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Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD

Message 1: Trainwreck aboard a train
Friday, July 22, 2022

"Are we on the right train?" the man in front of me asked as we emerged from the tunnel into New Jersey.

"Yup!" the conductor answered after examining his ticket.

Wabi had walked me to the new train hall at New York's Penn Station. The queue for the single downward escalator to track 12 had spiraled around the station and off into the horizon. I'd had no interest in finding its end; it was faster and simpler to head down an empty platform and cross over at the old concourse.

I was headed to Baltimore for the Scrabble Players Championship, 31 games over five days. I'd participated in weekend tournaments before, but never the nationals. Part of that was because of their locations, which were either too dull or too exciting to spend so much time inside playing games. Recent venues were in Reno, Buffalo, New Orleans, Fort Wayne, and Las Vegas. Would I want to spend almost a week in one of those cities, and if I did, would I want to be occupied with Scrabble all day?

Baltimore, on the other hand, is a perfect place for such an event as far as I'm concerned. It's a place I've already spent a week, during my tour with the musical "Fosse" in 2003. I can eat lunch at the Lexington Market every day and enjoy the architecture in the evenings. And this year I am headed, circuitously, to Reno, the closest jumping-off point for the Burning Man event in Nevada.

The Train to That Thing in the Desert: Sixteen train segments, plus a few buses and some walking, will bring me around the country over the next five weeks.

The Scrabble tournament starts tomorrow, but check-in was today. Amtrak wanted $58 to get me there on a single train but only $34 with a 76-minute stop in Philadelphia, and I was happy to spend most of the difference on lunch at the Reading Terminal Market. Trains were running at reduced speeds because of the 95-degree heat, shaving off more than a fifth of my lunch break. The Reading Terminal Market is a 22-minute walk from 30th Street Station. I was going to have to choose my food quickly.

The lines for cheesesteak made that option a non-starter, but Beck's Cajun Cafe had me covered with a variation called a Trainwreck -- chopped steak, salami, andouille sausage, onions, and cheese -- with sweet-potato fries and snapper-turtle soup. My connecting train was showing as only one minute late, so I hurried back to the station.

By the time I got there, of course, the delay was going to be 13 minutes, and then 16, and then 21. It was hard to be upset, though, as the airy, grand station hall always manages to calm me, even if it was better with the old split-flap departure boards. The soup was starting to leak and tear through the inadequate paper bag provided, and I held it at a careful angle as I boarded.

The train was full and the sandwich was the size of a baseball bat. I hoped eating something called a Trainwreck while traveling on Amtrak wasn't inviting trouble. We crossed the Susquehanna and Gunpowder rivers, pretty scenes that diverted the attention of the woman on the phone in front of me from the person on the other end, who, it seemed, did not grasp the concept of our lateness.

Baltimore Penn Station has a similar charm to its Philadelphia counterpart. I stepped out into the heat and found myself in front of a 51-foot -tall human statue. Was this a hint of Burning Man already, an enormous figure ready to be set ablaze?

No, it was the "Male/Female" statue by Jonathan Borofsky, a stainless-steel amalgam of male and female bodies intersecting on their vertical axes. Resembling a wooden dinosaur model with interlocking pieces, it seems out of its element, but its placement outside the Beaux-Arts station did not offend me as much as it has others. Perhaps that was because the station was covered in scaffolding and there was no trace of its history visible from the outside.

I passed the statue and continued along Charles Street until I reached the giant Doric column that is Baltimore's own monument to George Washington. A block away was tonight's hotel, the Revival.

A neon sign greeted me: "Let your life proceed by its own design." I can't claim to have been a lifelong fan of the Grateful Dead, but there's food for thought while I'm hurtling down the tracks at heat-induced slow speeds.

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