The whistle wailed my sleep away in the upper berth as the Crescent hurtled towards New Orleans, rolling back the night along its storied route. Into the dim night I peered from the ribbon windows. Deserted main streets stared back at me. Track-side once meant promise: out of town visitors and commercial travelers alike, poured from the stations’ mouths into the maws of bustling downtowns; industry flourished along sidings laden with freight cars bearing raw materials, packed with outbound finished goods. It’s been over, though, for so many years, the rail junction centers of most big American cities and countless country villages left desolate, pockmarked with vacancies, while out by the Interstates a grotesque new USA keeps growing like slime mold.
The route from New York to Louisiana rolls by, a giant cyclorama of industrial detritus, 1350 miles of wasted lives and broken dreams. Factories shuttered, jobs evaporated. Families splintered. Housing burned. The core of America has sunken in. Even as we entered the Hudson River tunnel at the journey’s start, in the cut west of Penn Station, the signs of desuetude surrounded me: crumbling archways, jerry-rigged cabling and spalled concrete made me trepidatious. Under the Hudson, might not this 120-year old tunnel fail and the waters rush in?
Once on the other side, I breathed more freely. But it’s not the underwater crossing that scares and saddens me. It’s because of America, once brave and bold. Down through Harrison, Newark, North Philly, on beyond the Schuylkill River, the ruination yawns. Chester, PA took my breath away. Once a vibrant Delaware River port, laden with cargo traffic, maritime uses and factories, today Chester, at 50% of its population count in 1950, stretches out like a giant hulk, a Gulliver pinned down by Lilliputian forces beyond its control. Vacant lots yawn like eye sockets in a giant skull, the occasional mansard-roofed house of a middle-class burgher sticking up among the weeds like the crown of a skeletal eye socket. No neighbors babble on either side of its once party walls. Occupants, if any, live in fear, pitifully poverty-stricken in their urban prairie outpost. What came before them was a vibrant neighborhood of upwardly mobile factory workers and strivers with schools and churches and playgrounds bursting with ambition and success, now silent and sparse, a funereal ode to a world long gone.
It’s 2012 and the presidential campaign is going full blast, the Republican candidates outdoing each other to promote faith in a god as a cure-all for what ails us. Even Obama preaches to the choir, trotting out his church attendance to be one of the crowd. Desperate attempts with magical solutions are spun and woven as belief in an almighty power is to be voted upon. Over and over we’re invited to look elsewhere, away from the facts and rational discourse.
Last call for breakfast was tolled through the sleeper-car, and my favorite part of my journey ensued. Traveling alone on Amtrak illuminates me. Across at my table sat Beth and Linda. I had no idea of what would unfold. 60+ and ten years younger, these two brilliant women, both psychotherapists, conversed with me lucidly. Another rail-car omelet with a side of stewed brains.
Quickly the conversation turned to personal things. Undertakings, individual and professional, all centered on psyche and process, the abandonment of crutches and healthy life. Our politics jibed as we picked apart the current electoral race, dissecting just what’s wrong with Amerike,
the thought processes that beguile and dominate the majority of folks. Out of Beth’s mouth suddenly came a bon mot
, unintended, five words that would light a pathway for those who, Bible in hand, turn away from the truth. Living life is beyond
belief, Beth said. A shisver traversed my entire spine. Those who would live an authentic life, finding meaning in the daily, live by these five words whose depth depends on accenting the fourth. Say them with the accent moved to the fifth word, and one moves into Hallmark land, away from import, joining the lost. Try saying them both ways; see if you notice. I’ll take my eggs boiled, on whole wheat toast. New Orleans upon us, we parted at trackside. I hoped we’d see each other later that weekend but was left alone. No matter though, what more could I garner than the five pearls she’d given me? My trip turned fantastic. Losing Beth was no loss.
It was early Monday morning as I typed these words out, sitting in the Clover Grill, listening to Leona Lewis wailing It All Gets Better in Time, trying to eat while choking back a sob. ‘Twas a fantastic few days hellin’ on Frenchmen, straight through the night, with my cousin Ray and our Nawlins’ friend Abigail. Tears filled my eyes and throat: tears of sadness at leaving this beautiful City, tears of joy over having met them this way. I’ll be back, back to La Nouvelle Orleans, back to each of you, back to being into these moments, weaving that precious fabric of memory and anticipation that makes living life beyond belief. L. word to each of you, and ps to Abigail: I stand corrected by you: I AM a raver:-)