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5:11pm leaving

I'm not a good traveler, not because I don't love to travel, but rather because I can hardly bear to leave any place behind. As a kid, I stole souvenirs of every motel, every Waffle House, every rest stop, and every unscheduled delay, because the notion of losing a place that I'd had at my fingertips has always been almost too much. Over the years, I've developed the finer skills of moderation, and my closets are no longer packed with the complimentary mints and placemats of destinations of little distinction, but on longer stays, I still have pangs of wanting to hold on, to be dragged away like a prisoner on the green mile.

I've wound up my trip to Chicago in an odd way, having seen my brother and sister-in-law off to the El and returned to their empty apartment to loll about in peculiar isolation for several hours. I tidied listlessly, doing the last dishes and watering the plants, finally closing the place up like a vacation cabin and locking the door one last time. I stepped down the creaky, well-polished stairs, dropped a few bags of trash in the dumpster, and headed out and over to Ogden Street.

Today's one of those bitter cold days, with biting wind and a vicious freeze that pervades every opening in your clothes and chills your eyes to the point that you lose fine focus. I watched the skyline rise and fall around me as I walked briskly on rapidly tiring feet, still feeling a bit overwhelmed at the scale of this city. A huge tower block looms on the south side of Ogden, ten stories of deserted former medical school relaxing into a disgraceful monochromic Mondrian as its cladding of marble selectively drops away. In my town, a building this size would be a skyscraper, lording over Main Street, but here's it nothing, nowhere, and no one cares.

I walked further and looked back to the intricate, brooding facade of the Cook County Hospital, which is deserted as of last week and looking into the concrete gulf where the Eisenhower & El run with an almost lonely look. Catching a terrific view of the downtown skyline, with the mute towers there winking at me in blue, and missing my family as their train heads south to San Antonio, I could easily understand the sentiment.

I'm surprised to feel something catch in my throat, but before I can think more about it, I see the El racing me to the platform, and I'm off, running under a mountain of luggage, hoping to beat the train, and for a moment, I'm breathing pure adrenaline, a fitting end to a week of almost decadent inactivity.

6:13pm the waiting is...

I wish they'd announce which gate the Capitol Limited will be boarding from--it'd be a shame to wait two hours and still get a lousy seat. I've at least got a friendly neighbor in the lounge, though, a bit of quotidien chat to pass the moments.

7:01pm on the train

Got through the waiting, got on board, and now I'm perched behind a baby, relearning the art of religion as I implore the various godheads for silence, or at least for occasional disruptions in the screeching and parental calm-talk.

10:18pm perchance to dream

I've been fidgeting in my seat, trying to read, but just on the edge of being too tired to actually do it well. I've also been trying to sleep, but the book's got me too interested to do that well, either. As a compromise, I've perched sideways on the seat, reading, but holding the book in a way that'll let it drop to the side should I actually manage to drift off.

4:20am the wee hours lounge (southbound edition)

I've finally drifted out of a fitful sleep, if not a dream-filled one. I'm really not suited to sleeping in a chair, unlike my father, who could have probably slept in a dentist's chair during an anaesthesia free drilling session. Luck was on my side, though, and my seatmate fled to a refuge far from the crying baby (which settled down amazingly quickly, I must say), so I again had a pair of seats in which to attempt a sleeping position. I managed to shake the airline cramp instinct and spread out in a sloppy sprawl of khakis and flannel, rolling and re-rolling my old brown coat into a pillow of sorts. I'd find a perfect position, often triggering an almost involuntary "mmmmm" as I curled into it and felt sleep closing on me like a vise, only to wake again an hour later and have to undertake the quest all over again.

4:41am Pittsburgh

I'm back in Pittsburgh, stopped in the station, and that damned light's right outside my window again, flooding my seat with a murky yellow light that makes me feel like the subject of a Serrano artwork. I'm looking forward to dawn and the chance to hover at the window watching something other than a seamless light show.

