetcar lines in a big way.

The imposing monument to Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle on the St. Charles line.

ONE OF NEW ORLEANS'  lesser-known treasures (to visitors from the North, at any rate) is the little Civil War Museum at Confederate Memorial Hall on 929 Camp Street in the Warehouse District a block south of the St. Charles streetcar line at the Lee Circle stop hard by the magnificent monument to Robert E. Lee.

The Civil War Museum sits in the shadow of the huge National World War II Museum down the block. Debby and I having just one full day in New Orleans on this visit, we decided to skip the big place -- it reportedly takes a full day to explore -- and try the smaller museum instead.

The post-Katrina sign says "Civil War Museum,"  but inside it's a melancholy memorial to Confederate soldiers.

The sign outside proclaims it the "Civil War Museum," but inside it's really the Confederate Museum it has been since 1891. The place was renamed after Katrina shattered tourism to New Orleans in 2005, in the hope that visitors from the North would be less apt to turn away from symbols of the South's slave history. "You're not offended?" the lady at the door asked when we inquired about the name change.

No, we weren't, for we're not unreconstructed rebels with disdain for political correctness. Besides, the little brick building turned out to be a somber, even melancholy repository of human memories, not a vainglorious display of defiance. Whatever one might say about their cause, these soldiers, the museum seems to say, fought and died for what they believed in, and even if they lost the war, their courage should not go unnoticed. There's nothing celebratory about this museum, as there too often is in national shrines to victory.

Though it's the second largest Southern war museum in the country (the biggest is the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond), It's fairly small as such institutions go, with one large room and a corridor full of display cases of artifacts from 1861-1865. Some five thousand objects are on display, with 95,000 others stored for research at Tulane University.

Despite the "No Photography" sign, visitors are allowed to snap a long shot inside the Confederate Museum.

Among the items on view: The personal belongings of Confederate President Jefferson Davis; the uniforms, sword and saddle of Gen. Braxton Bragg; the uniform of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard; various swords, cannons and arms, and personal relics such as musette bags and letters home. There are bloodstained regimental battle flags, notably one carried at First Manassas (Bull Run) in 1861. The letters and documents humanize the people who wrote and carried them.

One particular item of interest is a tattered blue Confederate infantryman's uniform worn at First Manassas. Because there was confusion over who was whom in the heat of battle, the Confederates mostly switched to gray-and-butternut uniforms for the rest of the war.

The museum takes only an hour to visit thoroughly, and you'll come away with respect for the human beings -- fellow Americans -- who mostly by accident of birthplace fought and died on the wrong side of history.

Your correspondent with a Brown Bess musket from 1805, spotted in the window
 of an antique arms, swords, currency and coins shop in the French Quarter.

ON OUR WAY back from the museum we happened upon an establishment that stopped me as soon as I glanced into the window.

"Unless I miss my guess," I told Debby at the door of James H. Cohen & Sons, an antique firearms, swords, currency and coins establishment at 437 Royal Street, "that's a genuine Brown Bess."

I was captivated because a Brown Bess -- the flintlock muzzle-loading musket that was the standard British infantry long arm from 1722 to 1838 -- is an important furnishing in my fourth Steve Martinez mystery novel. I'd seen replicas, but never the real thing.

So in the interest of research we entered the shop. Upon being told that I was a novelist and had written about the weapon, the saleslady took the Bess down from its honored place in a long rack of scores upon scores of antique muzzle-loaders, and handed it to me while Debby captured the event with her camera. It was like grasping a piece of history.

The .75 caliber Bess was to both Redcoats and Continental soldiers in the Revolutionary War what the tommy gun was to Al Capone and the M-1 to the GIs of World War II. Like those weapons, the Bess was more than a tool; it was also a symbol -- in this case a symbol of empire.

This particular Brown Bess was dated 1805, and it did not take much of a leap of imagination to think the weapon might have served on either side at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It could also have been carried by a Confederate soldier early in the Civil War.

The musket even has figured in literary history. Rudyard Kipling dedicated a long poem, "Brown Bess," to it. Here are the first three stanzas:

In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise--
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes--
At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.

When ruffles were turned into stiff leather stocks,
And people wore pigtails instead of perukes,
Brown Bess never altered her iron-grey locks.
She knew she was valued for more than her looks.
"Oh, powder and patches was always my dress,
And I think I am killing enough," said Brown Bess . . .

For a long moment I considered adding this Bess to my arsenal of whodunit artifacts, but one look at the price tag -- $8,650 -- squelched that thought.

It was enough just to caress the patina of the 206-year-old brown steel.

(There are some closeup views of the Cohens' Bess here.)

End of a holiday: The northbound City of New Orleans awaiting departure from New Orleans station.