The Umbrellas Of Richmond


Carra and I just got back from Richmond, Virginia where we attended the wedding of her brother Pete and new sister in law Ronni. Carra was the celebrant so it was kind of important that one of us show up. Knowing that my nickname is not “Mr. Adventure”, Carra made a point of asking if I’d like to attend eighteen months ago. This is an adept move on her part actually: When she wants me to leave home for an extended period of time (like an hour) she wisely asks if I’d like to really far in advance. Invariably this tactic will yield a response from me of “Would I!” because–for reasons even I don’t understand–I have a hard time comprehending the fact that the distant future can potentially become the present. If she had said, “Is it okay if I shave your eyebrows on March 3rd, 2018 I would have said, “You bet.”

I thought if we were going to travel to a distant, remote, and far away place like Virginia (far away meaning beyond my garage apron) then we should do something special. I suggested we take an Amtrak train all the way and get ourselves a sleeper car. This was when I also thought they had a smoking car. Which they don’t. They just have those little windowsill embedded ashtrays from 1970 to taunt you.

From the starting point in Chicago it was a 22-hour trip. We had a little compartment just 40-inches deep but I found it surprisingly roomy. It was kind of like a fort. There was a pair of bunk beds (is that four beds?) anyway, there were two beds in an upstairs and downstairs sleeping arrangement (we had to get the bunk bed room rather than the queen sized sleeper single bed because we’re not married). As we came on board we were given a quick debriefing by a crew member named “Ty” who told us to call him “T”. No doubt this was due to a lifetime of listening to people mangle “Ty.” He was there to answer any questions and the first question I had upon dropping my luggage on the chair–and by the way I really recommend everyone who’s taking a train follow my lead here–was, “Is this train going to Virginia?” You don’t want to wait to ask this question until way later when you notice cacti and/or the Grand Canyon passing by the window, at which point the answer would be irrelevant. So just let your inner dork shine through at this early moment and ask somebody who would know, where the train is going before it starts going there.

We settled in, overwhelmed with anticipation. “Woo Woooo!” Carra exclaimed as the train slowly rumbled forward. “Woo Woo!” I echoed. And as the train speed increased, so did my excitement as we began the first leg of our long journey toward our ultimate destination: Hurricane Joaquin.

At six o’clock “T” came through the hall and announced “First call for dinner.” This was a little early for us and so I asked if it would be okay if we had dinner in a couple hours. His response was, “Oh no, all the food will be gone!” I’m glad I asked. I later learned that it was a similar unwise presumption by the Donner party that doomed them all when they tried to get to Oregon by taking Amtrak.

All our meals were free. I had the “Tender Wine Marinated Slow Cooked Home Schooled Beef Bordeaux”, the normal price of which was $25. This arrived on a plastic plate that had been nicely bubbled and deformed in the microwave according to the directions on the back which read “Do not put this in a microwave oven. It’s plastic.” The meat itself was, as I had hoped, inert, though I wasn’t sure if it was cubed fatty pot roast or Tender Vittles in Gravy. Along with a side order of green beans and some sort of yellow vegetable matter the whole dinner weighed about three ounces if you count the fork and the plate. Which was fine.

The service was…mm…not like in the movies. The dining car had fewer than a dozen people in it but the service was quite slow due to the fact that the waiter, the cook, and the engineer were all the same person. You were served when the engineer had to pull over and pee.

I got the feeling I wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as the service people. It began with my request for an iced tea but with no ice (I like it room temperature otherwise the sugar won’t melt). The quick retort from our waiter was, “It’s not that cold.”

Your ice is not that cold? For moment I was tempted to just go with the flow of the conversation and say, “Well then, by all means, let me have some of your fine room temperature ice,” but I think I said, “It’ll be fine.” I’d really like to decode what he was trying to tell me but I think it would require a German Enigma machine and I don’t have one.

A female service person appeared from the “lounge car” (if you’re envisioning a car full of well-dressed people playing canasta at tables with Tiffany lamp shades and Dooley Wilson playing piano at the back, you can just stop doing so now). She assisted in letting us know how the free food worked (we sign a little ticket, we hand it to her, and then she immediately hands it back to us and we throw it away). She was helping out because the waiter/cook/engineer was quite busy. As Carra’s entrée of Burned Noodly Stuff Au Bits O’Chicken was also about $25 including the wine from Idaho, I felt a $10 tip for the server was not excessive. Later in the evening I got a can of Corona beer (yes, a can of Corona, something I didn’t think was possible. It’s like having a boot of soup. Clearly the Amtrak administrators spared no expense in their pursuit of all things cheap. But what can you expect for seven bucks?) Having finished it, I brought it back, put it on the counter before $10-Tip Lady and ordered another. And here she said, “You can throw that in the garbage, or recycling, down there at the end of the car.” To which I wanted to say, “Really? May I?” But opted for a simple, “What?”