6:37am Dawson, PA

We cleared an interminable chain of mobile homes and sailed into a town of amazing victorian buildings, resplendent in turrets and gingerbread. I have to wonder where the wealth came to build a place like this so far from anything.

6:43am Connellsville, PA

Another in-between town, a confection of reasonably well-preserved twentieth century urban evolution. I watch the town sweep by and wonder what I always wonder--who would I be if I'd grown up here instead of in Scaggsville, MD?

9:13am Cumberland, MD

Back in Maryland's other city, this time in daylight. The spires of the churches glint in the bright morning sun, and life goes on around the train in a Monday sort of way. This town is such a paradox, simultaneously lovely and raw, mixing history and bad taste in nearly equal measure. We've pulled in next to the VFW/American Legion building, the words "FOR GOD AND COUNTRY" emblazoned on its side in foot-high helvetica, and we're creeping along and into the station at a slow enough pace to take it all in at leisure. One of the things Paul and I always had in common was one of our criteria for what we thought of a place--how would it be to be a gay teenager there--and I can't say I'd want to be one here. The fringes at the right are a little too entrenched and too privileged for this town to be welcoming to anyone who doesn't fit neatly in the mold, but I can't help but think it wouldn't necessarily be a bad place to return to once you'd built up the wisdom and fortitude to make your own place in the world. The whole cloth of Cumberland may be burlap, but it's plentiful and sturdy. Maybe I'm just romanticizing the place, but it's hard not to, seeing neighborhood after neighborhood of old victorian houses stacked up on the hillsides like an overly optimistic train garden.

9:38am somewhere in-between

I've moved to the lounge car again in hopes of catching a glimpse of my sad little cabin from the train. I'm not entirely sure that this line is even the one that goes by there, but I figure I'll give it a try at least until I pass Martinsburg without seeing anything familiar.

The windows on the right side of the train are appallingly dirty, and for no obvious reason, because the windows on the other side look fine.

10:02am Orleans Crossroads

Passed through the little townlet (maybe eleven houses) known as Orleans Crossroads, feeling overjoyed to see Clyde's old house and the little road leading to the tracks, and the access road you take to get to my cabin. I watched the DC lawyer's cottage pass, then Light's Farm, then the little brown cottage next to mine, then, almost lost in the sunlight flickering through the trees, my sad little cabin, perched on the hillside looking as run-down as ever, but not, as I'd pessimistically imagined, burned down or otherwise in ruins. The electric bill suddenly dropped to zero a year ago, and I've been anxious about why, skipping the obvious possibilities like the single light I leave on burning out or a tree knocking out the wires. In typical fashion, I've imagined it being burned down by evil teenagers or collapsing from its tilted foundation of railroad ties and slumping into a pile of firewood on the hillside.

I had the direction all wrong on the last trip, though it was dark enough I'd never have found it anyway, but it's a curious feeling to be on one of those Superliners I've waved at over the years. It's almost too miraculous to think that the train that takes me from Maryland to Chicago would run almost through the front yard of the old place, and it makes me want to get up there soon with my tools and raw materials, to keep my Dad's last surviving boondoggle going as a sign of defiance.

10:09am Great Cacapon, WV

Got a great view of the old "big city" that Orleans Crossroads is a suburb to. I've made this trip to Hancock, Maryland a million times, following the chunk gravel road back to the interstate as an alternative to the more baroque route through the mountains. Tracking the Potomac river, a thousand rough campsites assembled from old trailers, shacks, and lean-tos line the river, and at night, bonfires reign over the darkness from most of them. Every few years the river rises and the old beat-up travel trailers end up hanging from the trees. Sometimes the camps get rebuilt, with the old trailer frames still dangling overhead like tribal markers.

10:20am the little airport

There's a tiny airstrip here, immaculately maintained. Dad had always planned to keep an old junky car here, so he could fly up here and just drive the last few miles, but it never came to pass. When I think of his old plane, it makes me feel like a child of great wealth, even if it was just a junky old 1946 Aeronca with no running lights or electrical system. That plane scared the hell out of me, but it was something mystical to Dad, something I'm just getting a handle on now.

