Railroad Tales October 8, 2012Posted by The Typist in Fortin Street, geo-memoir, Memory, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Alabama, Amtrak, Birmingham, Lincoln Beach, Shelby County, Southern Crescent
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12:06 p.m. Train 19 is waiting for a freight. Ballast, ties and razor wire, the statue of Vulcan in the distance gazing distractedly at a idle rail car salvage yard, capsized tankers and broken rust-brown boxcars like some hobo graveyard, the New South is just visible over the brickwork lofts where cotton factors and coke brokers once counted prosperity in locomotives: So long, Birmingham.
12:52 p.m. Where the line crosses the highway it’s crew-cut America, not a brick out-of-place, Golden Arches by Walgreen’s by Winn-Dixie, Advance Auto Parts and Pawn America, not a button missing but down a drive beside the tracks and just out of sight of Hardee’s there’s Harold’s Auto, dirty white stucco on the railroad side, a customer in front.
1:07 p.m.–We stop to let the northbound Crescent pass just up from the Tuscaloosa depot. Na-hah, no time for a smoke, the conductor says and by the time I’m back in my seat I’ve missed the chance at a snapshot of the station sign. When I pick up the phone again the little weather man says I’m in Green Pond. I look up and there it is outside, more blue than green except where the cypress are flooded just below my window.
1:54 The plastic compartment at the end of the car is not the gentlemen’s smoking compartment of the Southern Crescent I rode 35 years ago. I wash my hands and find the Formica “club car”. A fiftyish couple sit alone sipping Miller Lights. He’s in his Saints jersey. She is, I will later learn, bat-shit crazy drunk and hungry for company. He is just back from three months in rural Alabama. “A whole lotta nothing and cows. And they’ll steal anything right out your yard while you’re asleep: tractors, 18-wheelers.” No one on the platform wants to hear your story. It washes over them like a puff of smoke. They all want to talk, to tell you their’s.
2:05 p.m. You no longer slide past the blast furnace kitchen with its smoking stove to a table served by Black men in white jackets juggling the travel bottle liquor before they pour your drink. Refrigerated sandwiches, mostly gone. I’ve had too much good pulled pork to risk the cellphone version. I buy a water bottle at a stadium-seat price to carry back to my airline first-class coach seat. I need to study biology I remind myself, but look up at every flashing box car siding and am captured by the landscape as it rolls by in its monotonous variety. Every now and then a tar paper and trailer family compound is a creek and some trees away from a big brick ranch with horses in the back. Biology is hopeless.
2:15 p.m. We cross a river lined with chalk bluffs Google does not bother to name, somewhere just north of Livingston and west of Demopolis.
Active transport across the phospholipid bilayer is via locomotives and requires the expenditure of energy in the form of diesel.
2:35 p.m. I am ready for a cigarette. Every time we slow down for curve or a bit of bad track I touch the Zippo in my pocket as if it were a saint’s medallion but so far no luck. I am entirely at the mercy of a conductor who does not wear a pocket watch and manages his passengers via iPhone. I finish my Crystal Geyser and wish I’d packed a sandwich.
2:50 p.m. Gravel loading to a row of short hopper Southern cars, rusted lines of iron pipe, stacks of lumber, the utility co-op, pulling into Meridian. I will kill for a cigarette and a vending machine with a grander ambience than the club car.
3:07 Time for a smoke and a half, as the train stopped to take on fresh water. There’s a boil order in New Orleans. Meridian has a pretty little station, all brand new that puts Birmingham’s dingy under-the-tracks kiosk to shame but there’s not enough time to step inside to look for anything to eat before they “board!” us back inside. We move 20 feet and stop. Look’s like it’s the club car microwave fare or nothing. I had hoped for a wrapped egg salad sandwich as I learned a long time ago that’s the safest bet under such circumstances. If it gives no indication of color, smell or taste it’s usually safe to eat. “Smell up the cars, it would,” the British-inflected attendant says.
A parade of graffiti
One chalk mark flower
Love in the railroad ruins
3:55 Somewhere in the deep south of Shelby County, Alabama a Scots-Irish mechanic with a misspelled French name utters an ancient German expletive while lowering a Japanese transmission.
Somewhere between Meridian and Picayune the landscape’s blur looses its relation to the speed of the train. Invasive vines strangle the stunted native pines, farmstead follows no ‘count town, all in endless repetition regular as freckles, an embryonic recapitulation of Southern history.
The tale falls off. Coffee. Biology. Pine trees.
5:18 p.m. Two hours out of New Orleans and they’ve put the coffee cups away so I get a crew cup free and must not tip. “I know. That’s the rules. I’ve got too many years to break them.” I take my little coffee and peanut M&Ms back to my car.
