Posts from — October 2009
Spoken word sings
Ex-punk rock chola
brings life to the party
As her web site says, “Poet Rachel McKibbens is an ex-punk rock chola with five children. Known for her astonishingly visceral stage presence and devotion to craft, McKibbens has become one of the most respected poets in the spoken word community. She is the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, is an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, a three-time NPS finalist, and a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and Pushcart nominee.”
Out Loud editor Molly Kat asked Rachel if we could feature some of her work, and she kindly obliged. We trust you’ll find her poetry and her voice both charming and disarming.
Head Above Water
Everything reminded you of what happened.
There were paintings of it hung
in the museums you frequented.
Each new canvas was the same
horrible event, only a minute later,
until finally, the last frame –
your bed, covered in flies.
It followed you home after wild nights out,
shadowed your stagger, wiped the spit from your chin.
Your friends couldn’t look you in the eye any more.
They complained about it frequently:
It’s always staring at me, not saying anything.
And why does it have so many teeth?
You did your best to go on with your life.
After it tore your car apart
you rode a bicycle to work.
When it started eating children,
you stayed indoors.
When the people of your town
circled your house with torches, you left quietly.
Within a week after your departure, the town
returned to its slick comforts.
Eleven years have gone by. Only a handful of people
remember what you look like. When your mother
cried out for you in her deathbed,
she called the wrong name.
The local fishermen recount slurred tales of your sightings.
They say you built a giant raft, that the two of you
are floating hundreds of miles out to sea,
where undiscovered creatures of the deep
wallow in the freedom of their namelessness.
Where the girl, somewhere small inside you,
can finally get some sleep.
Across the Street from the Whitmore Home for Girls, 1949
The Mad Girls climb the wet hill,
breathe the sharp air through sick-green lungs.
The Wildest One wanders off like an old cow
and finds a steaming breast inside a footprint in the snow.
She slips it into her glove, holds it close like a darling.
At night, she suckles the lavender tit, still warm
in her hard little hands. She drapes it over her heart–
the closest she will ever come to a Woman Thing.
The girl sleeps on her right side with the breast
tucked between her legs. Her eyes flutter like a rocked doll.
She dreams of Before the Father, when her body
was smooth as a crab, her fingers
tip-toe soft. Outside her bedroom, the Lonesome Boys
hid in trees to watch The Father lift her gown.
Before It Happened, her mouth was a shining crown,
her hair moved like a hungry dog.
In the morning, the girl is who she is again.
Her hair, a soft black brick, her body held together
by hammers. The breast is shriveled up. Gone cold
in her lap. A death-blue fish with one stone eye.
Reading All the Ads in the Back of Magazines
You fold two loads of laundry.
Your hands, once split by heat,
are now calloused, invincible.
You sit at your kitchen table,
masturbate next to a half-eaten bowl of cereal-
swollen clouds floating in pink sugar milk.
You stand in your living room
turn off the television, glare at the
reflection of your thickened hips,
wipe your hand across the screen
tearing through static.
A garbage truck roars outside your window.
You watch the barrels spit out the unwanted-
exhausted light bulbs and soggy cabbage,
a doll’s torso bruised by crayons.
You press your hand against the glass, shock
at how the morning’s cold presses back,
how even calluses do not deny
this pointed chill.
It is in this moment that you see yourself.
First, spot your left arm, pale blue stiff
and reaching. It tumbles with empty milk cartons
and a dead hamster zipped in plastic.
You see your heart waddle
like a damaged plum as it drops against
your breasts now sticky with syrup.
You watch your blood crumble and fall
like day-old rice, your face,
thin and jagged, slides from
the barrel like an oiled mask.
You turn away, once you recognize
the sound of your legs slamming
against the truck like twin corpses.
This is when you realize –
you should have kept his number,
should have stayed after he kissed you
so hard it split your lip
when he chewed your nipple through
your sweater and you nearly fainted
by the shock white charge of it,
when he ripped your stockings
grabbing your thighs, when you felt
his fingers move inside you
as if searching a coat pocket.
This is why the price tag still swings
from your wedding dress, why you cannot
fuck your husband with eyes open,
why you dunk your child’s head too long
while rinsing his hair.