10:52am nearing Martinsburg, WV

Just returned from the pocket restroom, which is an experience akin to attempting to pee while competing in a rodeo. That said, I'm amazed at how clean and non-stinky they are.

This region seems to be on the boundary where run-down, but distinct and well-loved houses disappear in favor of late-century tract houses with showy facades and crappy siding everywhere else. I don't have a lot of friends who live in these sort of houses, because their character becomes suspect to me as soon as I find that they willingly live in such wretched places. Maybe I'm elitist, maybe I'm just cantankerous, but give me cracked real plaster walls and scruffy real wood floors any day.

10:55am along the C&O canal

Sometimes it's just a shadow, a barely discerable ditch, and others, it looks like it could be put to use again. At any rate, digging a 190-mile body of water from DC to Cumberland is one hell of a project, our own highly-localized Great Wall of China.

We're in Harper's Ferry now, place of John Brown's denouement, town of red brick and grey stone and everywhere everywhere history, hanging over the place like a cloak.

1:31pm (2:31 DC time) Union Station

Back home, back to the bustle, time to rush through the station, call for my ride, and race for the Metro, heading for home.

8:47pm home

Ensconced in the strange familiar environment I call home, halfway between Baltimore and DC, my house neat and tidy because of my Manhattan Project of housecleaning before my trip. I've just woken from a composite bath/nap sort of thing I undertook hoping to make a smoother transition from slowtime to realtime, and I feel muzzy. The dog seemed pleased to see me, though not as much as I'd have hoped. Must dote on her more in the future, to earn a more deranged welcome happy dance. Everything else seems right, but a bit off-center. I feel like writing more about the train, but am a bit tired and raw, so that'll have to wait.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
I'm doing nothing, quite busily, really, doing nothing, just cooking, talking, sitting around, just being here with family, just being here far from home and yet home.

I've seen monks in supermarkets, ghost stations on the El rusting into infinity between the lanes of the Eisenhower, endless realms of perfect neon and long lanes of spanish signs, "lavanderia, taqueria, tortas," and more in this otherwhere place. I've drifted through the forests of steel and concrete on Lower Wacker Drive, threaded the traffic on the LSD, and sat in slow slow traffic on Western Avenue reading signs signs signs in the twilight sullen grey. I guess I should be sad to leave, seeing as I've managed to find something of an island here, where I've thought of work just once, and fleetingly, and I am, but I've touched refuge and I know where I can find it.

When my train pulls out tomorrow, I'll be carrying some of that geography with me, looking out of the window, and smiling a slight and boundless smile.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
I'm sitting on the deck off the rear of Will & Pam's apartment, watching the rain over their block and the clouds bringing the Chicago skyline in and out of focus on this insanely temperate afternoon. I reminds me of one of the few things I miss from my mostly unhappy sojourn in Atlanta--the presence of skyscrapers like navigation beacons, always there to remind you where you are. It was a bit easier there, where the pink GLG Grand building stood over my low apartment block on Crescent Avenue like an exclamation point in constant interjection--"hey, here's your home," but any landmark is a welcome help in a sprawling and unfamiliar city.

What Chicago reminds me of most, though, is Baltimore extrapolated to a immense scale, and I can understand why my family would so quickly accept this as home. From the worn low-rise neighborhoods to the irregular skyline, this place has a Baltimorean warmth, albeit one filtered through a magnifying lens. I'm constantly struck by things that longtime Chicagoans seem not to notice, like the extreme width of the main avenues and the flatness and squareness of everything, elements that jostle for prescience among things that seem so familiar to me, like the red brick, rust, and signs of industry on the way up and down at the same time.

Yesterday I did my one touristy bit, albeit in a less-than-touristy way. Pam and I rode the clanking, amusement-park ride El into the loop and headed for the Sears Tower, which I felt a lemming-like drive to ascend on top of an abiding sense of hipster guilt for wanting to do something so obvious.