Past Hattiesburg the trees get twiggy, the bottom lands more often flooded. What once were rippling little rivers take on the somnambulant character of bayous. I am getting close to home.
6:22 Across the Pearl and Bogue Chitto, briefly leaving the spindly pines behind for cypress swamps and houseboats, then passing beneath I-10 and into Slidell. My Louisiana begins south of I-10, but we won’t be truly south of South, deeper south than any bit of Dixie in our own peculiar territory, until we cross the Lake and it becomes a cardinal direction unto itself.
6:39 What’s left of sunset over Lake Pontchartrain. Highway 11 has cut across and left us for the first time since we started. After the bridge the high embankment of New Orleans East, rip rap replacing ballast, and I watch for the sad skeletal pilings of the camps that once ran from Little Woods into town. I spot an intact gazebo and I’m suddenly surprised to find a half-dozen reconstructed camps. A little spit of scrub covered land behind a low chain link fence is all I guess remains of the ruins of Mayor Maestri’s “gently” segregationist Lincoln Beach, reminding me of where I’ve just come from. Across the Seabrook Bridge, bits of weather-worn wooden platforms are all that are left of the old, single-car lane with its wait-your-turn stop lights once tacked to its side like the old Huey P. Long and we are in the city.
I’m hungry. After that gazebo against the dying sky, the remains of the old Seabrook crossing to Haynes and it’s almost forgotten, gone-to-Kenner promise of fried oyster “boats”, it must be freshly caught and fried. Nothing else will do.
An Inside Run Up Poydas Street January 9, 2012Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Alabama, BCS Championship Bowl, football, LSU, Poydras Street
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Someone camped along Poydras Street in the vast stretches of tents and RVs for the BCS championship game has the most realistic portable stereo system ever devised, or somewhere in the distance a full marching band was playing. Orleanians are something of experts on judging the direction and distance of a marching band from their long experience, and I’m pretty sure a good size ensemble was playing somewhere in the distance.
Further up the Poydras on Fulton Street, a band covers the Ramones Bonzo goes to Bitzburg, the politics lost on this crowd but the sort of song certain to drive a drunken mob into a frenzy. I wonder as I pass if LSU’s Golden Band from Tiger Land has a stirring brass and drums arrangement of it. Not that this crowd needs anything further to drive them into a frenzy. They are with their team at the championship game and that game is in New Orleans.
Poydras is busy but not the center of action the day before the game, what with the attractions of the French Quarter not far away: beignet and hand grenade breakfasts, beads in team colors with mascots pendant, the bands of Bourbon Street playing the 70s country rock covers for which our city is justly famous; a chanting, hollering and vomiting horde, two opposing armies keeping a tense armistice as they pass in the street.
Still Poydras is full of people, awash in crimson and purple and gold. Even Auburn fans have come to down, pitching their team tents along the street to join in the party. If LSU were playing the Michigan Spartans it might be mistaken for Carnival. Smoke rises in a dozen columns from the cramped encampments on every parking lot like chow time in some 19th century army, the smell of meat heavy in the air. Enemy tents stand one next to the other but everyone seems in good spirits. Hawkers of Officially Licensed Team Merchandise and an enterprising fellow with team beads on both arms at Magazine vie for attention. Pedicaps are everywhere, slowing traffic like a parade of band buses. Everyone has a go cup.
I was once a moderately informed fan of Southeastern Conference college football but that was long ago. I have too many other things to occupy my mind than to be a statistic spouting fanatic, and among my tasks today is to look up San Francisco on ESPN today, as I don’t follow the NFL that closely either. I bleed black and gold, but that doesn’t mean I have time or inclination even to state the ranking of teams in the Saints own division much less the rest of the league. All I know is that the circus has come to town. No, two circuses days apart: Sugar Bowl and championship game with a Saint’s playoff game in the middle. I am old school enough to dislike the Bowl Championship System, concocted to upset a century of football tradition in order to produce another high revenue television broadcast, but that is about as involved as I can manage.
I have never been an LSU fan and have no dog in tonight’s fight–I am old enough to remember when LSU and Tulane were a local rivalry–but the spectacle is irresistible. I was downtown to watch the Saints’ game Saturday night and it was easy to tell the LSU fans. They were the ones in their Saint’s jersey. I joked with one crimson clad fellow waiting to cross a street that his accent, an obvious southern drawl, identified him as a leftover Michigan fan from the Sugar Bowl, I thought he was much to drunk to connect a punch, but we were instantly long lost friends for the span of two blocks in the manner of your better class of tipsy tourist.
