Sunday, November 29, 2009

You got disappearing railroad blues?

In 1970, Steve Goodman wrote a great song called The City of New Orleans. I know you’ve heard it. Arlo Guthrie sang it and it became a hit.

The song is about a long ride on an old train. Have you ever taken a long train ride on an old rail clunker? If you have, perhaps you’ve experienced a pang of what Arlo describes in the last verse of the song: “This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”

Old trains are like old starlets; your thoughts seem to swirl around, not what they are, but what they once were.

A hundred and fifty years ago, you see, trains were the movers and shakers of emerging technology. They were like iphones are now (except iphones cannot take you anywhere.) Great mad beasts bellowing steam and sound—the trains came bursting forth on the world stage in the mid-1800s. They were the iron horses of industrial hegemony, the thundering herd of collective progress, the unstoppable enforcers of manifest continent-wide destiny. Trains didn’t halt their hubric trek from down east to sagebrush west until they reached the Pacific Ocean; and there they dumped every genre of American adventurers—carpetbaggers, scalawags, gold-seekers, desperate immigrants, ramblers, gamblers, cowboys, Indians and even a few regular people. It seems the belching railroads dumped their restless passenger loads in LA and Frisco until airplanes could, several decades later, scoop the travelers up and extend their westward sojourns across the vast ocean where west morphs into east.

Locomotives were the kings and queens of industrial revolution transportation until mid 20th century, when cars and trucks captured our imaginations and our payment schedules.

Here's something to think about.

In a train, the conductor drives while everybody else rides.

In a car, each person becomes a conductor, guiding their own itinerary.

That’s what, I think, slowed the trundling of trains in America to a crawl—everybody wanted to do their own thing, control their own destin(y)ation. I can relate to that.

But we lost something when we waved those trains ‘bye about sixty or seventy years ago.

One line in Goodman’s The City of New Orleans song describes rolling past “graveyards of rusted automobiles.” That’s something to think about; there are megatons of extracted resources in America that, having endured the slow scourges of moth and rust, still exist beyond their ten or twelve years of utility; now rusting in the hidden corners of our properties and memories, they lapse to being just more junk. You see a lot of it if you do happen to ride on one our modern trains; the ride comes with a close-up view of civilization’s arse-side that you don’t get when you’re whizzing along on the freeway. You notice that obsolescence generates piles and piles of fashionable stuff that nobody seems to want. Have you been to a flea market lately? But I digress.

Cars, you know—they seem so convenient. But are they really?

I’m beginning to think they’re more trouble than their worth.

What’s inconvenient about operating a car is you can’t do anything else while you’re driving. You’ve got to keep eyes on the road, and remain attentive to what you yourself are doing and of course what all those other freaks on the road are doing.

No reading a magazine, no laptopping, no cellphone talking. No!

Haha. No cellphone talking!?

The roads are full of cellphone retards. (Don’t bug me about the use of the word; I chose it carefully.) Have you ever spotted a cellphone driver from behind? It makes you wonder if they should take a breathalyzer test. Some of them are even texting while they drive. They are a national menace.

You shouldn’t eat fast food while driving either! Guilty here.

If they were riding on a train, they could do all texting they want, all the yapping with Aunt Sally they want.

We should revisit trains. Their second wind could prove an impressive growth industry when we desperately need one.

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