We entered the flashy Skydeck entrance, where guards examined my minidisc walkman in great detail in the x-ray machine, tempted to curiosity by my home-made binaural microphone, with which I'd hoped to use to record a bit of sound from the terminal 2 neon & sound installation at O'Hare before I found out that the public were no longer allowed into the terminal. They finally decided it was okay and directed us toward an empty maze of those seatbelt band things that seem to be the evolutionary descendents of red velvet ropes, and I felt a rising instinct to run the maze like a lab rat racing to the ticket booth, but stifled it to step around the belts and get a pair of tickets to the elevator.

The entire complex was essentially deserted, and we watched the tedious, flashy intro film and wandered the gallery of fun skyscraper facts in cosy isolation before being herded onto the elevator for the ride up. As with everything in our entertainment-drenched culture, the elevator ride had been made into a cheesy multimedia spectacle, with a huge video screen and speakers forcing dumb imagery into us like french people force-feeding a paté goose. The film's ironic highlight was the sudden burst of static and alarms as the disembodied narrative voice "lost control" of the elevator, hurling it through the roof and into outer space. We couldn't help but laugh at how inappropriate it was in context of recent skyscraper happenings and wonder how many elderly tourists had had to be wheeled out of there after hearing that klaxon and recorded announcement of "don't be alarmed."

The disneyland spectacle was annoying, but faded into bitter memory when we reached the huge and mostly deserted indoor skydeck, just after dark. The Sears Tower may lack presence and a certain lushness of detail and design, but the observation deck was stunning, better than any other I've ever been on.

A network of glowing neo-Nazca lines formed an infinite map around us, and you watched them through broad, tall windows in an open, airy area that echoed the broad avenues below. We spent a long time in rapt attention to the land below, circumnavigating the deck twice in a series of long pause and sauntering strolls. I'm used to old land, old towns, and well-worn ways, and the square, perfectly aligned grid system was an amazing sight, glowing like veins circulating a radioactive tracer. I found it almost impossible to be cynical there, just watching the city in a state of awe in spite of my best intentions to view it with a jaundiced, Baudrilliardian detachment. Strolling to the northwestern corner to stand and watch the John Hancock building, I couldn't help but envy those folks with apartments in the tallest residence in the world, and wondered how it affected their lives to be surrounded by so much light and life glimpsed from a god-like vantage point while they sat around eating breakfast and doing everyday things in Valhala.

On the ride down, the elevator played out another dumb story, and I felt insulted this time around, wondering why on earth an experience like this needs padding. In my world, the deck would be something so much simpler--spare, free of distraction, and empty of preconception, a stone set into a zen garden of shimmering light, lost somewhere in the clouds.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
It's there when I wake up, on the horizon with its twin antenna towers like the horns of the druidic forest god. I love the John Hancock Center. Where most tall buildings took the Van der Rohe glass block aesthetic and went no further, filling the skylines of the world with blank glass crackerboxes, the JH is a lovely variation on the theme, a truncated pyramid framed in diagonals, with a presence that's both ominous and human at once. The Sears Tower may be taller, but its clusters of irregular blocks suggest little more than a tiny-headed man with stooped shoulders. John Hancock, on the other hand, is Easter Island, Incan temples, and 2001.

It's so pretty and enimatic on the skyline that it's doubly ironic that one of my guilty pleasures also stems from the same source--those antennas, as well as the spire on the Sears Tower, flood this neighborhood with electromatic radiation, modulated across a narrow bandwidth, carrying encoded images and sound on an FM sideband. They flood the neighborhood with tv from cultures from Asia to South America, flood it with greek variety shows starring angry dwarves and drag queens, flood it with steamy, incomprehensible Telenovelas, saturate the airwaves with arabic music videos and filipino game shows. It's a terrific spectacle, and I almost feel like I'm chained to the tv, watching in stunned silence as the whole odd circus unfolds. The latin shows are especially vivid, shot in blaring, insane colors that nearly leave acid-trippy trails on the retinas as you try to follow the action (usually without success).