This is why permanence terrifies,
why your spine threatens to tear out
and run, why you do not own pets
but keep cages
this is how you haunt your own house,
why your hands coil in hunger
and why the sound of screaming tires
burning away in the night
is the only song
that ever puts you to sleep.
October 24, 2009 1 Comment
Framing the Dark Side
By Larry Hamill
I have known Chas Ray Krider since the mid 1970’s, when he would roam the streets of Columbus, Ohio, with his trusty Leica M2. He shot seemingly mundane scenes that on closer examination revealed an aesthetic underpinning, which would continue throughout his life’s work. His deceptively simple compositions lent themselves to more complex narratives
In recent years, he has subtly combined his street images with fine tuned studio photography to create a more cinematographic experience. Through a very distinctive form of lighting, Chas Ray creates a sense of impending drama in his photographs. His exterior environs lead to an evocative interior action as his inner and outer worlds combine in fascinating ways.
Throughout his career, Chas Ray has received numerous grants from arts organizations, enabling him to continue pursuing his Zen-like form of narration. His work has been published throughout the world, and whether he is on the streets of Los Angeles or Madrid, his photographic journey continues.
The following images are from two series: Goodbye Kitty and Days of Noir.
Days of Noir
October 24, 2009 2 Comments
COVER FROM NOV.-DEC. 2009
- Goodbye Kitty
Above: Chas Ray Krider photo. See more in “Photography”
Danger — Killer Issue Ahead
What’s really great about this update are the volunteers – many of them contributing for the first time – who breathe fresh life into our pages. Putting out a magazine of any kind – paper or plastic – is not a job for one person. The more eclectic, the more it takes to make happen. Many thanks to editors Joe Weil (poetry); Jim Palombo (politics); Leslie Heywood (creative non-fiction); Mark Levy and Ryan Miosek, (legal); Metta Sama and Phyllis Mass (fiction); Lynda Barreto (“The Litchfields”); Molly Goldblatt (Out Loud), and the many “interested others” who help in large and small ways to keep the ball rolling.
A few things about the new Word Press blog format
(in case you didn’t notice):
We can archive automatically and completely;
You can register/subscribe more easily;
You can comment immediately on what you see/read;
We can build pages more rapidly, though not with the kind of design flexibility we’d like; we’ll work on that;
We’re now “Kindle-ready” — you can download stories to your e-ink book and take them with you on the road. Just like “Ulysses”, only shorter.
You can still tell your mother and your friends about us. And we hope you do. Word-of-mouth is everything.
“Kindle-ready” — What’s it mean?
On the go? Take along ragazine.cc. Simply dial in to zinepal at (http://www.zinepal.com/create) and create your own feed: http://old.ragazine.cc/feed/. Once we’re aboard your Kindle or other e-ink device, you’ll be able to read stories, check out the art, share in the lives of others, all while sitting on a beach in the Bahamas or Havana.
Thanks for reading!
Nunca Triste Lynda Barreto
Check out our Lynx…
Have a site? Link to us …
October 20, 2009 Comments Off on Cover: Nov.-Dec. 2009
With Famous Names
In Denver, a woman named Amelia Earhart reports on traffic from a helicopter for a local news station. The broadcast news people at that Denver TV station don’t crack a smile when they introduce Amelia Earhart in her helicopter. Maybe they were all born too late.
This got me thinking about famous names in unlikely places. With the help of an Internet search engine that uses U.S. census data to arrive at its statistics, I discovered that there are over 79,000 Amelias and almost 3,000 Earharts, but only one Amelia Earhart in America. Apparently, she’s the one flying around in a helicopter. And how many of the three Charles Lindberghs even have pilot licenses?
There was a Howard Johnson in a company I worked for once, but sadly, he didn’t work in our cafeteria. There are 2,837 Howard Johnsons in the U.S.
It must be difficult going through life with a famous person’s name. People either expect too much of you or don’t take you seriously. If you’re one of the three Frank Sinatras, for example, you probably have to be ready to sing a few bars of My Way at the drop of a fedora.