After dinner, which was about 7pm, Carra and I returned to our room. Lo and behold if all the bedding wasn’t magically turned down, thus preventing any attempt at sitting unless you’re a nine-year old at a slumber party. Carra and I wanted to be adults for a few more hours so we undid everything and returned the cabin to adult mode, only hitting our heads on the upper pull down bed three times each in the process. That done, I noticed a baggy on the chair that hadn’t been there prior to the visit from the Bedtime Fairy.

“What is this? A shower cap?” I asked Carra.

“Your blanket.”

“For my face?”

Knowing that it would be a cold night with only the face blanket to warm me, I made several trips to the bar to freshen my Corona (I try to come up with a brand new excuse for drinking beer each night. It’s kind of a hobby). On the third round I returned to our fort and upon walking into the car was accosted by the most revolting cloud of toxicity. Throughout the whole car someone had either sprayed industrial strength deodorizer or Raid (I can’t tell the difference, probably because there isn’t one). Carra was quick to draw up a sign that said, “There’s a person in here (Mr. Adventure) who has severe scent allergies. If possible please do not spray in this area.” I took five minutes and fastened it into the outer window frame on the aisle, making it look reasonably neat yet secure. Later, while in the fort, I looked down and noticed it had been shoved back under the door. I looked to see if they had added a note explaining the removal but there was none, which of course was an efficient way of saying, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re a monopoly–we’re Amtrak.” Then an hour later they sprayed again.

The crew was not without their mirth and good natured humor, however. Upon boarding in Chicago I asked Miss $10-Tip Lady what time the bar closed. She said 11:30. What she didn’t mention was that halfway through Indiana the time shifts from Central Time to Eastern Time and so when you show up at the bar at what you think is 10:45pm to get a couple of last rounds, the crew is all in their jammies and the fridge is padlocked. Oh, the hilarity. I was not caught unaware, however, for I anticipated just such a calamity somewhere along the trip and so had smuggled two Capitol City Dark Voyage black pale ales in my suitcase (don’t ask me how something can be black and pale at the same time, I’m just telling you what the can says). Anyway, you can do the exact same thing I did, because unlike when traveling on an airplane where all your carry on liquids have to be secured in your bladder, you can bring an entire keg of beer on board a train provided there’s a sticker on it that says “My Luggage” and it has those two little wheels on the bottom. Nobody will care. Because on Amtrak that’s what they do best: Not care.

They were a chummy group, the four of them: Ty, the waiter, Miss $10-Tip Lady, and later the conductor, who really did not look like my idea of a conductor, which would be something along the lines of Captain Kangaroo, as much as he looked like a roadie for the Red Hot Chile Peppers. They spent a lot of time hanging out in the lounge and not really doing anything or talking to anyone else. And after a while there was this very keen awareness within me that these people who were running the show were not the actual crew but the four escaped psycho replicants from Blade Runner and our new priority was to reach Virginia without any of them suspecting we knew this.

At 11:53pm we pulled into Indianapolis. I tensed even further. I was aware of the precise time because for the last three months a Post-It reading “11:53pm Indianapolis” had been attached to my refrigerator. Having studied the schedule carefully I knew we would be staying put for nine minutes–which is two minutes longer than you need to smoke a cigarette. But I hadn’t yet committed. My nerve was still…shaky.

As the train slowed to a crawl, one little person sitting on my left shoulder (which looked liked me) said, “We should really take advantage of this stop since we haven’t had a cigarette for seven hours and we’re really close to crushing an empty beer can against our forehead to see if it causes any negative effects to our peripheral vision for no reason.” But then another little person sitting on my right shoulder, which looked like Carra said, “DON’T GET OFF THE TRAIN!”

I felt that little Carra person had a good point. But little increasingly-agitated me person had a better point and so I got off. A woman in Amtrak regalia I had not previously seen before but whose job it was to be The Person In Charge Of The One-Foot Stool That Helps You Get Off The Train took note of my lighting up and said nothing of it as we stood a few yards apart on the platform. Wanting to double check my allotment of time–and only being 75% sure I actually was in Indianapolis as opposed to, like, Marseilles–I asked her, “When does the train leave?” To which she responded,

“When I get on it.”

