Several toilets were broken, the microwave cheeseburgers tasted like mush, and the dining car smelled something like a back alley in August. At first glance, at least, everything appeared normal on Amtrak's Montrealer, a 17-hour, stop-and-go train ride from Washington to Canada.
But something was not quite the same with yesterday's train. There, in the fifth car, scores of Prince Georgians in wide-brim Panama hats and wild summer outfits passed quarts of rum and scotch from hand to hand and boogied in the aisles to the Temptations and Miracles.
There, in the smoky club car, Puerto Ricans from New York City and street dudes from D.C. hit it off like rock-and-roll over domino and poker tables. Small time entrepreneurs walked the corridors hawking everything from jewelry to sports programs, while everywhere, Amtrak's normally beleaguered and taciturn conductors joined in the revelry and actually smiled.
Everyone was going north, to the fight of the century, last night's welterweight championship bout between Palmer Park's Sugar Ray Leonard and New York City's adopted favorite son, Roberto Duran. The Montrealer yesterday was packed with over 600 folks who formed a vibrant multi-cultural microcosm of this sport's avid following.
As it chugged farther and farther north, the train became the site of a human spectacular, a revue, a carnival. It was an all-night happening whose spirit was best captured by the chance meeting between two strangers -- J. T. McGee, a Landover truck driver, and "New York City Ballpark" Frank -- who found themselves seated on opposite sides of a bid-whist table in the club car. f
"Duran," growled the velvet-suited Frank, his way of introducing himself.
"Sugar," answered T.J., a man of vast humor and huge bulk.
"Actually," said Frank after a pause, "I really don't care, as long as I'm there, you know? Fifty years from now I want to say I was there."
Which was exactly what this train was all about. being there. It began as a kind of Sugarland Express at Amtrak's Capital Beltway station in Lanham at 7 p.m. Thursday. Here 60 people from P.G. and D.C., with various links to Leonard, boarded the train for which they had purchased group tickets months in advance.
The festive crowd included Anacostia High School teachers, who grew fond of Sugar Ray when he spoke to classes there after he won the crown last December; a retired chauffeur; postal workers; a quiet Chilean couple; a part-time Sugar Ray body guard; and "Sugga's Shuggas," a Leonard-sponsored women's softball team.
They were all brought together by Roland Kenner, manager of Dave's Disco Lounge and Supper Club on George Palmer Highway in the heart of Palmer Park. These fans, many of whom hail from the tiny, predominantly black central P.G. hamlet, all followed Leonard, from his amateur boxing youth there, to the 1976 Olympics, to last year's championship bout. So all of them, in some way touched by the magic of Ray, were not about to miss this one, his greatest fight of all.
"I grew up with the man," said Zachery Cummings, a Glenarden computer technician. "Where The Man goes, I go."
"If you ever had a chance to rub shoulders with him, you'd never forget it," added Ron Savoy, a boyhood friend of Leonard's. "He's everbody's main man."
Shortly after boarding, word was passed around that Canadian customs officials would only allow one quart of liquor per person into the country. So, by the time the train hit Baltimore, the cases and cases of beer, wine and hard liquor were opened, poured and passed around.
And by the time Philadelphia arrived, the disco had begun. Clyde Howard's tape deck was on full blast and the Prince Georgians boogied that train galore.
Then came Jersey and New York City and the real Montrealer happening began. At first, there was just a smattering of the, young bearded white men and several Hispanics sporting Duran booster buttons. Then came the flood. The seventh car became packed with Duran backers. They chanted Duran's Spanish nickname, "Chollo, Chollo, Chollo!" and guzzled their own plentiful liquor supplies.
A tall bald black man, dapper in a three-piece and derby, was mistakenly identified as Geoffrey Holder, of "Cola-Nut" commercial fame, and despite his protests, couldn't stop the handshakes and drunken yells of approval thrust upon him.
Another man stalked the aisles, selling a typewritten five-page brochure as the flight's official program. A lean, red-eyed lush, his fists knotted, boasted about the $8,000 he said he had wagered on Duran.
In the club car it was all-night dominoes, poker and bid-whist -- and never ending jocular debates over the bout.
"Duran," said a stout young man who identified himself as Hector, "he fights with the conviction. He hurts."
"Ah, you just don't hear nothing' about Sugar cuz you live in New Ork," answered a Wilmington, Del. backer of Ray "He's the man."
Whereupon Hector, above a din of salsa, whispered to several friends behind him, "estupido."
And the Amtrak workers loved it. The fight fans doled out generous tips to the women behind the diner car counter, and even larger ones for the conductors and hostesses who scurried from car to car delivering everything from pillows to plastic cups.
"I've never enjoyed riding Amtrak so much. You all are beautiful," smiled Robert Mingo, the Amtrak host of the P.G. crowd, as he held a cup filled with ten, five- and one-dollar bills.
The only hitch in the ride occurred at the border, when Canadian customs officials roamed the corridors checking identification. Six young men, who apparently tried to hide themselves among the fight fans, were taken out, one in handcuffs, and the revelers were temporarily chastened.
Then, as most of the pasengers nursed hangovers, the terrain outside began to change. Excitement began to build anew. The road signs and passing station markers were in French!
The Prince Georgians, who each paid $235 for the trip -- which included two nights at a suburban Montreal hotel, a dinner floor show, fight tickets and an after-fight party -- began to chant, answering the Spanish yells and cheers from an adjacent car.
"I'm a Sugar, He's a Sugar, she's a Sugar, we's a Sugar, wouldn't you like to be a Sugar too," went one yell. Another to the tune of "On Wisconsin," went "On to Panama, On to Panama, Run, Doo-Ran, run . . . When the Shugga, socks it to ya, you will leave this land."
Finally, Montreal came and the magic of the Amtrak happening ended. It would erupt again, though. At Stade Olympique last night. In the crowd. When everyone would be there.