Chicago's the host of a lot of bad television, like Springer, Jenny Jones, and other such nightmares, but these are joyless entertainments for sheepish masses, not campy fun. Where this town rules is in its culture clash, everything jamming simultaneously on the airwaves like an accidental festival, speaking myriads of languages all at once, and I'm a prisoner to the remote, frantically trying to find an overview by flickering back and forth across the spectrum and thrilled, just thrilled into dumbfounded astonishment by the constant overthrow of norms.

I look over the tv and out the window, seeing the JH quietly lording over it's side of town even as its radio waves tell a loud, complex story that I just can't quite follow, at least not yet.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
John Waters notwithstanding, Chicago is absolutely the filthiest city I've ever seen, and I've been to Scranton and Gary, Indiana. I could tell where Chicago-land started from my vantage point in the train, just by watching the accumulation of the trash that Philip K. Dick called "kipple." It curls into the curbs, drifts into dunes on asphalt roofs, clogs street drains, and swirls in dust devils in the desolate plains where dead industries yield to rust and weeds.

It presents a curious aesthetic quandry, too, because it's also beautiful in a paradoxical way, almost like the way a rotting log covered with moss looks beautiful--like it's part of some not entirely obvious churning cycle of life. Chicago's a wreck, but it's not fossilized, either, like some of the world's most revered beauty spots, which stand frozen in time, unable to change as they sink into italian lagoons or turn into disneylands. Chi-town's not beautiful, but then my beloved Baltimore isn't either--these are care-worn working faces. I'm ambivalent about both decay and uncontrolled renewal, but it's undeniable that Chicago's uneasy combination of collapse and construction has a certain Blade Runner-esque appeal. You just have to have a certain respect for the urban drive that reversed a river and built insanely complex miniature underground railroads to move their goods, regardless of the actual consequences. Chicago may not always be right, but it's big big big and American in a way that euro-flavored New York could never hope to be, a surprising (and accurate) point made to me earlier today by my locally-acculturated brother and sis-in-law.

We had breakfast at a terrific local eatery, dropped back for a breather at Will & Pam's apartment, then set out to visit the teeming open-air Maxwell Street market--as good an excuse for challenging your agoraphobia as anything. We jostled with crowds speaking spanish, english, polish, dutch, and chinese, rummaging through tables laden with a mixture of junk, cheap imported crap, and the occasional actual find. The strong scents of latin food saturated the air to the point you could almost swim in it, following the spicy aromas to their source, to churros, tamales, pupusas, and other delights I decided not to chance on my first day in town.

The three of us trudged back to the car and headed home for an afternoon of Will's cooking and Pam's easy-going chat, another moment of warm time in their care-worn kitchen in this odd, sprawling city in a constant state of kipple-ization and rebirth, this oddly perfect place to recalibrate a tired soul. It's a perfect place to retreat to, because it's gorgeous enough to draw me in and yet ugly enough to remind me where I belong.
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3:13pm DC-Union Station

Superliner coach, seat 17, at the window. We're drifting out of Union Station at a walking clip, heading westward, or maybe northward, or some curious other direction that's destined to end in Chicago, at another Union Station, a linguistic loop.

I've never taken a long train trip before, having only ever taken the four-hour metroliner to New York--a breezy trip if not a particularly elegant one.

This one's not particularly elegant yet, as we rumble through the rough underbelly of the system, trundling languidly through the extended sidings of DC's rail nexus, but I'm already entertained, catching sides of familiar sights I've not seen. I'm having a hard time not grinning at the whole experience of it, which helps to explain why someone once told me that I should pretend to be retarded when I'm enjoying things most people find tedious so my goofy aura of joy will make some sort of sense. I concur, to a point, but think that I can still pull off "youthful free spirit" as an excuse for a few years yet.

We're picking up speed, cruising over the grim northern suburbs like a police helicopter in search of someone bad, so I think I'll stop writing for a while, perch at my window, and watch the world roll by outside, at least until it gets dark.


Was watching the urban backlots unfold and suddenly realized that we were coming up on the part of Rockville where I used to work. My first semi-professional job was there, lost in a sprawl of fading garages and low cinderblock offices for has-been companies and not-yet-been enterprises.