Thanks, that’s very helpful. They’re a jolly group at Amtrak.

It had a been a long day and we eagerly stretched out on our bunk beds ready for sleep, soothingly comforted by the gentle and baying BEEEEEEEP!!! from the locomotive as it reassured us Every Three Seconds that the train was still moving in a forward direction and hadn’t been stopped by bandits. And the gentle swinging motion of the car reminded me of a sleepy Christmas morning when your child has got both hands rocking your shoulder like he’s working an Amish fire engine yelling, “Dad, get up! Dad, get up! Dad, get up!”

All along we had been chugging toward the swooshing vortex of hurricane Joaquin. In the morning, as we looked out through the window at darkening skies, Carra assured me that we would be able to reach our destination without a problem. I asked if according to her iPad weather updates we would ever be able to leave Virginia and come home again and she said, “Look, there’s some cows!”

And indeed there were and they were running away from the train as it went past. I didn’t even know cows could run. Did you? I thought they had evolved this nirvana-like immobilizing state of indifference toward anything that wasn’t another cow and consequently their leg muscles had atrophied over the last million years to the point where they didn’t have actual legs as much as they had a set of kickstands.

Anyway, I had been looking forward to the train ride because the area we were to travel through was touted as being a most beautiful part of the country, particularly West Virginia. Unfortunately I couldn’t see much of West Virginia because there were a lot of trees and mountains in the way–just FYI in case you’re planning the same.

But at last we reached Virginia. The location of the wedding was absolutely stunning. The surroundings were beautiful to the point of being surreal. The structure itself, originally a family home, is called the Rice House as all of the interior is painted the same color as Minute Rice. It was deep in the woods and you had to drive down a private road through a private gate and then over a private bridge where you had to pay two fishes to a troll so he’d let you pass, and then before you–as you looked from the house–was the rapidly flowing (and rising) James River. The house itself–which is not only huge but, and I’m not exaggerating, very clean and white–is renowned throughout the area, having been built sixty years ago in the avant-garde style of Middle American Spayed and designed by Dwight Eisenhower when he had some downtime during the Battle of the Bulge. Each room can be subdivided by curtains, which of course saves money on walls, while allowing the wounded to have more privacy. It also features wall to wall aluminum and a gigantic mirror running the length of the foyer and going all the way up the staircase making that entire section of the house appear twice as sterile as it actually is. I’m pretty sure upon the house’s completion a committee of squirrels and raccoons posted a note on the door saying, “Yeah, you can’t leave this here.” But, interior aesthetics aside, if you ever plan to have 150 people over to your house for a wedding, or a regiment poker night, this is the house you want to have, even if you’re the governor. It’s pretty darn big, and affords a wonderful view, as long as you’re looking out from it as opposed to in to it.

Rain was always threatening and on occasions there were periodic showers, but the house also had these great eves which protected you from the rain–or incoming mortar shells, which may have been the original intent–and the rain was being really cooperative by gently coming straight down like in the movies as opposed to like in the Book of Genesis where it kills everybody.

This was the case when the actual ceremony began: A Singin’ In The Rain kind of rain. Starting with the littlest flower girl I’ve ever seen, who was really adorable, down from the house to the patio came each participant holding a large, pure white umbrella. This is actually a Celtic tradition–the white umbrella, whether it’s raining or not. For us, a Celtic British Isles people, the white umbrella represents the purity of the new union created by the bride and groom along with our group oneness with nature in that nature can’t get us wet and so we’re okay with being out in it, because we have umbrellas. All Celtic weddings employ the white umbrella ceremony–but if it actually rains it’s considered a special blessing bestowed upon the new couple from high above as well as a gift to all the others in attendance as they now don’t look stupid for holding umbrellas for no reason.

Carra had prepared a lovely reading for the ceremony. She included a poem by Khalil Gibran. I thought this was really wonderful given that she cut 80 percent of the actual poem and just read the part that seemed to have a point and make any sense. I wished someone had done this with Sand and Foam and The Prophet. It would have saved me a lot of time in high school.

