Reagan Era Dining Aboard the Amtrak Cafe Car
Riding southbound on the 97 Silver Meteor, I find it all too easy to conjure up memories. The seat cushions have been updated since my childhood train trips, but the frames are still ancient, complete with old armrest ashtrays covered with metal caps. There are some other cosmetic changes, too, but mostly things are as they were when I was a flip-flop-wearing boy, convinced I’d lose my toes walking the gangplanks between cars.
The café car hasn’t changed much either, as evidenced by the small menu displayed on the wall. Trying to decide between a burger, hot dog, or pizza, I’m regretting that I didn't make a reservation in the formal dining car. The girl beside me is having trouble making a decision as well, but her brain is impaired with enough alcohol to drop a rhino.
The only cooking device available is a microwave that looks as old as me. Its stainless steel façade offers cooking times that aren’t measured in minutes or seconds, but arbitrary values of one to ten. Each menu item, which comes sealed in a plastic bag, is vented with the swipe or two of a knife, and then nuked to oblivion. My hot dog, carefully selected after polling the café worker and a couple of patrons, requires a cooking value of three.
I’ve eaten my fair share of microwave pizzas out of necessity, but I can’t imagine a hamburger that's received the same treatment would be edible. The wings that I’ve just noticed on the menu make me shudder. With star chefs like Michel Richard revamping airline menus, I have to wonder why Amtrak’s café car hasn't seen any noticeable update since Reagan was president — maybe longer.
Out in the booths, a table of four men engages in a loud game of poker while pounding cans of Miller Lite. Three old ladies play scrabble while drinking wine, and the girl who ordered just before me is passed out in front of an uneaten pizza. The poker players joke about her condition.
Tucked in my booth, I rip open the plastic packaging and liberate my meal. Condensed steam has rendered half of my bun soggy while the remainder resembles dry, chewy Styrofoam. The dog itself is sodium laden, intense, and salty. A packet or two of mustard brightens things just enough to lift my spirits. I’m almost happy.