JIM DODSON: A Long Train Journey Home
I found a seat in a middle of an empty coach of Amtrak's Silver Star and opened my new book. A young and tense-looking black woman with a toddler took the seats directly behind mine. There was nobody else in our car on this sunny Halloween morning.
A minute after the scheduled departure time, the train gave a slight shudder and started rolling into the darkened catacombs beneath New York City. It was only 12 hours home, give or take, to Southern Pines.
The book was a new novel by my favorite writer, Jim Harrison, a tale called "The English Major," about a 60-something Michigan farmer and former English teacher named Cliff who sets off on an unplanned road trip across America after his wife falls for another man, divorces him, and sells his farm and livelihood out from under him.
Cliff's odyssey is guided by a childhood jigsaw puzzle of the United States and a vague yearning to rediscover his life. He also wants to see the Pacific Ocean. I was glad to share his journey with mine.
Truthfully, I'd wanted to take this trip for at least 40 years, probably since I was a boy from Carolina visiting New York City with my parents. At a cocktail party in Maine a few years back, I stood listening with interest as an elderly friend reminisced how every springtime as a young buck working for his father's Wall Street firm, he and "the old man" would catch a 7 p.m. train out of Penn Station and spend the night in a sleeper car, waking up around 6 a.m. in Southern Pines, whereupon a taxi would pick them up and deposit him at either Mid Pines or Pinehurst Resort.
After two days of golf, rum, and cigars, father and son would board a 7 p.m. Sunday train headed north and reach Penn Station by 6 a.m. on Monday morning, whereupon they would go straight to work on Wall Street, already planning their next escape by train.
"The happiest times of my life were on that train with my dad," the old fellow said, rubbing his white chin whiskers, his dark eyes softened by memory.
On something of a lark Wednesday afternoon, I'd flown up to New York to join my wife, who was attending an education conference with her mates from Sandhills Community College, and poke around the city for a full day on my own. There was a new Babar exhibit at the Morgan Library, and I hoped to spend a full afternoon looking at old TV broadcasts at the Museum of TV and Radio on 52nd Street, a place I'd long wished to visit.
Long before I could actually read, I used to sit in a large cardboard box in my bedroom reading Babar books and Kipling's "Just So Stories" out loud -- well, at least looking at the exotic pictures and pretending to read the words. I imagined that produce box from the Piggly Wiggly was really a wooden shipping container headed for deepest Africa, and I would be accidentally packed up in it and shipped there to have an adventure of my own.
How much of life is simply a sweet accident, I long ago decided, if there really is such a thing. You never see the moment coming that changes your life. Artist Jean de Brunehoff's children gently pestered him to try to sketch out the bedtime story their mother made up about a little orphaned elephant who ventures to the city, meets a kindly old lady and acquires a green suit of clothes and a fine motoring car.
It did my heart good to see how Brunehoff's vague early sketches eventually grew into one of the world's most beloved characters, though it made me yearn for my old cardboard box back.
During my wife's lunch break, we met at Saks and I trailed her through a maze of chic fragrance counters, dodging clerks who acquired their merchant skills in an Istanbul spice market. Saks brings out the secret shopping animal in my wife, who once ran the men's department at Bonwit Teller and loves the sleek ferocity of Manhattan. Wherever she paused to sniff the latest fragrance, I bumbled behind like Babar in the City.
"Here is an extraordinary fragrance the gentleman will treasure," murmured a glossy young woman with nice Mediterranean eyes, misting a small card and waving it at me like a veil from the Arabian Nights. "This rare essence comes from Tuscany and is exclusive to Saks. Isn't that lovely? I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I sold this very fragrance to George Clooney just the other day."
My wife went back to her conference, and I continued my autumn inspection of Midtown Manhattan. I've been to New York 50 times in 50 years, but it suddenly struck me that the city had never looked better, though maybe I was just seeing it again through a child's eyes.
God on a Cell Phone?
I purchased a sack of warm chestnuts at 44th and 6th and wandered on up to Rockefeller Center to watch skaters, then headed a few blocks up to the Museum of TV and Radio, which is now called the Paley Center and turned out to be closed to visitors for the day because of a private exhibition and conference.
"Are you perhaps part of the media conference?" a brisk young woman dressed in black asked, consulting her official invitation list.
"No, ma'am," I admitted. "But I smell a little like George Clooney."
She laughed. "Just come back tomorrow, George. We open at noon."
"I'll be on a train headed home," I said.
"Lucky you," she said, sounding sincere. "I love riding trains."
So I moved on to say hello to my literary agent at William Morris, a Duke graduate, and see his new baby's pictures, then pushed on for a walk through Central Park, kicking through leaves the way I did when I was 10. I sat briefly in a patch of sun on a bench and watched skateboarders and dog-walkers pass. Several costumed people went by, too, including a bearded guy in a pink tutu.
At a bookshop near Grand Central Station, I found Jim Harrison's latest book and came upon several hundred people standing in line for a Work Fair, hoping to find a job.
I walked up Park Avenue to sit for a while more in the flickering solitude of St. Bart's Church on Park Avenue, resting my dogs in the beautiful gloom of a venerable Romanesque church that first served the immigrant masses that flooded the city 100 years ago and went through a pitched legal battle with the city and developers in the 1980s. That fight drove off half the congregation and nearly closed St. Bart's door forever.
The church has hung on, however, still serving the homeless and still making sacred music. A young man was playing the pipe organ as I entered, something I couldn't name by Bach. But then he finished and disappeared and the silence was deep, marked only by the muted sounds of the city.
Two pews ahead of me, a man was on his knees devoutly praying, talking out loud to God. Eventually I realized he was quietly speaking into a cell phone. I wondered if perhaps God had given him His private mobile number.