The train line ran so close to the back of our building that our microfilm camera operators all had to stop filming when they heard the train horns nearing or wind up with blurred images. I'd to sit in my little room, under yellow lights that protected the diazo film from accidental exposure, just watching the railbed and the passing trains, especially the Superliners, which I always imagined to be full of fabulous people going to interesting places, going anywhere but where I was then, stuck in a permanent traffic jam in between a troublesome past and an uncertain future.

Feeling like a time traveler, I watched that grimy window where I used to sit pass by and imagined seeing my younger self framed in it, listlessly copying microfiche and wishing I could be on this train, going where I'm going, going somewhere, going anywhere.


I'm having a hard time shaking the airplane habit, so unused to having so much space to unfold that my body keeps instinctive curling up into torturous airliner yoga positions. I have to keep forcing myself to relax, recalling old exercises from a modern dance class to let my body uncoil from its tension. Sunset is flooding the coach and the mountains are rising to the right side of the train, lit in luminous shades of insane yellow like a Van Gogh.

4:47pm Martinsburg, WV

A town that looks like it used to be somewhere, or maybe like it's almost ready to be somewhere again. There's a colossal red brick roundhouse complex here, half in ruins and yet still dignified, its smashed-out dark windows framed with elegant brickwork and signs that the architect cared to make it something more than mundane. A B&O caboose, resplendent in xmas lights and wreaths, perches on the stub line by the old maintenance roundhouse, and the diagonals of heavy steel braces holding fragments of wall on one end of the complex seem to imply that this place hasn't seen its last days just yet.

We're holding here for a smoke break, a curious indulgence to the nic-addicted that makes me wonder if they'd provide a similar service for people with, say, an addiction to public sex, if enough people on the train shared the addiction. It'd be a splendid setting of industrial decay for a trackside quickie, at the very least.

5:54pm fade to black in West Virginia

I'd entertained a foolish thought that I might be able to catch a quick glimpse of my old cabin in WV on the way, but it's so dark out that it seems almost as if the train crew has switched off the scenery for the night.

I know this darkness well--this is the mountain dark that sucks the light out of a flashlight beam, leaving only a pinpoint of light in the distance as the sole witness that the thing is even switched on. It's the kind of dark that revives my childhood fear of the dark, and it's the reason I learned the ancient art of using a chamber pot in the days before we had a semi-functional indoor bathroom in the cabin, when a trip to the toilet meant a trip through outer space to the musty old outhouse.

This dark is that pre-industrial, primeval, "still getting used to hominid life" kind of dark, where the stars burn burn burn so bright that you can actually see the grey haze of the Milky Way, the reminder of something so big it can barely be imagined, and that's been nothing but a memory for a century of urban ascendancy.

Here and there, I catch the orange luster of a raging bonfire in the woods, surrounded by a circle of barely-lit celebrants making light under a curtain of astronomy, and I feel oddly proud of my species in spite of our seemingly endless catalog of failures.

6:29pm Cumberland, MD

Cumberland's one of those places that makes you thankful for dire poverty, which is definitely no fun for humans, but perfect for architecture.

This town's economy had been submerged for ages, my entire life at the very least, and you can pinpoint the collapse in the frozen styles of the buildings. Lovely brick and block edifices climb the valley walls, forties glass department store facades still hawk a mishmash of wares, and extraordinary sights blend with a chaos of truckstop madness. This town could almost be an italian mountain town, if not for the highways and fast food holes and complete lack of a prosaic rural pace--it encrusts the valley from peak to peak, a strange historical urban confection in a state as small as Maryland, and so far from anywhere. When the railroad and canal were king, Cumberland reigned, but now it's something else, a few moments in time preserved by suffocation.

