(The following letter was written on a variety of Amtrak trains traveling between New York and Fort Worth. This is the first part. The second may be found here.)
12-18-03, 5:47 PM -
On the train. Already made a friend & perhaps an enemy.
Guy in a brown fleece headband is sitting across the aisle. Next to him in the window seat is a curly-haired hippie chick who I've overheard is going to Houston. I'm sitting here listening to my headphones & enjoying the gorgeous, snow-covered hills along the upper Hudson River, and I turn to find the guy eyeballing me. I nod my head.
"How's it going?"
Somehow this doesn't impress him, so he turns back to stare at the floor. The hippie chick peeks out from behind him.
"Want some cherries and tortillas?" she chirps.
"Cherries and tortillas, you say?" I reply, "Don't mind if I do."
"They're great!" she adds, and hands me a tortilla full of perfect red cherries.
Headband Guy looks at the floor and begins to breathe hard. I figure I'll try to make with the friendliness, since we're all gonna be here awhile.
"So where's your endpoint?" I inquire.
He swivels his eyes around--not his head, mind you--and says, "Phoenix."
Geez. Sorry I asked. I guess I'd be kinda cheesed off, too.
"Want another tortilla?" the hippie chick chirps from behind his head, which is now staring at the floor.
So as I said, one friend & one enemy.
6:25 PM -
What the hell is wrong with this guy?
We're stalled at the Albany station, & his breathing keeps getting louder. He had his fucking Bob Marley cranking out of the headphones earlier, and felt the need to sing out key phrases and punctuate the beat with occasional rhythmic teeth-sucking.
What the hell is wrong with this guy?
I'd suspect him of being a Candid Camera plant, but he's just restrained enough not to be outrageous. Or maybe that's the idea. C'mon, man. It ain't my fault you're going to Phoenix.
7:51 PM -
Just got back from the Lounge Car. I dig the Lounge Car. There's a place to get your drink & sandwich, and the rest is tables and chairs. Got me a Heineken and a tuna salad sandwich. Ate the sandwich in the Lounge Car just to see if any interesting conversations were brewing. They weren't. Old people talking about kids & kids talking about old people.
Got back to my seat & whipped out my Al Franken (!), then proceeded to read when suddenly Headband Guy wants to talk.
"Whatcha readin', man?" he asks conspiratorially.
"Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."
"Right on, man. Franken knows it's all propaganda."
Oh, that explains it. I thought I saw him rolling his eyes when I was perusing the New York Times earlier.
"Yeah, he's pretty insightful," I offer.
"It just seems like nothing can stop the onslaught, man. The objectification of man. We're all here, but we don't know it. You gotta think about that shit."
"It's like Coltrane, man. You listen to Coltrane?"
Somebody fucking stab me.
"I've heard him."
"It's like the whole world's inside him, trying to get out. You gotta think about that shit, man."
Christ. Why is it that every time I run into a fucking stoner moron, he listens to Coltrane? Now, I'm not gonna go with the reverse logic shit and indict a musician simply because his fans are idiots. I've written rather extensively about how people do that with my beloved Pink Floyd, so nuts to that.
But the longer I live up here, the more tired I get of treading in jazzspeak. Jazz is to New york what electric blues is to Texas. It's the default Musical Minutiae Discussion Group starter. Someone says the word "bird" and immediately five guys run over to talk about Charlie Parker.
And you know what? I couldn't give two shits.
I just couldn't. And don't think it escapes my attention that in both the electric blues and jazz critics circles, the constituency is overwhelmingly white and male. White men desperately want to "get it", to "be in on it", and few mediums offer a more blank slate for specious pontification than modern jazz. And by "modern" I mean bebop forward. Smooth Jazz is the seventh level of hell, as the jazzniks will tell you, and in this I agree with them.
But I still ain't listening to no Coltrane. Put that in your hookah and choke on it.
Just passed something that the train attendant said was Utica. By the time he said it, I'd missed it.
So anyway, Headband Guy is leaning back & studying his shoes. I think the hippie chick got tired of him, 'cause she took off for the Lounge Car. You'd think they could sit and talk about Coltrane, but it appears she has better things to do. Good for the hippie chick.
You know, who gets on the train from New York to Phoenix without any reading material? And he's already listened to Buffalo Soldier five times, so I assume he hasn't brought any more CDs.
I'm sorry, but the guy's just a moron. You gotta think about that shit, man.
12-19-03, 2:40 PM -
Sittin' in the grand hall of Chicago's Union Station (not to be confused with Dallas' Union Station, the subject of the famous matthew show song).
So ostensibly, this trip was about giving myself some mental space to work on a writing project I've been juggling around in my head for a while. But I find that my mind can't focus just now. I'm too interested in the process, the scenery, the people, the impending gig. Maybe the trip back will be better.