Not too many Tiger Woods, yet, because only some 1,500 or fewer people are named Tiger; but I’ll bet that situation changes in the future. At this time, there’s only one Tiger Woods, which should provide some comfort to the rest of the players on the Professional Golfers Association tour. We might eventually see some Tiger Smiths, Tiger Browns and Tiger Johnsons become celebrities, for that matter. Or we could soon see other not-so-famous Shaquilles, Beyonces and Chers. I’m surprised there are only 15,000 Elvises.
Barack Obama is not high on the list of popular names. In fact, there’s only one. I think Barack Schwartz or Barack Harrigan would have a nice ring.
Have any other of the two Mickey Rooneys or the 4,400 Elizabeth Taylors been married eight times?
There doesn’t seem to be an Alfonse Capone, but apparently there are nine Albert Capones, five Alfred Capones, and 13 Alan Capones. At least some of those 27 Capones are called “Al Capone” by their close friends, I suppose.
Of all the 18,000 Lincolns in America, how many would you guess are Abrahams? The Internet says only three.
Are all the 342 Bob Hopes funny?
You probably don’t realize that over 500 people are named Roy Rogers, yet there are only 429 Dale Evans’ to go around, making for almost a hundred lonesome cowboys, assuming they’re all cow people who want to hook up with a cowgirl counterpart having her famous name. Good luck, pardners, and happy trails to you.
There are estimated to be 19 William Shakespeares, but nary a Hamlet in sight, prince or otherwise.
Here’s another interesting statistic: only 276 people are named Jaclyn Smith, which just doesn’t seem like enough.
Although there are over 42,000 Levys, 201 are named Mark Levy, believe it or not, but I’m the only one you get to hear on Weekend Radio.
If you’d like to check the frequency of your name or someone else’s, visit the web site: HowManyOfMe.com.
Mark Levy is an attorney with the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman Howard and Kattell. He is a contributing editor to ragazine.cc with Ryan Miosek (Feeding the Starving Artist), and an occasional contributor to NPR, where his comments can be heard some Saturdays at noon.
October 17, 2009 4 Comments
America, I will sing for you.
Land of self-proclaimed dogmatic regulators. Offenders of the standard
78 degree room temperature. When you roll down the window, you say:
“Serendipitous to think so.” And the officer chuckles. The officer gives
you a handshake. You must reciprocate by throwing an equally ferocious
milkshake, or one of greater grandeur. Depending on the crossing chickens.
If it rains on your lawn do you spray disinfected solution on the branches
of the elks? Should you wipe clean your transmission with a rag made of dust?
Who will compare you to a fine summer’s clay? The fluorescent lights remind you
of Michael Jackson. You have a fever and no one will say: “Contentious grackle.”
WHEN BEES CRY
The thought entered my mind. The thought entered my mind during the middle of the night. In the middle of the night, the thought entered my mind and I cried. When I cried, the thought left my mind. It left my mind, this thought, and I have never thought this thought again. It has been twenty days since the night I thought this thought. I have not thought this thought since. Now I am worried that perhaps this is the nail that shuts the lid or the hammer that claws the nail from the lid. Maybe now I will think this thought again. Now that I’ve realized that I haven’t thought this thought in twenty days. But I do not want to think this thought. And I have not thought the thought. It is lovely, I think, not to think this thought.
A BIRD BROKE MY WINDOW
Yesterday morning, a crow flew into my room
and said: “Sell your lawn for Exxon.”
There was nothing else I could do.
I read out loud a few words I was reading.
The bird dropped dead.
Why did this bird have to die in my room?
d on my favorite desk.
Alina Gregorian is a graduate student in the program at the New School. She has created with Bianca Stone a poetry opera recently performed in New York city. Her prose poems have a sense of surrealism and play both comical and startling in theirs juxtapositions. This is her first publication in Ragazine.