1:19am the wee hours lounge

I was having a hard time getting into a proper mental state after Cumberland, hovering in between attempts at a sweaty, fitful sleep and trying to read the books I brought along for the ride. I sat and listlessly watched the scenery drifting by as we pulled into the sprawl heralding Pittsburgh, aided by the sudden extinguishing of the coach lights around 10:30. I was hypnotized by the ominous chemical plants and the monuments of heavy industry, seeing things on scales we never see in Maryland, or at least in my part of the state. We passed one factory for what seemed like an hour, its broad and filthy windows glowing like the face of a jack o'lantern and revealing hulking, unidentifiable shapes within, all brilliantly lit in sodium yellow and looking almost defiantly desolate. I watched and wondered, pondering what could come from those acres of enclosed machinery, feeling overwhelmed at the realization that there are factories like this everywhere, all over the country, all over the world, the inexplicable machinery of daily life, the mechanism of a world that's just too damned big and complex to ever hope to understand.

When we pulled into the station in Pittsburgh, the train stopped along side of a huge institutional light fixture the size of a toilet. It hung there like a bloated, jaundiced lightning bug, directly outside my window, soaking me in a urinary-grade yellow glare, washing the poetry out of me and lulling me into a sickly sleep that lasted several hours.

I woke up as the final minutes of a five-hour minidisc were playing out in my earphones--the last bits of the BBC radio version of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which I'd transferred over for the trip. I ejected the disc and exchanged it for another I'd made of low-key music and sat for quite a while, just watching lights passing in the window like I was traveling in outer space and feeling more relaxed then I've felt in ages.

I fidgeted a bit, thinking I'd go back to sleep, but decided instead to roam the train for a while, exploring some of the cars I'd been too timid to explore when everyone was awake.

The lounge car is completely deserted, or rather, it's completely mine, and I'm sitting here, typing this in my own private car, watching the spectacle of midwestern afterhours in a splendid solitary mood and wondering where we are.

6:27am the wee hours lounge part 2

I'm awake again, probably for the day at this point. I'm not well-suited to sleeping in a chair, even a wide and nicely adjustable pair of chairs, so I'll probably be a bit tired today. I'm in the lounge car again, not alone this time--am just in my superspy mode, wearing my headphones, but eavesdropping on a curious conversation about how best to dispose of a gun used in a crime, how to reload quickly, and other such things. Now they're talking about mixed drinks, and I'm more alarmed than I was during the gun chat--thinking once again that it might actually be possible to be bored to death.

Never mind.

I'm not sure what time it actually is now. I think I'm on the other side of a time line or some such nonsense, and it's making me wonder how these train schedule cards work when you cross time lines--does the arrival time refer to the time in the time zone you left or the one you're coming into? Such deep philosophical questions...

I've made a startling discovery on this trip, too. I know where sofas go to die. When they're on their last legs, with cushions sagging and coming apart at the seams, they make their way down to the train tracks and give themselves to the stars in the sight of the passing trains. Then, the great sofa fairy winnows them away to nothing, from sofa to shreds to springs and frame to nothing--the great cycle of life as rendered in furniture.

7:51am dawn impending

It's funny, every time I've gone to the lounge car to write (out of necessity because of the relatively loud key action of my portable word processor), people have approached me to ask if I'm a writer.

I say yes, and fabulize the details whenever the harsh reality seems less than what I'd like. This ride has been both more and less than I expected, not quite to Orient Express standards, but infinitely superior to airliners, those crowded, rushed intercity buses of the air. As a nod to the romance of history, I said yes--I am a writer, traveling by train, and for this moment I'm the very picture of genteel elegance, albeit with bed-head.

Chicago is minutes away, somewhere off in the haze still, but ripe to rise from the landscape like concrete flowers blooming. I'm repacking my bags, undoing the sprawl of accessories, and combing my hair as the great jurassic skeletons of drawbridges and factories pass me by.

8:56am (my time)
7:56am Great Hall

Waiting in the great hall here, in amazing near-silence. The architecture of this place is a lot like that of the Union Station from which I departed 17 hours ago, but a bit less polished and nearly deserted, except for some folks sleeping on the wide wooden benches here.

My ride's here, so more later...


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January 2013

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