However, there's no guarantee that my sleep situation will be any better than it was upon embarkation. I'm notorious for staying up far too late on vacation, then regretting it on departure day.
Tossed and turned and repositioned last night in my train seat. I wish sleeper cars weren't so friggin' expensive, but I've heard tell that those are a bit cramped, too. I must find a way to sleep sitting up. So far, no dice. Came up with a cockamamie fetal position that keeps me from pushing seatmates out, but it's only comfortable in short spells, then the pins & needles creep in.
I'm just too old. Got less than a month to be in my twenties. Though I was never the most flexible child. Couldn't even touch my toes, but that was mostly because my legs are eight times longer than my torso. God doesn't want me to be a gymnast, there's nothing I can do about it.
6:09 PM -
Weird, the characters you meet on the train. I'm on the Chicago-to-Fort Worth leg of my journey, and the demographic has taken a decided turn for the Middle American.
Went up to the Lounge Car, which beats the hell out of the NYC-to-Chicago Lounge Car. This one's a double-decker, with big windows all over the place. Coupla rangy guys in tank tops & trucker hats are drinking beer & watching the sunset.
"And I told him, 'You know you still owe me a beer.'"
"Bullshit, I do."
"No, that's what I says to Pete."
"Oh. How's Pete owe you a beer?"
"'Cause I arm-wrestled the shit out of him at Dookie's."
"Oh, yeah. He may owe me one, then."
"Well, I broke his ass one night, too."
"Yeah, but did he put up a beer?"
"No, he just says, 'Come on, Sonny, I'll whip your ass.'"
"But not for a beer."
"Guy talks too big, anyway. He ain't any bigger'n my leg."
"Yeah, I mean, I talk up some shit, but I can back it up."
"It's like my brother, man. I don't know where he came from, all skinny & wearing glasses...he's gonna get his ass whipped."
Skinny & wearing glasses? Guess I should repair to my coach seat.
I'm seated next to Beverly, a Chicago nurse who in addition to being from Ballinger, Texas, is also a Harley rider. She terrorizes Colorado residents every year with her 50-year-old biker gang. Kind of a tough old bird. Ann Richards would like her.
As we were passing through the prison town of Joliet, Illinois, she gave me a lecture on how we could empty the prisons & save tax dollars by legalizing drugs. I told her she was preaching to the choir, though I don't know that I'd go as far as heroin in my lasseiz-faire approach.
Nope, she says, legalize 'em all & let the dumbasses die, thereby freeing up even more resources. I thought about giving her deanpence's web address, but forgot once the lady from the Dining Car came around.
Again, this train kicks the ass of my previous one. Instead of just wandering back to the Dining Car and seeing if there's a free table, you make reservations with the Dining Car lady. Gotta go through the Lounge Car to get to dinner, though. Hope there's no arm-wrestling afoot.
6:45 PM -
The Middle. If there's one thing all East & West Coasters should do to enhance their understanding of this country, it's to spend a couple of weeks in the Middle. I see it from the train window, passing house by house, lit window by lit window, each a life in a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere by the train tracks.
It sounds silly, but I know these people. I have been one of them, and I often still am. I know the world looks very different from inside those windows than from mine in Manhattan. So different that sudden juxtaposition between the views can be jarring. It's one reason why there is often hosility between the coasts & the Middle. Different windows entirely.
And the thing is, both of them have distorted views. The world is bigger than either of them can frame, so those looking out of them tend to simplify down to what's visible. A lot can be explained when we find out which bits get cut out of frame.
Arabs? No Arabs here. Screw 'em.
Farmers? No farmers here. Screw 'em.
And so on.
12-20-03, 7:15 AM -
Sunrise outside of Texarkana.
I wish I could take a picture, but nothing I see through my camera lens really catches it. Vast fields, distant cows moving through the mist, the sun creeping quietly over the horizon as the thin sliver of the moon looks on. The day doesn't know it's begun, and the night isn't sure it's time to leave. A vapor trail from a far-off aircraft catches the first rays of the new sun, and as we cross a small brook, the water glows almost internally.
Even when I lived in Texas, I didn't see many sunrises, my normal schedule being rather night-oriented. But I love them. I always have. There's something about the early waking of the world that's precious, a little bit fragile, tentative.
Something metaphysical, too, I guess. Choices have yet to be made. Possibilites are endless. Mystery abounds. But soon, everyone will be up and about, doing the things they always do, and the spell is broken.
However, sometimes there are tiny moments of that sunrise that show up when you least expect them. Moments of infinite hope & potential. I sometimes wonder if being awake for more sunrises would give me more of those moments. But then I hit the snooze button, and before I know it, I've joined the day already in progress and it's time to catch up to speed.