October 17, 2009 1 Comment
Bring Me Waterlilies
We lay on the damp sand bank of a pond, and when the heat of day threatened to erase us, we dove below the water’s first few feet of warmth, following the tethered stems of waterlilies rooted in mud. We loved oblivion so much, we didn’t want to miss one minute of it. We fought the nods, our heads bobbing in their wake. We swam, but he went further out than I did, circling the acres of the pond, returning with buds of waterlilies saved from drowning. I floated on my back, one blossom wedged between my breasts. Night fell. We saw the true moon float on the pond’s surface, a disk rooted in deep water, its appearance in the sky a mere reflection. We were raised by strangers and we had no blood kin. We heard oblivion calling from our veins. We looked for more. We scored. He fixed me, and then he fixed himself. Near dawn we fell asleep, near waves, his sex slipped like the lily bud inside my sex that opened. The lilies browned and rotted on my window sill. I left when I met my future husband. He left when his high school sweetheart finished rehab. We stayed blood siblings. He lived inside me like a pulse, in dreams of anodynes and ponds. The virus blossoms ‘til we die. I was like him when we lived like waterlilies, both spawned and drowned by where deep night is.
October 17, 2009 Comments Off on Michele Leavitt
G-20 in Retrospect
In the last edition of ragazine.cc, I provided some comment in anticipation of traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the G-20 summit. Having participated in the proceedings, in both summit and demonstration venues, here’s my follow-up. As always, feel free to comment or add your insights accordingly.
The scale of the G-20 mandate
Clearly, building a sustainable global recovery amid the financial crisis that has both stunned the world and stunted its processes, seems a daunting and enormous undertaking. In fact, whether or not this could actually happen, particularly with any sense of urgency, and especially given the historical, political, social and religious differences among the countries represented at the G-20, seems open to question. After all, given the differences, particularly as they are intricately tied to the essence of economically motivated interests, well, it’s not hard to imagine the chore at hand.
In any event, the mandate of the G-20 has been directed at precisely this effort. Importantly, the major theme that has been integrated into the process is that business can no longer continue in its current form. Said another way, “business as usual” cannot coexist with the change needed in how the economic/financial/market systems are being run. What exactly “changing the system” means, and to what extent it’s possible in terms of regulation, de-regulation, and/or system “policing,” seems to remain in the balance of the G-20 considerations.
As a follow-up to the earlier Summit in London, what happened in Pittsburgh centered primarily around these issues: restructuring global financial institutions; preserving, restoring and protecting trade investments; securing food and agricultural growth; protecting the climate and the environment; and reinforcing the prosperity and health of the citizens of both developed and developing countries. Of course, this meant that the details, data and designs relative to each issue were expected to be sorted through, with some consensus among the countries – again, amid all the ‘differences’ referenced above – expected. It also meant that these negotiations would be happening under the growing threat of terrorism and war, two concerns underscored by the discovery of an Iranian nuclear plant the second day of the Summit.
Although much could be said pertinent to the vast amount of economic variables tied to the G-20 proceedings, and/or on what each country must do to bring about global financial change, and/or on the intricacies of organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, The World Trade Organization, The Financial Stability Board or the International Finance Corporation, I will leave this to others, those with perhaps more expertise. Instead, what I would like to reference is more in tune with what stood out to me as I moved about the Summit, talking with people and listening to the briefings and interviews that were happening throughout the two days of the meeting. I would suggest that you can certainly follow-up on the wide variety of elements tied to the Summit should you so desire, particularly given the amount of material that is being produced from it. Along these lines, the closing speech of the Summit printed ‘on-line’ is a start. It certainly provides more on the expanse of variables set upon the international community’s table.
Observations amid the G-20
On the logistical and organizational aspects of the Summit: Aside from the enormity of the mandate of the G-20, these were the first things that struck me. I’m not sure that any of it could have been done another way, but it seemed the cost and resources attached to bringing in the delegates, making the huge David Lawrence center operational for media, G-20 participants and the security personnel (there was a large number of security people inside the facility, intermingled with the 2000 media individuals and G-20 participants), and securing the city with some 4,000 police and military personnel had to be enormous. Placed up against the global financial crisis itself, it wasn’t hard to understand the criticism that the Summit seemed symbolic of how resources, certainly needed elsewhere, can be wasted. The staging of the entire event also did little to support the aforementioned theme that the G-20 would not be about “business as usual.”