I will probably succumb and watch tonight’s game. Everyone one I know is still surprised and a bit disappointed that I missed the regular season game. A clash of the titans, one called it. I only watch LSU football if I am at a friends house for an unrelated party, or if I’m sitting at a bar waiting for someone, but the BCS championship promises to be a gladiatorial contest destined for the highlight reels of history, the television pregame diversion that remind me of those those professional football shows that used to run Sunday mornings when I was a child with football cards and no interest in watching The Christophers or the spectacle of some monstrous Protestant church’s service.
In the end it won’t matter who wins if it is good football. The important thing is my daughter is not working the candy shop at Riverwalk tonight and wanting a ride home.
You Must Say These Words August 9, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Alabama, British Petroleum, Orange Beach, Platoon, The Day the Earth Stood Still
“You must say these words: Klaatu barada nikto”
– The Day the Earth Stood Still
A few days before I headed off with the kids for a long weekend at Orange Beach, Alabama, I found myself watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. I did this because I have at least eight books I should be reading, submissions to prepare for the fall opening of literary journals, a trip to pack for, vacation days to “make up” for and a filthy apartment. What else should I have been doing?
If you haven’t seen the remake of the 1951 classic, the twist is that we are a danger not to other life in the universe, but to one of the handful of planets capable of supporting complex life. Klaatu commands a fleet of globular arks that are collecting all the life forms available prior to unleashing Armageddon on the human race. I found myself rooting for Klaatu to relent and listen to the Jennifer Connelly’s character’s plea to not destroy the earth. We can change, she kept telling Klaatu. Really we can. I mean, what else should I have been doing?
Then I drove to Alabama. There are an awful lot of British Petroleum-branded gas stations in Alabama, not far from where local fisherman rose up last year and blockaded Bayou Le Batre when they were not hired by BP for clean up. The Gulf Coast was perched at the very edge of a genuine Armageddon last year, and while I found the water clear and full of fish it is not certain what the long term affect of all the Corexit spread in the water will be, or where that sunken oil slick the Corexit was intended to create to keep the magnitude of the spill keep out of site is and what that hidden oil will mean to the future of the Gulf. Take away tourism and fishing and the coast will die. We would see a forced displacement of populations that would dwarf Katrina’s millions, and be for all intents permanent.
And I found myself wondering how to say in Klaatu’s language: “kill us all and let god sort it out.”
The trip to Florida was a last minute affair: the realization I had a couple of empty days on my work calendar, the weekend before school starts for my 16-year old son, a desire to get the hell out of town for a few days and do as little as possible. I wound up booking a place across the highway from beach, a room thankfully in the back away from the Perdido Beach Boulevard.. As I sat on the balcony to smoke, looking out southeast over the highway and the ocean beyond, I could not hear the breakers the way I could in the past in a beach-front room. Instead I could hear a perverted echo of it, the doppler effect of the incessantly passing cars on as they moved out of my sight and behind the building, a sinister sonic twin to the sound of a breaking wave and its hissing retreat down the sand.
All those cars, so many pulling sports fishing boats on a weekend afternoon, and god only knows how many gassed up at the local BP station. Barada nikto my ass.
Still, I managed to have a good time. I felt the fish tickle my feet and laid in the sun until I was a pleasant Zatarain’s red. We ate a couple of good meals, watched movies, talked. It was a good weekend. Underneath it all, however, were all those BP signs I passed, the cars lined up at the pumps. My faith in the human race continues to dwindle every time I find something like a coastal county full of unburned BP stations. My own personal disaster film begins to resemble one of the zombie movies: a small band of people I genuinely care about and respect against a world gone monstrous.
The first time I saw Day of the Dead I thought it had an almost happy ending, at least the promise of survival for those on the boat. This weekend I caught the last five minutes (my son loves zombie moves) and watched the credits, which sneakily offers an alternate ending of zombies on the island. I walked back out onto the balcony to smoke and listen to the whizzing cars, frantically spinning the wheel on my Ipod looking for something uplifting, perhaps Woodstock or even Wooden Ships, without luck. Instead I discovered I have three different songs with Down in the Hole in the title. I settled for the Eighties Stones song. “Will all your money/Buy you forgiveness/Keep you from sickness/Or keep you from cold?/Will all your money/Keep you from sadness/Keep you from madness/When you’re down in the hole?”
I saw a sunbow the last day at the beach, something I often saw in cold weather up north but don’t see very often down here. As I walked along the shore, looking for interesting bits of shell but thinking Plastic is Forever and imagining dark variants on the old diamond jewelry ad the appearance of the sunbow seemed a marvelous miracle, for a moment lifted me out of a dark reverie. I remembered the promise to Noah and thought of the water thick with fish and only one dead on the beach. Then I remembered that god lied and the waves of last year blood red as Exodus.
To mungle up yet another movie reference: You must say these words, “Dump everything you got left ON MY POS. I say again, I want all you’re holding INSIDE the perimeter…”