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Weekly Column by Andy Grieser
Column by Andy Grieser

November 15, 2002

There… (part 1 of 2)

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans winds its way daily from Chicago to the warm and welcoming Big Easy. I rode along last weekend; I love taking the train, as I’ve written here before, and I’ll be flying a lot the rest of the winter. I had the time, so took the opportunity.

While I love to watch the scenery, that’s often not enough. Into the backpack went the GameBoy Advance and a baggie full of games, plus Neil Gaiman’s Neverland and Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill. It’s a 20-hour trip, and I counted on just under half of that being spent sleeping. That last didn’t happen; I blame the Brits.

On the trip down, both sleeper cars were filled with a British tour group who had spent a few days in Chicago, were taking the train to N.O., spending two days there, and then taking a plane to Chicago and then to Heathrow. They were all older – 40s and up – and unfailingly polite.

Meals on the City of New Orleans are first class, which means white tablecloths and great food. Each table seats four, but there are only two dining cars, so groups of four are seated together whether or not they know each other. I was seated with a British couple and another American (himself on holiday). The husband half of the couple, who sat across from me, tried to teach me the rules of cricket. I tried to teach him the rules of NFL football. We laughed a lot and agreed both are better seen than talked about.

Unfortunately, all that goodwill was destroyed the next morning, when the British couple in the cabin next to me let their alarm clock go off at 5 a.m. And keep going off. Until 5:30. I’d read until midnight the night before – all y’all need to get Neverland as soon as possible – and am a light sleeper as it is. Getting back to sleep was hopeless, so there I was, cranky and tired.

Breakfast I shared with a Southern-fried pair of women and a late-20s African-American woman. The white women were interesting; I wanted to describe them as white trash, but that implies flawed character. These two were white trash but for the facts that they were incredibly friendly and had traveled the world. I couldn’t figure out their relationship; they weren’t related, and were very affectionate, so either close friends or lovers. Mostly I eavesdropped on their conversation with the African-American woman, who – upon the train passing through a cotton field – said gangsta rappers should be sent to pick cotton on plantations and "learn their place."

That day was spent, between bouts of reading and GBA, watching the towns roll past. Every single building along the track has its stories. I tried to imagine the lives there, the love and hate and sex and death in each of the little houses and large industrial warehouses. I watched people sitting on porches, walking down dirt roads, waiting at crossings. This is why I love to write: I love to imagine the story behind everything that’s happening.

Small towns aren’t, of course, the quaint burgs featured in so many movies. One absolutely astounded me: It was a huddle of mobile homes along a dirt road, surrounding a handful of crumbling windowless brick buildings. Each building had a crude hand-painted sign: Library. General Store. Tavern. I wish I’d been able to stop, get out and walk around. Write down the stories.

Next week: Boobies on Bourbon Street, the trip home, and Bruce Campbell.


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