ABOARD THE MERCHANTS LIMITED -- It's before daybreak when the cafe car door opens and an unlikely band of commuters steps on.
While most working stiffs trek to the office behind the wheel, this group gathers on the third car from the caboose of Amtrak's No. 180, rolling 90 miles per hour in a multicity commute that takes some from suburban Baltimore to midtown Manhattan.
The hours are long, it costs some of them up to $600 a month -- more than a car payment for a new Ford Explorer -- and they admit they are crazy.
But the group of 25 or so affectionately known as "The Commuters" wouldn't have it any other way. Their lives intertwine on and off the train. They have elaborate theme parties, baptize and baby-sit each other's children, take vacations and celebrate birthdays together, toast Fridays with a happy hour and pray together on Sundays.
"This sure beats driving," says Will Calves, an Elkridge-to-Philadelphia commuter. "You can read, drink and, God forbid, even work and be productive. My wife drives 35 miles to work and it takes her as long as it does me -- and I go 120 miles on the train."
Calves is part of a small group that shuttles to jobs as college professors, secretaries, social workers and accountants along the Northeast rail corridor, says Maureen Garrity, an Amtrak spokeswoman in Philadelphia.
It's more than just a high-priced subway for the group aboard No. 180.
Come each Monday morning, the party gets rolling at 5: 10 a.m., starting with the first few bleary-eyed commuters at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport rail stop.
Before long, the cafe car is transformed into a moving living room as riders share jokes, family photographs, homemade salmon cakes and cheese crackers while passing the rowhouses of East Baltimore, the wide Susquehanna River and the flatlands of the Delaware coast.
Says Val Allen, a 41-year-old Conrail employee in Philadelphia, who boards No. 180 in Wilmington, Del., just before 6 a.m. each day: "It's party time. It's a good way to unwind before work."
Making it fun
"Sometimes we turn the car into Comedy Central," says Suzanne S. Flater, an Amtrak employee who commutes from Aberdeen to Philadelphia. "We do what we can to make the time pass and make it fun. We do it because we like what we do, and it's worthwhile for us to spend the extra time."
And pity the passenger who wants a quiet train ride when the "Hooterville" gang from Aberdeen, the Wilmington "Rat Pack" and the "Philly crowd" climb aboard.
"I'm trying to work, but there's just too many good stories to listen to," says Richard Johnson, a real estate developer from central New Jersey trying to crunch numbers as the pre-dawn party swirls around him. "You guys obviously know how to do it right."
The regulars resemble the cast of a dime-store novel:
There's Lyndon, the snack bar attendant and father-confessor; Kelly, a human spark plug who measures 6-foot-3 on a good hair day; "Doctor" John, a former Grateful Dead groupie and bail bondsman-turned-aspiring doctor; and Suzanne, a smiling brunette known as the cruise director.
The Rat Pack crowd from Wilmington contributes Bible readings -- and then adds spicy gossip to the cafe car's carnival atmosphere.
Some commuters exit for jobs in Philadelphia while others ride into New York City. They make the long commutes because of higher wages, job availability, habit and a search for a better quality of life.
Flater, an accountant, says she started her Aberdeen-to-Philadelphia commute after she was downsized in Amtrak's Baltimore office five years ago and told she must relocate to Philadelphia to hold a similar position.
"I dreaded it -- it was a distance," she says. "However, when you work here, you realize that it takes the people you work with longer to get to work than you do -- and you're traveling 100 miles."
There's even an element of romance. Flater met her current beau, Bill Bleiler, on the daily No. 180.
Observing it all is Lyndon Howlett, a Sam Malone on wheels who listens quietly as he works the snack bar.
"They dish the dirt on each other, and of course I never tell because I'll never hear anything else," says Howlett, an Amtrak employee who lives in Boston. "They come in here singing on Friday. They like to have vodka and tonics, vodka and sodas, beer and wine. If we're busy and I'm running low before they get on, I'll hide some of their nips."
Days are long
Neil Sandy, an auditor for the Carpenter's Benefit Fund in Manhattan, travels from Wilmington each day. He moved to a suburb of Philadelphia from Queens, N.Y., seeking a cheaper and safer life for his family. But the daily commute has cut into precious family time.
"It's rough on my son," Sandy says. "I leave home at 6: 20 a.m. and return at 7: 30 p.m. and my son goes to bed at 9 p.m. We only have 1 1/2 hours together each day. I try to make up for it on the weekend.
"The downside is that when I come home from a 12-hour day, I'm tired. The train robs your quality of life."
Vera Reznik, who since 1991 has traveled from Wilmington to her job as a social worker in the New York City Department of Social Services, says the commute has whittled away time with her 5-year-old son, Justin.
She pays $565 per month for a rail pass, leaves home at 6 a.m. and returns at 7: 45 p.m. -- barely in time to tuck Justin into bed.
"Our families help out and pick up when the train is late," Reznik says. "I tried to get a job in Delaware, but they don't pay. It was a $20,000 difference in salary. Even with the commuting costs and the time I spend doing it, it still didn't pay to work there."
Kelly Cedeno, a single mom and secretary at the American Board of Surgery in Philadelphia, pays $401 each month to commute from Aberdeen. She's the ultimate morning person -- the one who boards the train in a bubbly mood and immediately starts to stir up the party.
"I don't know why people are so grouchy in the morning," she says. "We get on and tell other people, 'If you're here to work, move on.' And we know if it's going to be a successful morning if the car clears out fast."
John Flaks is new to long-distance commuting; he started the daily ride from Owings Mills to Philadelphia in August 1996 for studies at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"This trip is an unwinding experience," says Flaks, once a city bail bondsman and Grateful Dead fan who saw 175 concerts. "When I first got on the train, I pretty much kept to myself. But I realized that once the train gets to Aberdeen, the party begins."
Flaks and his buddy, Calves, visit at the snack bar on the return trip each afternoon. Calves, a train buff, recites rail history and facts as they head toward home.
But even Calves acknowledges that "this commute is tough at times. From Monday through Friday, you don't have a social life outside of working -- except for this train."
Pub Date: 2/24/97