On security: The armed police and military personnel, both in full battle gear, stationed at various checkpoints throughout the city roads and bridges or often passing in the streets in small bands of ten or twenty, the police boats in the river waters, the barricades, the wire and fencing, and the closing down of many of the streets, made the city look like a military zone. It reminded me of a smaller version of Zagreb where I had been during the early ‘90s, amid the Bosnian conflict. Many of the residents from Pittsburgh whom I chatted with felt this whole process was too much, and it served more to close off their city to visitors than anything else – not a good thing for Pittsburgh overall. Again, I’m not sure of the alternative, nor were those I spoke with, particularly given the potential for serious problems. Nonetheless, it was a bit eerie in the street.
On the demonstrators/protesters/opposition: Obviously, as had been made clear at every “G” event across the world, the opposition represents an important part of the proceedings. The argument that what is raised by the opposition is as important in the G-20 proceedings as anything else certainly has some credence. In this sense, I suggested the idea that it would behoove those who organize the Summit to invite delegates from the demonstration/protest/opposition side to the proceedings. This would serve to get that side involved in a participatory process, help diffuse their sense of alienation, and allow for G-20 participants to interact with them. I’m not sure of the idea’s future, but it did draw a few encouraging nods. In any event, as someone concerned with all aspects of the G-20 (and the problems in the world), I did my best to stay informed on the agenda of the G-20 opposition.
I attended several meetings sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, which helped framed the objections and assisted with the organizing of the various demonstrations and the march on the most significant day of the Summit. I participated in the march, albeit only for a short part of the walk. There were not a large number of people in the march, about on scale with Pittsburgh, and it was well-organized, peaceful and meaningful. It is interesting to note that although most of the people had been at the issues for years and/or decades, they had varying views on the G-20 itself. The views seemed to hinge on interpretations of capitalism: whether capitalism needed to be completely done away with, or altered to a form where its application would be more socially acceptable.
For many then, their opposition was pointed at the problems they felt were part of the main G-20 players’ own doing. In other words, the problems connected to war, poverty, unemployment, poor health care, and the environment remain tied to the same capitalist processes that the G-20 players actually support. For these protesters then, the G-20 was a sham, representing nothing more than “business as usual.” It could not speak to the issues in ways that would really satisfy the problems, as the G-20 members were more a part of the problem, rather than the solution.
For others, however, the G-20 itself was a valuable concept. Bringing decision makers from all over the world together over the economic crisis was of significant import. However, for these protesters, the countries participating needed to focus more on the social problems existent in the world, over and above stimulating economies for economic growth. In other words, their protest seemed directed at altering the current mode of capitalism with more with more significant emphasis on social concerns than the G-20 seemed to be giving.
For others, there was also a concern that the social problems were not be adequately prioritized, but this was tied to the fact that the G-20 was leaving out the less developed countries in their proceedings. For them, both developed and undeveloped countries needed to be involved in the proceedings, and the lack of this happening represented the lack of concern for the depth of the social problems at hand. In this sense, pushing for the inclusion of the undeveloped countries would in turn bring about more concern for the social ills plaguing many of the world’s economies. (I spoke with two of these “include more countries and more issues protestors” who were inside the G-20. They were from London and seemed to take on a more professional approach both with their attire and demeanor than the protestors in the street. One of them said that their network of protesting in Europe was more sophisticated than what had been organized in Pittsburgh, and they thought their points at this venue could be better tended to by handing out flyers within the G-20 and talking with people. I’m not sure to what extent they were effective, or whether I personally liked them, but their presence did lend support to the idea of officially including the “opposition” in the G-20 proceedings.)
In sum, much of what I saw and heard reminded me of the issues and actions tied to the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, and the callings of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. From the concerns of violence and non-violence, to the logistical planning, to the difficulty of getting permits to organize the demonstrations, to the energy over the issues themselves, it was inspiring to see the tradition of protest remaining active and worthwhile. As conditions in the world demonstrate, the struggle between our economic and social mandates continues, and there is more than enough room for improvement. Clearly there needs to be as many voices heard as possible in untangling what our collective future holds.
On the content of discussion, briefings and conversations: “Capital, capital, capital” was how one French diplomat put it as I listened to his interview with Reuters news. And that seemed to sum up much of what the G-20 was about. Debates on whether to continue with stimulation, how much would be enough, who should control the flow, who should get what and under what conditions, and when to exit from that type strategy, dominated the discussions. Like that same Frenchman said, “the devil is in the details.” And of course, this pointed to the intricate work involved at the G-20 proceedings.
