Friday, March 14, 2008

Travel through time

I sit in my sleeping compartment on the City of New Orleans train, listening to Bill Evans play “The Boy Next Door” and then Lucinda Williams on a few on my iTunes, with knitting project nearby, coffee from the dining car on the table (Grits were okay; eggs were not) and views of the Delta outside of my window.
I am traveling back from Memphis, a city I like in a fair amount; fair meaning that I don’t really like many cities besides New Orleans for more than a few days. Having been in a lot of American cities the last few years (my partial list in the last 2 years: Cleveland, Austin, Dallas, St. Paul, Chapel Hill, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, Syracuse, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baton Rouge, Houston, Gainesville, Columbus, Washington DC, Nashville, Louisville, Jackson, Milwaukee, off the top of my head) I like to see the high points, which include any downtown life, ambitious green space, cultural authenticity, and decent local food spots: Usually only a few days worth is available (outside of the obvious large cities listed) and so I start at that point thinking about home and getting on my bike or scooter to see my friends and all of our lives.

On the CoNO going home, I pass through old towns with a profile presented to the train riders, rarely the full front view. You will see people waving at the riders, clearly a regular activity for some. I often wonder as I wave back how many wish they were on the train; I suspect most train wavers are wannabe riders, and those who drive their car speedily alongside (to beat the next cross street) are airline passengers at heart.

Sometimes there’s a pretty, rebuilt station to see (love those Memphis wooden benches), sometimes a grain elevator (“Greenwood Mississippi next stop”), odd sights (what is that well kept memorial outside of Pocahontas I still ask), lots of woods and less trash than I always expect. What may strike you is the space between towns, the poverty, with the American version of segregation showing. Mississippi, of course, is mostly poor, and what we see from these tracks is profoundly so, as the areas that are not as poor are either along the water down past Jackson or next to modern highway areas nearer to the middle of the state. Occasionally (really, rarely actually) you will see something like a plantation home with oaks lining the driveway facing you; how much of the farmed land around that house belongs to that one house my liberal head wonders…

For, right next to the tracks of America is truly still the poorest part of town still (or the poorest towns) with hastily built cinder sheds or trailers from pre-FEMA days lining the few intersections. These old train towns are relics of a way of life that left long ago, where people used trains as transportation, as social space and as work. I just read an amazing book about Boxcar Bertha (reviewed on my page) and can see the ghosts of her and her friends walking along the tree line sometimes. Now, the costs of train travel are high, (and as was reported by the conductor) with coach seats totally full, every seat, but conversely this sleeper car was about half full, to show the disparity of those who ride.
Half full even though my sleeper was only 45.00 more than a coach seat. Actually, I am not sure I would have even paid for that from my checkbook, but as I am traveling for work, I felt I could spring for it, as it was still much cheaper than flying on their dime. (Did you know food is free for sleeper riders? Why? Is there no end to the class separation we offer in this country?)
I, of course, am drawn to thoughts of my city when I ride this train named for it, because old America is more obvious from these vistas than modern consumer America (“Yazoo City, next stop; if Yazoo City is your final destination…”), just like at home. And like at home, along these tracks I see a quiet America not waiting for its share of the wealth as it has no reason to expect it, and no real plan to change to grab the out of reach ring or interest in any of that.
Instead, BBQ cookers in front yards, maybe a boat or a motorbike parked alongside the house, crawfish boil signs for Friday nights at the church, toys in purple and pink and green, some old cars, a few new cars, and lots of people sitting and watching us go by.

1 comment:

James said...

Thanks for this. It's great! Makes me want to ride the train!

I remember going to the B&O railroad museum when I was a kid in Baltimore, and drinking beers at Penn Station at night when nobody was around, back when I was a young punk rocker.

Thanks for reminding me,