What We Did With Our Spring Break

The Crescent, Train Number 20, arcs through the east Alabama countryside as perfectly composed as Art, curved across the window like some giant rod and wheel cast it out.

The car we’re sitting in is positioned behind Dining Car and Lounge Car and wrapper-filled Coach Car bearing drowsy long-haul human freight from New Orleans to New York, but no matter where you sit, there’s the constant melancholy of the whistle in the background like greek chorus… an atavistic sound as unnecessary to the life we usually lead as some urban warrior’s fear of snakes.

America is burning, burning, and this is what is left.

The sound of the wheels against rails is a rhythmic brush-brush, hypnotic as aces slapped on a table by old men whiling away, hours, days, their lives, by playing cards.

Up two seats and on the left, two mopes are staring at a movie on a portable dvd player without headphones, genre: shoot ‘em up. Above the sway and hum of travel, the soundtrack between Birmingham and Atlanta is gunfire and grunts.

America is burning, burning, and this is what is left.

Behind: four elderly women, Virginia-bound, who’d be in a sleeper except for the busted pipe and federally-subsidized inefficency that closed the car down. Their accents are — dunno… rich and leisurely as gumbo, chocolate, corn-studded Birmingham cheese grits? — and they point out things outside the window in a drawl almost extinct, one I recognize, with knowledge born of my childhood and almost as atavistic as any love of train whistles, as belonging to four white upper middle class matrons, carefully coiffed, genteel, whose husbands, all passed on, were doctors, lawyers, professional men, who had business at the courthouse of whatever town they’re from.

If you want to see into a nation’s heart, then ride the train.

Some pundits grieve that as a people we are unconnected to each other. Who knows the cause? The internet, the square of lawn around each suburban tract-mansion, the television you sit back and watch, and watch, and watch, (same size as the windows of the Crescent, formerly called the Southern Crescent) in spaces where no stranger ever walks with graceful train gait down an aisle to sit in the vacant seat beside you?

America is burning, is burning, and this is what is left.

The heart of our country, as seen from the Crescent windows, is strewn with garbage: a child’s football shoulder pads, plastic bottles bobbing in the liquid mud of each crossed river, metal drums clad with rust, trailers missing siding… burned tin sheds, including one where among the wreckage of the fallen beams hunkers the cab of an abandoned semi.

We have everything we need; we use up what will work for us and discard the rest, and it’s extraordinary that passenger trains still exist in this country because they are, in terms of time and cost efficiency, basically useless.

But I would tell a visitor to this country, or anyone native born who doesn’t need their vacation sugar-coated, to take the train.

1 Comment

  1. I love train travel. Love and adore it and think we should make room in our lives for it and use it instead of cars and airplanes. Of course I know this is unlikely to happen–and if trains are federally subsidized, it’s hardly to the amount of moolah that the airlines have been rescued again and again…

    To restate: my utopia has trains.

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