First published in The Record, March 22, 2017
A weekly date on the rails
Every Friday afternoon, Steve and Denise Thorpe board an NJ Transit train in Metuchen, near their home. They transfer at Secaucus and again at Hoboken, where they board the No. 59 express through Bergen and Passaic counties to Port Jervis, New York, the final stop.
They walk to Brother Bruno’s, a pizza shop, one block from the Port Jervis station. Every time, they order the same thing: a small pizza with banana peppers, Steve’s favorite. After dinner, they scurry back to the station and catch the last train home, leaving at 9:27 p.m. and returning to Metuchen at 1:02 a.m.
Round-trip, it’s a nine-hour slog. They have completed it nearly every Friday for six years.
Welcome to date night with the Thorpes.
“I only miss this for a good reason. Like being dead,” said Steve, 67. “To me, this is the cat’s meow and the whole bag besides.”
The Thorpes do not make this pilgrimage alone. Over time they have gathered around them a community of people ― commuters, train workers, pizza fans ― who look forward to seeing them every week.
Even so, some of the people they have come to know on their weekly rides view the date skeptically.
“I think it’s insane,” said Cyd Rosen-Herrmann, who rides the same train every week from her home in Manhattan to spend the weekend with her husband. “This is a very long trip, and it’s not the most comfortable train in the world.”
Others find it an inspiring ― and deeply romantic ― weekly ritual.
“They’re very committed and dedicated,” said Erika Cox, a Port Jervis resident and Brother Bruno’s regular. “It’s very exciting to see them coming.”
The Thorpes know this is not a common date. They could spend their Friday nights like other couples, going to movies or sampling fine restaurants. Instead they spend the evening on NJ Transit trains, which possess all the romantic charm and grace of a toaster.
But the Thorpes share a romance by train, combining Steve’s devotion to railroads and Denise’s devotion to him. The train itself is unimportant. What matters is that they ride it together.
“On Friday nights, when most people want to be home,” Steve said, “we love to commute.”
A life of riding the rails
Steve Thorpe always had a thing for trains. In one of his earliest memories, he is walking through the original New York Penn Station at age 7, holding hands with his father and hearing the names of distant cities reverberate off the granite.
“I remember looking up at my dad and saying, ‘Someday I’m going to go to some of those places,’” Thorpe said. “It’s been in my blood ever since.”
His dad died when Thorpe was 15, and the railroads became his surrogate father. Thorpe rode the Reading Railroad's Crusader line from Jersey City to Philadelphia, passenger trains to Bethlehem and Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and freight trains to Buffalo, New York.
“I stayed on the railroad all day,” Thorpe said.
In October 1969, when he was 20, Thorpe met Denise Shipkowski. They spent an intense evening together, flirting and kissing.
“I warmed up to him,” Denise said.
Two days later Thorpe shipped out to Vietnam, where he served as a gunner on UH-1 helicopters — Hueys.
“I thought this is just my luck, to meet the woman of my dreams and then go to Vietnam,” Thorpe said. “I was pretty sure I wouldn’t come back.”
They exchanged letters, and a year later Thorpe returned home. He and Denise married in 1972. For their honeymoon they drove to Niagara Falls, following railroads all the way and staying in hotels near the tracks.
It was the early 1970s, and train service across the United States was collapsing. Steve decided to ride the final trip of every train he could.
Denise, for reasons she cannot fully articulate, agreed to come along.
“It’s almost unheard of to find a woman who’s up for doing all this rail stuff. “Steve definitely lucked out in that respect,” said David Peter Alan, chairman of the Lackawanna Coalition, which advocates for better train service. (Steve Thorpe is the group’s vice chairman.)
Together the Thorpes rode the last run of the Crusader, and the Jersey Central Railroad’s final Bayonne Shuttle. In 1973, Steve wanted to ride one of the last trains on the Apollo run, a high-speed freight from Newark to Buffalo.
A conductor barred them from the caboose. So the Thorpes waited for the train to start rolling and hopped aboard.
“I was shocked,” said Denise, 66. “I never even rode a train before I met him.”
In Sayre, Pennsylvania, a cleaning crew found the Thorpes hiding in a locomotive bathroom. Instead of throwing them off, the crew shared their food with the young couple. When they arrived in Buffalo, crew members drove the Thorpes to Niagara Falls.
“That was our anniversary present,” Steve said.
“It was pretty neat,” Denise said.
Denise gave birth to four children, and for years she and Steve had no money for train tickets. Instead they packed the family into a station wagon to spend summer weekends chasing trains. When stuck at home, he’d spread railroad timetables across the kitchen table and create fantasy itineraries.
“That helped me keep my sanity,” he said.
When their youngest child left home in 2001, the Thorpes returned to the rails. Their annual vacation consists of riding Amtrak 16 hours to Chicago to spend a week riding commuter rail. As a special treat, Steve occasionally makes two consecutive round trips to Port Jervis, once by himself and the second time with Denise, riding trains for 17 hours straight.
Describing such days, Thorpe giggles with glee. Even his train friends don't understand.
“I don’t want to see the same scenery a hundred times,” said Alan, the Lackawanna Coalition leader. “Steve can do it. And Denise seems very devoted to Steve.”
Making friends everywhere
On a recent trip to Port Jervis, the Thorpes met friends everywhere. NJ Transit train crews deal with thousands of travelers every day. But each time the Thorpes boarded a new train, all the rail workers stopped, smiled and said hello. In the Secaucus Junction rotunda, one NJ Transit worker gave Denise a hug.
When the couple arrived at Brother Bruno’s, a small cheer spread through the pizzeria.
“I don’t get it, why he does this,” said John Altadonna, the shop's owner. “But they’re the nicest people you could ever meet.”
Riding back, Steve told Denise at 11:30 p.m. that they would have a one-hour layover in Secaucus.
“An hour? Ugghhhh!” she said. It was her only complaint of the evening.
Finally, at 1 a.m., the train approached Metuchen. Denise was so sleepy she could barely open her eyes. Steve was wide awake. He helped Denise pull on her long green trench coat, then stepped from the warm train into the cold night air.
“I ride with him,” Denise said. “I’d just be bored if I rode the trains by myself.”