Best and Worst
The train came out of the tunneled darkness of New York into the bright sunlight of New Jersey, clicking past lagoons filled with cattails and old tires, gray cement yards, idle cranes. Soon we were passing Newark, the golden dome of some majestic building I'd never seen gleaming in the bright Halloween sunlight.
A forest of sycamore trees and a golf course came next as we picked up speed, swaying past suburban backyards that had yet to be raked, empty ballparks, schools. The toddler behind me was already napping. Near Princeton, I saw a lone deer standing in a golden wood, head raised, watching the train pass. At Hamilton, we passed a factory that made "Vitreous China Plumbing Fixtures," reminding me of the dorm showers at my college.
By the time we clattered across the Schuylkill River in Philly, Cliff the farmer and I -- fellow English majors -- were admiring handsome Angus cows in a field somewhere in Montana and watching the swirling currents of the Platte River pass, falling into reverie. A lone rower was leaning into his oars in the noon sunlight of Philly, heading up the Schuylkill. The bright sun made my nose itch.
"Rivers make my favorite sound," Cliff says at this point in his sad and comic road trip west. "If I had brought along my rowboat, I could have escaped confusion because when you row you tend to think about nothing except the world floating off behind you. Staring at the river I began to wonder what we are when we are alone."
Riding a train alone is a little like that, too. The past and future become one, or maybe just momentarily irrelevant, with the gentle rocking beneath you. A train ride reveals both the best and worst of America -- and probably one's own self as well.
One minute we were passing an ornate abandoned hospital that looked like a movie set for a slasher film. A few moments later, as we dragged into Wilmington, I saw two old black men sitting in the warm sunlight in a backyard, laughing at something one of them had said. The toddler behind my seat began to stir and sing nonsense songs that made me think of my own children, who were now college students and didn't yet need to remember the comforting adventures of Babar.
At Baltimore, I saw blocks of row houses that could easily have been the very ones where my Aunt Leona and Uncle Carson lived on the city's north side, where I always went to visit for a week in the summer and learned to love the Orioles and secretly cuss like a longshoreman, though I never really did.
We stopped for half an hour at Union Station in Washington, and 30 people boarded our passenger car, filling the seats around us. The toddler stuck his head around the seat and grinned shyly at me. Next thing I knew, he was seated beside me, the two of us looking at the Amtrak magazine as if it were Brunehoff's "Histoire de Babar." His mother, looking stressed, asked if he might be bothering me. "Not in the least," I honestly replied, showing him a photograph of Paris.
"What's your name?" I asked my new seat companion. He looked up and me and grinned. "Ta-ta mama," he pronounced. "His name is Tony," his mother provided from behind.
As we headed across the Potomac, I pointed out glimpses of the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, and the dome of the U.S. Capitol to Tony. Thomas Jefferson's memorial looked close enough to reach out and touch. Tony was more interested in eating my chocolate chip cookies.
The light was already fading in northern Virginia. The woods were afire with color. We passed perfectly still blackwater ponds, flashed over rural bridges past drowsing farms. By then Cliff the farmer and I were flat on our backs, missing our dogs but unexpectedly remembering our boyhoods in the woods, having stumbled over a root and taken a hard fall in Oregon's Ochoco National Forest.
"I had a sudden stroke of pure luck when a yellow and black-headed Scott's oriole landed in a branch of a pine directly above my head," he wrote. "We didn't have this oriole back in Michigan, but I was familiar with it from my third-grade Audubon cards. I stared up at this bird and it stared back down at me. Parts of life are truly beautiful, I thought. Here I was flat on my back in an alien forest with an intermittent throb in my ribs and along comes a bird yellow as liquid sun to keep me company. Better yet, the bird found me here and stopped to take a look."
Good Book, Good Trip
I saw my first trick-or-treaters as we rolled slowly past the handsome campus of Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Va., one of the prettiest towns I've ever seen, with the railroad track running straight down the main drag. Three small ghosts and what appeared to be a small person dressed as a large grape made their way along a sidewalk, holding hands and plastic jack-o-lantern buckets.
The elderly couple seated across the aisle invited me to share their table in the dining car, so I did. Herb was a retired philosophy professor from Johns Hopkins. Fran was a music educator about to retire. We talked about politics, sex, religion -- all the things you're never supposed to discuss with strangers. They were on their way to a friend's funeral in South Carolina.
When I got back to my seat, Tony was singing nonsense songs again as he dozed off to sleep in his mom's lap. She was already asleep, too. Darkness pressed against the train's windows, and I settled in to finish my road trip with Cliff the farmer.
By my calculation, I finished the book somewhere around Vass, but I won't tell you what happened to Cliff, because the book was the best book I've read this year and it made me glad I'd gone to New York to see the birth of Babar and think about my own life's travels from a cardboard box. Sadly I forgot to ask where Tony and his mom were headed.
My friend Walt was unexpectedly waiting at the train depot in Southern Pines. The train was only two minutes late. A dozen people got off. Earlier that evening, Walt told me, he'd worn a Burger King costume as he took his children around Weymouth Heights.
"I probably won't have the reason to dress up on Halloween too much longer," he said, displaying the bittersweet truth that comes to every papa. He added, "I was going to wear the Burger King costume down here to meet you, but I thought it might scare the blazes out of you."
Walt drove me home, and I let myself into a house that wasn't quite empty. The dogs acted as if I'd been gone for six months rather than two days. I made myself a cup of tea and poured a glass of very old sherry that another friend named Eddie had recently given me and played with the dogs till the novelty of having me back wore off.
Then I reread the first chapter of "The English Major," thinking how I hate to finish a really good book, even one where I don't have to pretend to know the words. A good story, like a long train ride, stays with you.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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