October 25, 2009

Back and Forth

I’m riding backwards on the Amtrak train from Paoli to New York Penn Station. I usually hate to ride backwards – it exacerbates my propensity for motion sickness – but I am comforted knowing that the train will change directions at Philadelphia 30th Street Station, and my backwards will become forwards for the greater duration of the trip, when we adjust from traveling east to northeast. The poor suckers sitting face-forward now, glib in their settled stomachs, must not know about the sickening, hour and a half ride they are in for.

The Paoli station is one of the small stops along Philadelphia’s SEPTA commuter rail, and one of the stops along Amtrak’s Keystone service to Harrisburg. It’s the preferred rail station for QVC presenters such as myself because it has a small waiting room on the inbound side, as well as a Starbucks to fuel the trip. When I first started coming down to this area of Pennsylvania to present on QVC, having only previously come here with the Irish Tenors who insisted on taking a limo, I naively booked my trip to the Exton train station, closer to the hotel whose shuttle would pick me up, but one stop farther. Paoli – pronounced “Pay-oh-lee” in true American style instead of the probable original Italian pronunciation of “Pow-lee” – is a town dotted with shopping centers lit deep into the night, always precipitating a mass exodus from the train and usually leaving me one stop’s duration to have a seat to myself.

Last year during a storm, feet inappropriately shod in soaking-wet ballet flats from Old Navy, I sat outside on a bench at the Exton station and watched an Amtrak train careen past me, all the way past me to several hundred yards down the track past the station. A half dozen of us were waiting for that train back to New York, standing in shock at the screeching brakes we didn’t hear until after it passed us, wondering whether it would come back for us, or even ever start up again. Five minutes later, it struggled forth, leaving us behind and presumably stopping at the next station, Paoli.

Since then, I have followed the advice of my fellow QVC on-air guests and have patronized exclusively the Paoli train station.

Even though it’s only October, it was equally as stormy during this trip to the outer regions of the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. Waking up at 11 a.m. yesterday morning, eyes bleary from the layers of television makeup that weighed them down to sleep at 7, I looked out my Sheraton hotel window to see sheets of rain ripping the yellow and orange leaves from the trees, splatting them onto the blacktop below. Because I’d taken the train, I was without a rental car and had to rely on either the hotel van or my own feet to take me anywhere to waste time until I had to return to QVC Studio Park for my second appearance of the day. I was hoping to have slept longer, maybe even all day, but once I was up, the anxiety of selling more copies of The Easy Rock Collection than I had at 5:50 a.m. kept me wide awake and needing a distraction.

When the rain let up around 12:30 p.m., I slipped this year’s ballet flats on, grabbed an umbrella, and started walking. I planned to walk all the way to The Classic Diner, where all the QVC presenters and staff moon over huge platters of eggs benedict and read their newspapers while waiting an hour for their breakfast to arrive by way of a blonde ponytail in a t-shirt. Only a mile and a half away, it would have been manageable with good shoes and weather, but about a half mile into my trip, it started to rain again. I was tiptoeing along the shoulder of Route 30, cowering in my hoodie, trying to protect my hair and face from washing off, when I came across Jack’s Pizza and Pasta, a hole-in-the-wall slices joint run by an aggressive, not-Italian pizza purveyor, pushing his stuffed chicken parm pie on me.

I had plenty of time to kill, so I took a pepperoni slice, salad and diet soda into a booth and parked there for a while, staring at the rain through the red glow of the window’s neon sign. Plaid-clad local after local came in with their trucker hats, canes, and even wheelchairs and ordered a giant sub or an entire pizza, trying not to look at me while I photographed a shaker of red pepper flakes.

I bet no one from QVC ever dared to go into Jack’s, or to walk anywhere.

But I’m glad I walked. These trips to QVC are all about sitting: on the train, at the hotel, in the salon chair and in the green room, waiting hours for your eight minutes and sixteen seconds on air. And after you’re done, you go sit at the Outback Steakhouse in the Sheraton parking lot and sip a too-sweet margarita, wolf down a pork loin or steak, and try to consume only half of the brown bread loaf and whipped butter.

It’s a different world down there, and I’m always glad to go. Right now, the trees are blindingly autumn, a great change of pace from my too-green wilderness excursions in New York upon my return from the brown-and-red desert. And as the rainbows of leaves whiz past me as I head home, sometimes interrupted by an old factory or an abandoned warehouse, I’m already hoping to be called back to Paoli sometime soon….

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