Damn you, sleep.
8:35 AM -
Been meeting some interesting people. Last night I had a great dinner conversation with Bob & Sally, who were just about the nicest couple you could ask for. They're recent grandparents who live in Chicago, but Sally is originally from Stephenville, Texas.
They're en route to Fort Worth as well, visiting relatives & such. After dinner, they took me to the Lounge Car and pointed out landmarks as we steamed through St. Louis. The arch was...well, archlike, and quite picturesque. But the St. Louis train station was a mishmash of portable buildings & razor wire. Not terribly inspiring.
The trip out of St. Louis takes you along the Mississippi for several miles, to the point where there are no lights & the moon glows on the surface of the river. Periodically a searchlight pierces the darkness, emanating from boats pushing their huge barges upriver. But then they pass, and all is dark. Cool.
Had breakfast with Celina, Anna, & Jeffrey this morning. Anna's 7, Jeffrey's 5, and Celina finds jobs for migrant agricultural workers in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Anna & I had the following conversation over a Continental breakfast:
"An' my Grampa is 87 years old."
"He's gonna be 100 in 13 years."
"If he lives that long."
"You think you'll live that long?"
"I don't know. That's really old. I heard about this lady who was 114 years old."
"You could live that long."
"That's old enough to remember when there weren't any cars."
She pauses. "Were there cars when I was born?"
"Oh, yeah. There were cars when I was born."
"Yeah. And airplanes."
"How old are you?"
"You know, the '80s are coming back."
"The '80s. They're coming back."
"Umm...how do you know that?"
"My dad told me. He's 29, too."
"Oh. Well, your dad's right. But you know, I didn't like the '80s."
"Neither did I."
"I don't think you were around in the '80s."
"Yeah, but I don't like 'em. People look old. And ugly."
"Yes. Yes, they do."
"Was my Grampa around in the '80s?"
"I bet he didn't like 'em either."
"I'll bet he didn't. You should ask him."
"I will. Mommy, I'm gonna ask Grampa if he liked the '80s."
Mommy grins at me. "You go ahead & ask him. Mommy will watch."
Back in my coach car now. This little girl has decided that she needs to meet everyone on the train. She comes up, waves, sings a little song, and...
10:03 AM -
I've just had playtime with Alyssa & Audrey. Alyssa's 2 and Audrey's 7. Alyssa's the one who came up singing. She took an interest in my pencil and asked me to draw her a dog. I tried my best, but I'm no dog-drawer. No dog-drawer at all. That's when Audrey showed up.
"What are you drawing?"
"That don't look like no dog."
"It doesn't? Here, draw me a dog."
"It's dog!!" pipes Alyssa. "It's DOG!!"
"Shut up, girl," big sister admonishes. "He don't wanna hear your barking."
"Now, see, this is a dog." She draws a much better dog than I do. I suck.
"Yeah, that's a dog all right. What does he say?"
"WOOF!!" shouts Alyssa.
"See what you did?" Audrey scolds me.
"WOOF, WOOF!!" adds Alyssa.
"You don't have kids, do you?" Audrey asks suspiciously.
"I can tell. Lemme see your hat."
I pass her my fedora, which engulfs her head.
"Dag, you got a big head!"
"Lemme wear!" pleads Alyssa. Audrey puts it on her, brim up and at a jaunty angle.
"She look like a jazz man," Audrey laughs.
"JAZZ MAN!!" Alyssa shouts, dancing around and attempting an impression of whatever she thinks a jazz man is.
Audrey spots my cell phone in the seat pocket in front of me.
"You got games on that?" she asks.
"I wish. I can't afford that stuff."
"That's what my mom says." She points to Alyssa. "It's this girl that's costing her all that money."
Alyssa has spotted the phone. "I call Gramma!!"
I hand her the phone (with the Keypad Lock on) and she makes a big show of dialing the numbers. Audrey spies my empty Sam Adams bottle from last night.
"You been drinking?"
"I don't like beer. It smells funny."
"Yeah, I guess it does."
"I drank a whole bottle of wine."
"Yup. It wasn't real wine, though. It was grape juice."
"Have you drank a whole bottle of wine?"
I had to think. "Not a whole bottle. Maybe half."
"That's good. I won't drink the whole thing next time."
"Is it bad for you?"
"Kind of like candy, yeah. Maybe a little worse."
"Not as bad as smoking?"
I hope her mother isn't listening to this. "No, smoking is definitely worse."
"Is there anything worse than smoking?"
"Yeah, those are bad."
"Will they kill you?"
Damn, kid. "Yes. Hey, why don't you draw your sister in that hat?"
Alyssa hands me the phone. "Gramma gone."
"She hung up?"
Alyssa shrugs and does her jazz man dance. Now I do need a bottle of wine.