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January 04, 2005


PZ Myers

I used to commute by train through Philadelphia, and "burnt out ass end" is what you see there alright. It's like a bomb went off in North Philly. There was one building I was always curious about -- the entire back end was sheered off and lay in a pile of rubble, the timbers jutting out were all fire-blackened, yet the gaping back end was swathed in plastic. And then one windy day a sheet of the plastic blew back as we rattled by and I saw a couple of young kids sleeping on the floor inside.

Those noisy old trains go through the worst parts of town. It's a good way to see real American poverty in safety and comfort.

Doctor Memory

"It's like a bomb went off in North Philly."

Actually, that was a little to the south and west.


As opposed to the non-run-down parts of communist-era Bulgaria?

The train rocks, though. I've taken it DC-NY, DC-Atl-Nawlins. On one memorable trip, I was (at 25 or so) apparently the youngest person on the Portland, OR run to St. Paul, MN. Then something or other to Chicago and the City of New Orleans almost all the way to the end. Out West it was all white retirees. At Chicago it got blacker and stayed that way. On the East Coast southbound there were always lots of Army guys getting off at Anniston (for basic training, I think). Otherwise, Belle's comments are spot on.

I think the happiest train I was ever on was Atlanta to DC, headed up for President Clinton's first inauguration. Felt like a freedom train!


Have you read any of Nancy Lemann's books? Her heroines are always taking trains from New Orleans to Virginia or New York or New England. Some atmospherics from Lives of the Saints:

The train station in Richmond was filled with pathetically deferential doddering old black men and other species of complete wrecks. Everyone in the station was a wreck. Everyone had a heavy Southern accent. The whole atmosphere was sultry and defeated. . . . Finally, we boarded the train, and I have never seen a train like that before. It was the Panama Express--because when it came back down, it went to Florida, like macabre Southerners going to macabre Florida. Eighty-five percent of the passengers were black, and each car had its white-coated black butler.

There were old-fashioned dining cars and sleeping cars and smoking rooms. I got the name wrong--not the Panama Express but the West Palm Beach. The night was black and the countryside doomed and deserted. There was a huge confusion on the train due to its lateness (it had been late) and the crowds.

I went to breakfast at Chesterfield's in Richmond. Breakfast costs $1.25 there, and the waitresses say, "Girl, what you want?"


Train rides I have taken: summer 1997 to Churchill, Manitoba, two nights and two days through the boreal forest to the End of the Road: summer 2004, New York to Montreal to Halifax, rivers -> forests -> repeat until Halifax harbor appears in your window (then get off and drive to the wilds of Cape Breton, but that's another story). On the return trip, the bathrooms on Amtrak's Montreal-Halifax train won the Stinkiest Ever award. I've seen nicer Portapotties at outdoor rock concerts.


Correction: Amtrak's Montreal-New York train (aka The Adirondack)


Once, riding down from New York to Philly with some friends I remember turning toward the window and thinking that I finally understood the meaning, perhaps not originally intended, of the phrase:

The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

As for PZ's point about seeing American poverty from a seat of comfort that's exactly right - but it's not all urban. High up the Potomac in West Virginia I was surprised to see, at irregular intervals, parked here and there in some clearing along the river, an old schoolbus (or perhaps prison bus) with curtains in the windows and even the occasional potted plant in the "yard" in front.


For the record: I live in the SF Bay area, and the train rocks here. For my trip to Louisiana over the holidays, I took the San Jose light rail to Mountain View, then CalTrain from there to Milbrae, where I transferred to BART to SFO and flew to Louisiana. Then I reversed to get back. From my apartment to SFO is about 40 miles. The total fare was $6. Sure as hell beats a taxi or the $$$ for parking (it was a one week trip).

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