It’s morning. I’m on the Amtrak Crescent No. 20. I don’t know where my train is located right now, but the landscape is pure green. And like I said, I’m on a train. So I’m as happy as a beached whale at high tide.
I crawl out of my matchbox bed at 6:19 A.M. I stretch, yawn, and smack my forehead on the upper bunk of my roomette. I wash my face in my little Barbie bathroom sink.
The whole sleeper car smells like fresh coffee. So I leave my room and locate the silver-bullet-shaped urn near the gangway. My train attendant helpfully pours my first cup. I thank her profusely because this is what you do when you get good customer service.
I am not accustomed to good customer service. I live in the cold, hard, real world, where customer service is a myth.
Last week, for instance, I tried to return a defective item to a department store at the “customer service” counter. There, a 19-year-old employee with stylish hair treated me like I was a boil on the haunches of humanity. So I requested the employee’s manager. When the manager arrived, the manager officially confirmed that I am a boil on the haunches of humanity.
“You want cream or sugar, sweetie?” asks my train attendant.
“No, thank you.”
I am fully prepared for my first sip of coffee to taste like hydrochloric acid. But it doesn’t. I am shellshocked. Amtrak has good coffee.
I stay in a lot of hotels and spend a lot of time on the road. I have learned that coffee is one of those things that always sucks. You get used to it. That’s the way life goes. You move on. But on a scale of one to five, I give Amtrak coffee an eleven.
Next, I make my way to the dining car. I walk through the gangways, periodically peeking out windows to see America zip by at 42 mph.
“How you doin’ today, boss?” says a passing Amtrak employee.
“Good,” I say. “And you?”
“Can’t complain.” He smiles. “We taking good care of you?”
I’m surprised he even cares. “Excellent care.”
“Glad to hear.”
When I get to the café car, the seats are filled with smatterings of Amtrak employees on morning breaks, most wearing dress blues and shirts with shoulder epaulettes. Some are checking email on laptops. Others are drinking coffee, scrolling phones. They all acknowledge me. They all smile. A few ask how my morning is going.
All this cheerfulness is getting weird. Someone must have spiked the coffee supply with Jim Beam.
But it is the young lady at the café counter who wins the customer-service gold medal. Hands down.
The young woman is waiting on a difficult elderly man who is trying to run his credit card but, God love him, he’s confused and getting angry. This man would tax the patience of lesser mortals, but not this employee.
She gently says, “You have to follow the screen prompts, sir.”
He cups a hand to his ear and barks, “What?”
“The prompts. On the screen, sir.”
The clacking of the train is making it hard for him to hear. “I can’t hear you, Miss.”
“Would you like me to help you?”
She’s a vibrant girl with her hair in braids and mahogany skin. And even though she wears a facemask, I can tell she’s smiling. There is a single-file line of customers growing behind the grumpy old cuss, but she treats him as though he is the president of the railroad.
She walks around the counter to assist. The entire time she is doing more than just helping. She is making cheerful conversation, she is keeping things light, she is putting him at ease. My mama would call this “being sweet.”
Pretty soon the old guy is relaxed, and he’s even laughing with her. He is no longer confused. He is charmed. His card goes through. She has managed to put him in a good mood. And me.
The irony is that I was on a plane recently where I witnessed an argument between a flight attendant and a passenger. The guy seated next to me was fuming angry about something, and the airline attendant lost her temper, too. I thought she was going to beat him with her shoe. They both started shouting and I found myself trapped between flying spittle.
And the thing is, no part of the airline scenario I just described is even remotely unusual. You see ticked-off people on airplanes all the time. In fact, you often see these people wherever you go in society.
But I don’t see any here. Not today at least. Yes, I realize I’m probably romanticizing trains. Certainly, it’s possible that I simply caught Amtrak on a good day. Or maybe, just maybe, there truly is something potent in this coffee.
Maybe it’s called customer service.