When you travel east on the train out of New Orleans the first stop is Slidell, Louisiana. You never get to see too much of a town from the train, but unlike large cities, which funnel the train through areas of industry, small towns always seem to have a neat little station in the center of town with an exclamatory old-fashioned clock announcing the town’s quaintness. I don’t know what the train station in Slidell looked liked in the 1950’s, but I can’t imagine it looked much different than it does today. I feel the same way when we get to Picayune, towns that look unbelievably precious from the vantage of the rails. Sleepy towns, the laconic prose of the station signs delineating one red brick station from the next, Southern equivalents of the NJ town I grew up in.
We passed a lot of cemeteries; they lined the tracks on both sides sometimes, like spectators at a parade. We have buried a lot of dead in this country. I am fascinated, also, by the dead… I guess you could say I have a morbid fascination with morbidity. I am addicted to shows and stories about ghosts and the paranormal, and New Orleans, with its dark history, engages these fantasies and curiosities. Spiritual entities aside, I am also intrigued by the physical representation of death in various cultures. As topography and soil and religions changed along the tracks, so did the treatment of the dead. In New Orleans, our cities of the dead are prominent — maybe the most prominent feature outside of the St. Louis Cathedral. The crumbling facades and tilted angels and regal family names born upon brick and mortar and sometimes marble boxes and grand rotundas announce: we are here! still with you! never very far away! and you are never very far away from us either! The dead are constant companions, and enjoy the warm sun and the sound of brass bands and the excitement of the parades that informed their living hours. The grand, rotting mansions of St. Charles Avenue and the disintegrating bricks of St. Louis Number 1 — bookends of decadence and decline and ultimately rebirth — subsumed within the greater story of New Orleans.
The dead along other parts of the tracks are not so garish, and as we move east, grand mansions give way to modest markers, some sunken below ground level, mournful concrete pillows, being pulled toward their signifiers so that they may rest easier. These are the cemeteries of the poor, humble headstones and flagstones and small American flags are the descriptors of those interred here. The grass, green and lush, almost obscures the markers, those that can be passed over with a lawnmower without breaking the blades or cracking the granite. It saddens me that these dead don’t get to commune with the living like the dead in New Orleans — to smell French bread baking, fish frying, crawfish boils, or even the baser smells like the piss and horseshit and spilled beer of the French Quarter: smells that in all there pleasantness and putrefaction signify culture and life. No, these dead exist under under paving stones, a walkway to who knows where along the solitary tracks.
Outside of the graceful and well-maintained small town rail stations, the tracks take on a chaotic and despairing countenance. It seems, to me at any rate, that we push all that we don’t want to constantly look upon or live next to by this iron road. The rusted and the abandoned, farm animals, Boo Radley houses, cars, lumber, rusted swing sets, and anything you can imagine in various states of disuse and disrepair can be seen from the train. But the slideshow ensures that you never dwell on one image too long. It’s there and gone, fleeting, haunting, the rusted mouth of an old factory or a doll left, vine choked, in the backyard of a warped and peeling shotgun. What coalesces from these images is a strange pastiche of life and history and culture, both confounding and confirming. America is a very wealthy place, yet if you look out the windows of a train you can see abject poverty and the rusting hulk of long gone industry for hundreds of miles. You also see miles of bucolic imagery and uninhabited swamps, forests, and mountains, and you get the sense that much of America is quite lonely. It is still quite possible to get away from it all, but maybe never too far away, the ubiquitous satellite dish gargoyles that hang from even the most modest houses or trailers a constant reminder of our always connectedness: Frankly, I’m not sure which is lonelier.
I think it’s safe to say rich folks, by and large, don’t ride the train: at least not in coach like me and my companions. I’m sure there are some people that get excited by the idea of “slumming it,” but if you have money, you are most likely flying or at the very least traveling in a sleeper car. However, despite the lack of comfort — the rough blue fabric and unergonomic recline of the seat, and the brutal cold (I feel like I’m a cattle carcass in a refrigerated boxcar) — coach is definitely the place to be if you’re a writer or if you have a modicum of interest in people, which I am and I do.
We were a mixed lot on car three of the Crescent City, but like most of the South, mixed mainly along the lines of black and white. My seat-mate and her family were black and from Baltimore; the older couple across the aisle white from the North Shore; the couple they were chatting with from Chalmette. Across from that couple was an ebullient young man that was going to visit his cousin in the Bronx. A family with three small children occupied a bank of seats a little further up the aisle, the kids obviously quite excited to ride the rails for the first time. From time to time they would parade down the aisle, a miniature train of their own, to use the restroom in the back of the car, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of car three: that both trains and orchestras have conductors is to me no accident.
One of the beautiful things about a train ride is the communal dining cars that force you to interact with others, especially if you are a solo diner. In my morning rage I worked up an incredible hunger and when the dining car opened at 8:30 AM or so, I was eager to eat. I won’t lie and say that the dining car served up gourmet fare, but it is far better than anything I’ve ever had on a plane, even in first class. The train rocked me hard as I made my way up to the dining car and to my as-directed blue fake leather seat (either Amtrak gets a discount on blue or it is thought by someone somewhere to be a soothing color — I don’t know — but the leitmotif of the Crescent City is blue, down to the water in the toilets).
I was soon joined at my table by a couple that was, in my estimation, my age or a little younger. The guy looked a little like a redneck James Dean, with a short military-style haircut, wearing a white t-shirt, and dark blue jeans with a wide belt. I never saw the shoes. His companion had a beautiful dark complexion, soft, round features, and a sly smile that was accented by her white shirt. They were from Birmingham, Alabama, on the way home after a weekend vacation in New Orleans. On their last day they rented a Harley, and of course, it rained the whole day. We chatted over a breakfast of eggs, sausage, biscuits and coffee that arrived after an interminable wait, discussing New Orleans, college football, and my strange accent. I didn’t get their names. There didn’t seem to be any point. There is a transient nature to train conversations that belies their immediacy, but makes them no less enjoyable.
I didn’t really think much about breakfast until later in the morning when we crossed over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in Birmingham. Birmingham, if you remember your history, was a key campaign in the Civil Rights movement; Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written here. It was the site of virulent racial strife, with protestors being hosed down in the streets with water cannons and forced into crowded jails. While this has very little to do with eggs and biscuits, it has everything to do with the interracial couple I shared it with. I’m not sure if it’s ironic, but it’s definitely apropos that times have changed enough that this couple can call Birmingham home. It wasn’t always like that, and on some level it left me deeply satisfied (and not in the smug, liberal, Yankee way y’all are thinking). I think there is a part of all of us that likes to deny the truth, or to say things have changed, that was a long time ago. But the truth is, it wasn’t that long ago at all, and in some places and in some hearts it isn’t history either, but an ongoing narrative.
I wish, honestly, that I didn’t make this observation… that the thought didn’t occur to me, but that would be untrue. The thing about the train is it engenders observations, some external, but most internal: it is a hotbed of inductive reasoning. And as we clacked noisily along, I was trying to somehow tie this narrative together…