It is raining: heavily. My roof taps out an oddly syncopated roll of snare-like rhythms and I can only think this is what it sounded like below deck on Noah’s Ark (minus, of course, the braying and mating of sundry beasts). I typically love the rain… I find it soothing. This morning, however, finds me anything but soothed. In fact, I am enraged, as I stare out the fenestration at the big yellow box truck containing all my life’s possessions that I am unable to unload. I cancelled my help early this morning — two friends who were generous enough to give me a day — and am unable to reschedule because I need to return the rented truck by Tuesday. That means I unload it myself tomorrow or get hit with a late fee I cannot afford.
This soggy culmination of what was otherwise a successful and enjoyable train/road trip has me considering harbingers and omens, but I’ll just chalk it up to bad luck. While my location changes, my luck stays the same, which makes me realize it is not in fact luck, but some fatal flaw that I carry with me like Achilles or Coleridge’s Mariner. Or maybe Sisyphus. At some point he must have thought, even though damned never to do it, that he would push the Boulder to the top of the hill; Charlie Brown is sure that someday he’ll kick the football. And I am sure someday this will break, like the rain outside.
6:30 AM on August 9th I was in a fury. Rylan hadn’t printed my train tickets at work the night before, and I had a 7:00 AM train to catch. The website assured me I could print the tickets at the station, but as someone who is deeply neurotic and plans with military precision, this was unacceptable. I am always a nervous traveler and this lack of preparedness had me apopleptic. I cursed incessantly as we drove towards Union Station, running red lights and making illegal left-hand turns. The line for the Crescent City to New York Penn Station was already snaked around the building as I raced up to the ticket counter. Fortunately, Rylan did the talking because I had no words that were fit for consumption; she gracefully got my ticket and got me into line by 6:50 AM, and as we kissed goodbye I thought the nine days apart would probably be good for us — I had not been the easiest person in the world these last few weeks.
I found myself in seat eighteen next to a young woman from Baltimore who was reading an annotated study Bible. It seemed like she was part of a church trip — I had heard there was a Baptist convention recently in New Orleans. She was friendly, but quiet, and that was fine with me. I opened a notebook and wrote down everything I could possibly observe, my powers of induction high that morning — as was my blood pressure.
At 7:00 AM precisely the train lurched forward almost imperceptibly. It was a diesel engine drawing us, unlike the electric locomotives of the Northeast Corridor; it had a whistle that sounded like the Lionel train set I bought for my son a few years back. I sat back in my seat, which was not the window seat (a pet peeve), and looked at parts of New Orleans that few people have seen or probably want to. We followed the interstate at first, the looming I-10, and passed the remnants of heavy industry and doomed housing projects. The Calliope Projects are in a state of flux, some standing, some demolished, some that are now nifty new condos with names that suggest peace and harmony rather than the despair and violence previously associated with them. I am fascinated by housing projects. I’ve written about this before — Projects: an experiment of detached noblesse oblige. Let’s put people together in a location without all the necessary elements for success and see what happens. Will a local economy develop? How about a local system of enforcement? We all know the rest of the story, and we demonize the structures and their residents as we wash our hands of any culpability: it’s the new American way. At any rate, as I look at what was there, I don’t only see sorrow, but opportunity. I can still hear the music. So many great musicians were forged in desperate circumstances. Louis Armstrong in Storyville, and the Neville Brothers right there in Calliope. As the train moves forwards and that slide disappears I wonder what will happen next, if that dream will be realized…
The train is like a slideshow. When you travel in a car, you drive into the picture. The road unfolds before you and you can see what’s coming from a distance. It’s majestic and comforting, the road rolling out like carpet runner as you drive further into the picture, become surrounded by it. The train does not allow this. The only time you ever catch a glimpse of what’s ahead is on a turn, where you might catch the engine or the side of the car in front of you as it convex-es or concave-s to the shape of the track. No, the train is a slideshow. You look sideways and the images change, from the slow lurch of the station stops to the flip-book cartoon of high speed rail. The scenes change too: urban decay and industrial blight gives way to swampland and forest, leaning tin-roofed shacks in various states of entropy with rust as a common denominator. In fact, the amount of oxidation and decrepitude along train tracks is almost unfathomable. The wrong side of the tracks is not a saying, it is a real thing, and I can’t help but think the promise of America was somehow broken when I look at the crumbling structures we initially slide past.
The train leaves New Orleans to the east. I have never entered the city from this direction before, so the scenery is mostly new to me. The train chugs along the highway; I can see the Carrolton exit, my house a few blocks away. I recognize Marconi Park as well… this is where we parked for Jazz Fest. I also recognize Gentilly. Franklin Avenue. I dropped a line cook of mine off here once. He told me he and his mother were trapped on the second floor of their home for seven days during Katrina. I wonder how he is doing? We slide past Florida Avenue and Louisa Street. I recognize the names from my friend Tom’s book, City of Refuge. As we head into the Upper Ninth Ward, however, I lose my bearings. I know I am north of the Bywater and south of the Lake because I recognize the street names. I know I’m in the Ninth Ward, but the Upper Ninth Ward is completely unfamiliar to me. By locks and drawbridges and over what I can only assume is the Industrial Canal, the train takes us into New Orleans East and I see the familiar Art Deco design of Lakefront Airport: I recognize it from photographs I’ve seen.
Now we are gliding Christ-like over Pontchartrain, a whole train of people literally walking on water as restless legs set in between New Orleans and Slidell. I mistake I-10 for the Causeway and have no clue that the other bridges are the Twin-Spans. I’ve heard the name, but have no reference point, as I am surrounded by water, the train heading inexorably east.