The Frenchman’s statement was applicable to another theme I found not quite missing, but not highlighted as much as its significance would merit. In short, the devil of the proceedings existed not really, or not only, in the details, but also at a more macro level concern – the ideological struggle that seemed to hang over the entire G-20 process. It is a struggle that could be referenced as a contest between established western capitalism, a system dominated by U.S. interests, and eastern capitalism, one being developed with China at its center. Importantly, the existence of such a struggle makes compromise and/or agreement within the G-20 proceedings appear on shaky ground. (I could only surmise that this is why, at least for public consumption, so little consideration was given to this point.)
In essence, it is fair to ask to what extent China, with the most rapidly growing power in the world, will immerse itself in the “fixing” of the western, predominantly American version of capitalism, over promoting its own model. As western capitalism is at the center of the economic problems in the world, and with the U.S., its core player, mired in Middle East conflict, it is not difficult to understand the nature of this query. Add to this that China has its eye focused on developing countries, particularly those in Africa, which represent vast numbers of producers and consumers in addition to their own Chinese population. (Consider the Russian and Indian populations in this mix as well.) Again, would they prefer to rely on a model that is in serious jeopardy or promote one consistent with their own interests? (Another intriguing question could be to which wagon, the West or East, might the European Union, which also has its agenda, ultimately tie its horses?)
My conversations, particularly with several of the Chinese delegates, and ‘listenings,’ including the briefings of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, did little to dispel the notion that China will do whatever is best for China. Moreover, in the speech of Chinese President H.E. Hu Jintao, it was clear that this is China’s mandate. In addition, Jintao stressed that China considers itself more a developing country than a developed one, particularly since it has been only since the 1970’s that China has shaken off ties to the Russian model it adhered to for several decades.
It is important to note that this “developing more than developed” line of reasoning opens China’s strategies to those countries generally outside of the G-20. In fact, China has lobbied the G-20 for more countries to be included in the process. In this sense, it is not hard to imagine that China will continue to make investment efforts in the west, but more as a hedge to buttress its own developments in other parts of the world. (As an example of both their ‘hedging’, as well as their range of power, take into consideration their large investment in America’s Treasury bills.)
In sum, it is not difficult to argue that China, along with other countries that will benefit accordingly, is tying its hopes for the prosperity of the world to a new model of capitalism, with more of a socialist/communist/populist/Confucian oriented base than has ever been seen. It is a model actually foreign to U.S. political and economic interests, and, moreover, it may be beyond our cultural abilities to understand its properties. In the end of course, this situation serves to pit one system against the other, underscoring the concern of actual long-term, G-20 accord.
The Chinese delegates I spoke with stressed that China has no real interest in “universalizing” its model, it is more interested in taking care of the needs of China. In that light, I posed the idea that as China moves in the direction of assisting the less developed countries of the world, it will, by logic of the producers and consumers involved, spread its version of capitalism (not necessarily by force or war mind you), while at the same time taking care of itself. This was in fact similar to the course followed by post World War II America, to some degree of success.
My Chinese discussion-mates found this proposition most interesting. They did respond that I might be applying too much western logic in my image, that it implied a capitalistic, expansionist manipulation not really consistent with Chinese character and sentiment. As a rejoinder, I noted that current business dealings with the Chinese might indicate otherwise, many see the Chinese business person as ruthless in character. Moreover, I stressed that, given my American heritage, my notions are centered on cultural instincts developed in the most advanced capitalist system in the world, and that they should not be easily dismissed by others moving more toward capitalism. After all, Americans had the call of democracy in their hearts at the country’s inception. Yet, given the situation in today’s world, this is often hard to recall. With these points in mind, they found my ‘expansionist’ proposition more worthy of consideration.
