Monday, September 10, 2012


This post is a brief one.

I am putting some writings together and looking for people to proof-read the manuscripts. Thoughts, questions, grammatical corrections and criticism are appreciated.

If you would not mind reading these through as I finish them, then please email me at . I would be grateful for the help.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The City of New Orleans: Paper Territory

Some recent events had caused me to wonder if I were by nature a good man, or good only by restraint.

So I left Chicago, fleeing south on what is probably the most famous train in the amtrak system. The skyscrapers receded into the lake, and there was nothing more but the streaks of small town lights. The train rocked as though it ran on wooden rails, giving pops and starts like backfire. My sleep was uneasy, troubled and dreamless. Then the sun rose on Memphis.

Coming into Tennessee and then Mississippi. I saw flat clay roads, cypress swamps, and tin-roofed towns with folks slouching around the corner store watching the train go by. I had entered the territory of the small Black town. Places where Blacks held the high offices along with the low. Black doctors and Black mayors were nothing unusual to me. Nor Black laborers and Black delivery men. I've been to Oakland. But those in the median line of small town work - Black bar tenders, Black mechanics, Black farmers - was something I had yet to encounter. No matter how much of the country I see, there's always more to it.

I realized, passing those towns, how little I had yet seen. That a new event could seem in some way a departure of my idea of my own country. That each new place challenged my assessment of national identity until I could touch it, smell it, run my feet over the curbs, then, add it to my vocabulary of experience, saying This too is America.

I've traveled a bit, but the greatest portion of my geographical knowledge has been learned second-hand. Rand Macnally and Google have let my mind wander over the earth when the rest of me couldn't follow. But places like Australia and Alaska, though I can locate them and even without reference describe their general contours, remain places on paper. Flat, two-dimensional kingdoms written over with names I've read. Even citizens of those countries, when they have tried to prove something about their native land, have shown me papers.

I can draw a map of the US free-hand, even tricky states like Washington, and I don't confuse which square state is which. But I realize that for me there is yet a large stretch of paper-territory within my own country.

Internally I have my own map, which if drawn out would look nothing like the shape of the country, but a maundering procession of vistas arranged several thousands of miles long. A line of trees, parks, canyons, mountains, shores, and city blocks all knit together to a single string, but which together would still not comprise even forty states.

The train kept on southward. The dialogue was changing along with the humidity. The train population was split roughly fifty-fifty of whites and blacks who were oddly genteel with each other though both spoke with equal vulgarity amongst themselves. Albeit with different cuss words - the white 'cracker-ass' and 'sonofabitch' to the black 'motherfucker' - and more quietly than their northern brethren. Speech was becoming more slurred. I overheard the man behind me speaking what I thought might be Creole till I realized he was speaking English without the added encumbrance the letters R and L. I expected an elderly man with an underbite, some bayou relic en route to the big city, yet instead there was a trim-looking high-school boy, maybe 18.

The cultural shift was showing in other ways. The men's preference for suspenders. The above ground cemeteries. The iron work.

Great boiling cumuli came up out of the south and knock-kneed cypresses tottered up from the muck, veiled in clinging moss. An interminable swamp stretched onward to Ponchartrain. The train crossed an inlet, scaring up great flocks of white birds as we crossed the waters and onward to the clouds. I looked out the window, hoping childishly for an alligator. Egrets stalked the rushes, patiently. Hanging above us was Cloudland National Park, a suspended Yosemite, Denali in vapor. I had missed how the wamth of a rolling grassland or shallow sea can make these Maxfield Parish sky-scapes. Those clouds were glorious.

The air felt like being held in the mouth of a dog, exhalation curling in under the collar, saturating the neckline and underarms with the heat of its breath. Even still on the train, my undergarments were gradually moistening with sweat.

What the hell was I doing? Who goes to New Orleans in August?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Chicago Union Station

I was enjoying myself, and was having difficulty finding my next host thru Couchsurfing that I stayed in Minneapolis a few days beyond my rail reservation and ended up taking the bus to Chicago. My directions guided me to a parking lot between Washington and 3rd street outside the downtown for a midnight ride which showed up at 1. The passengers, irritated by the delay swore blue murder at the service of the Megabus company and offered their own thoughts on the superiority of Greyhound. The driver, understandably distressed by the delay and the treatment he now received, cussed them back. He was African-American, a fact a woman, black herself, felt compelled to indicate when she shouted, "Nigger, I got two boys, a son and a nephew, 6 foot 3 and 6 foot 1, at home, and I can beat their black asses so don't think I mind taking down a shorty-stubby like yourself."

The driver, in response, laughed. As did the woman. I sat there, baffled and feverish, delirious with some malady that made my head feel like it was full of bees all busily filling every sinus with the comb and wax of their horrible hive. They went on shouting and laughing across Wisconsin, the initial anger at the late departure replaced with jabs at the others ethnic background and sexual history. How is it that Black people can make racial slurs and assaults on preference seem so normative? That "motherfucker" could almost sound complimentary? The thoughts rambled through the mucus clogged chambers of my addled head.

The bus pulled up to the corner of Canal and Jackson, not far from where the rail would have brought me. I stumbled out, my sole objective to reach the hostel I had booked. Really, no rail trip across the US would be complete without a stop at Chicago Union Station. The monument to art deco decadence and enviable acoustics that is the Great Hall, the shy Amish passengers dandling babies, the hurried business suits. Penn station in New York is busier and has a better bistro selection, but can't offer so glamorous a backdrop.

I would have liked to have explored more, but this was a lay-over for me. I had been to Chicago before and besides was deeply engaged by a program of phlegm, hacking, and fever dreams. The following day I was to be out of town, southbound on the City of New Orleans, the train ride being the real reason I had arrived at all. My only grand experience of the city came as I left it, watching the towers drop into Lake Michigan, folding up into the dark of night, realizing that my sum experience of Chicago comes to a tally of roughly 10 days yet I've been homesick for it.

I don't know where this love comes from. It could be the old-fashioned modernism - as if steam-punk updated itself by a half century - the neighborhood feel, the home-town pride. And, despite those magnificent sky-scrapers, there's a real modesty towards accomplishment. There's money alright, but fewer pretenders to it. I've never encountered the same sort of outrages of excess walking the Loop as I have on a Manhattan stroll. Maybe it has something to do with being from a state whose primary export is still a palpable, exchangeable commodity and not an abstraction. Whose own creation story isn't founded off a mythic real estate deal or a water-rights swindle, but off the good, solid swing of a sledgehammer between the eyes of a prairie steer. This feels like a good city, with the stones and stenches all in just the right places.