After the ceremony the wedding party all went down to the driveway for pictures. Then immediately following that, there was the traditional Dropping of an Entire Tray Of Champagne Glasses By One of the Caterers. This particular ceremony goes back to the middle ages. Once the glasses all hit the pavement, the members of the wedding party get down on their hands and knees and help pick up the broken glass. The bride and the groom, meanwhile, point to the ground and chant the traditional, “You missed one. There, by your foot,” but in Gaelic. This ceremony represents the wedding party’s promise to support the new couple should they encounter the “shattering whimsy of life” or the “upheaval of the soothing status quo” or when a caterer drops an entire tray of champagne glasses in their driveway.

While the rain was light it really hadn’t let up for days. But that didn’t stop everyone from having a wonderful time, including me. It also didn’t stop the James river from continuing to rise or the ground from becoming so saturated with water that right around 10:42 we lost toilet number 1 when it decided it had just flushed for the last time because the tank stopped filling up. Now, I have no idea how septic systems work so please don’t ask me to explain this to you; I’m just reporting. At first there was no alarm because this house had six toilets. Really, six. Eisenhower had thought of everything. But then at 10:45 we lost toilet 2 and then number 3 shortly thereafter, and on down the line until 6 was gone and we just prayed that the bulkheads would hold and there would be enough room in the lifeboat if they didn’t. Some people attempted to refill the tanks with water from the kitchen sink by forming bucket brigade lines to all the bathrooms but it was a sadly pathetic and impractical exercise since the only container available was a martini glass. Not coincidentally things started wrapping up around 11:06.

But it was a great time. I met all of Carra’s relatives and they are all a swell bunch of people. Even more so, it was great to find an unexpected common ground with some. For example, cousin Ted and I have the exact same model Deering banjo; and Lisa’s husband Peter once worked on Broadway with Neil Patrick Harris and I, coincidentally, know who Neil Patrick Harris is. I also met Jon & Lynne, Anne & John, Patrick and Thomas, Ron & Gayle, Oliver, Gracie, Cortney, Joe & Katie, Susan, Will, Keen, Burch, Lisa, Ronni, Cassie, Ted’s wife Ashley, Betsy & Bruce, Jenna & Jeff, Bob & Bobbye, Mitch & Mickey, Ian & Sylvia, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and I got to see Carra’s cousin’ Ashley again after five years. Over the course of two days Ashley was nice enough to periodically ask, “How are you doing?” and then take my blood pressure as she knows from our previous encounter that I venture from home less frequently than Rapunzel. Most importantly, though, she informed me that smoking is bad for my health. I had no idea. Thank you, Ashley. You’ve changed my life. Because of you I’ve switched to chewing betel quids. Carra has mixed feelings on this. But I feel great.

The only complaint I had–aside from all the ones that occurred in the first thirty hours of travel–came thereafter on our way home when we flew out of Detroit on Greed Airlines. I don’t want to actually say their name because they’re probably no worse than any other airline. But their name also consists of three consonants and two vowels as does the word “greed”. And if you take the word “greed” and you take the name of the airline and mix up all the letters, you can reform them to make the sentence “Dealt greed.” Anyway, here I thought I would lose my mind. While the overpriced First Class section remained, the traditional Coach section had been eliminated altogether and replaced with a section they called “Humane.” I get claustrophobic enough in the shower at home with the curtain drawn, I don’t need to be packaged into a chair that doubles as a mandatory straight jacket in the event there’s no air marshal aboard and then hoisted thirty thousand feet into the air by a process of physics I don’t understand (yeah I know, the fast air goes over the fat edge of the wing and the slow air goes over the skinny edge–whatever). I know they have those little masks that drop from the ceiling that nobody has ever used in the history of air flight except for when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to land a passenger plane on Mt. Everest, so if they want to get some good use out of these things, pump nitrous oxide through them and drop them down at the beginning of the flight. Business will boom. It’s win-win.

Until that gets FAA approval you might want to consider taking Amtrak. It’s really very relaxing. Just be sure to bring a sandwich. And a keg. And don’t look the crew directly in the eyes and don’t ask any of them if they have a favorite football team because the answer will be, “What is this football you speak of?” and a tense awkwardness will ensue for the rest of the trip. Just stay in your fort for the duration and watch the cows go by. Woo woo moo moo. Om.

2 thoughts on “The Umbrellas Of Richmond

  1. I am utterly amazed that another human being remembers Bobbi Jo, Billlie Jo (Laurie Saunders?) and Betty Jo and Petticoat Junction (Bea Bernadette and Edgar Buchannen)
    let alone remembering the damn name of the train! I am overwhelmed. Thank you.


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