It was important to emphasize that none of my questioning or proposing was directed at the value of what China may do. In other words, what might be developed by China should not be considered in a negative light. The logic of their policies and their concern for developing a more socially sophisticated model than what the west has produced might be a positive – the world may be a better place for what ensues. Even in light of the human rights and environmental concerns in China this might eventually be the case. (The Chinese, particularly in the context of their being a “developing country,” like to remind Americans of their own struggle with these issues throughout the 20th century.) But one could imagine that for many in the U.S., this would not be the feeling. They may see any move toward another way of doing business as an assault on America’s political and economic domain, a threat to our existing power. And this again frames a major concern relative to the success of the overall G-20 proceedings. (As an addendum to this concern, consider the international currency-modification discussions engaged in by countries like China, Russia and Brazil, as well as the advance of an Islamic financial model as an alternative to what is currently in use. The context of these considerations, with the devaluing of the predominantly American dollar exchange in sight, also points to issues centered on the balance of power in the world. This too has a significant bearing on the nature of G-20 outcomes.)
* * *
AT END: For the most part, this is what I took away from the G-20. It was interesting and informative on every level, and as you can tell, the West versus East notion seemed most intriguing to me. I would offer that all of us, across all countries and populations, need to know more about each other. No one can argue that a better grasp of how the world works is essential for our collective future. Let’s hope we never lose sight of this, and that we continue to grow accordingly.
Jim Palombo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
October 17, 2009 Comments Off on Jim Palombo
Becoming All Animal
“But she didn’t entirely forget. We are always in both worlds, because they aren’t really two.”
—from The Woman Who Married A Bear by Gary Snyder
You study the sky, hesitant to have left shelter. Wind pushes clouds over the granite ridgelines like predator and prey, the white ones seemingly chased by darker ones. But for now the sun is warm on your hair. You have time and needs to meet. Something in your bones surges and you feel your feet make the decision to proceed. Your load is winter-ponderous, not the light lift of warm weather, but your back revels in being useful, capable. As you move, your breasts, fuller at this time in your cycle, amplify the sway of your body over land. Your haunches rally as you step up rocks; shoulders, hips, and ankles balance-dance as beneath your feet the granite shifts color, clouds still dashing across blue plains above.
This is not just another solo backpack trip. I am on a mission, sent by that inner voice that, when I hear it, I cannot disobey. Though the forecasters call for the first winter storm of the season, and though I’m used to the milder climate and terrain of the southern Appalachians, I doggedly stuffed one more warm shirt under the top pouch of my pack this morning, and drove an hour-and-a-half to South Lake Tahoe to get my permit. There is irony in having to gain society’s permission to escape it. The ranger wrote out the parking pass and hunted down change. That’s what I was hunting too, in another fashion, and I was glad the ranger was female when she asked, “How many?”
Locking my car, I pause before hefting the pack, always unreasonably heavy when I go alone. If I were a werewolf, or the bear husband of the old stories, this is when the hair would quickly grow in across my cheeks and shoulders, the claws emerge and back hunch. People watching would know then. But here in this parking lot, a family walks by and looks only at my pack and pony-tail. They have no idea the changes going on inside me as I attempt my first shape-shift. As I deliberately become all animal.
You are away at college and have gotten up the nerve to kayak. Bobbing with what comes, hips starting to react on their own, you follow the experienced paddlers. At the end of the drop the back wave catches your edge and you’re underwater. So slow and dark and cold. And then you’re up, shaking your head like a spaniel. Such a different world beyond the familiar surface — now you know. This is what you came for. To belong somewhere like a frog or heron. Like the people cheering you who belong on the river — so beautiful and strong and free — so unlike the people you grew up around. Laughing, you peel off wet clothes by the side of the road, not caring who sees. Later, in front of your mirror, you stare at your body, neck twisted, watching your back, flexing both arms at once. There, between your shoulder blades, new ridges. The beginning of wings.
Of course I know and you know that we are animals. But like the phrase “Boys will be boys,” the fact that we’re animals is treated as something we can’t help, rather than something to be proud of, to cultivate. I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that by inhabiting my animal nature more I might find a way around my fears, which had grown rather than shrunk over the years of traveling, hiking, and backpacking alone. Fears of meeting human males in the wild; of being told, if I made it out of a bad situation, that I should have known better; of believing all the voices out there that say it’s a woman’s fault for going anywhere — but especially into the wilderness — alone. Maybe it was when I read about grizzly sows having to avoid and ward off attacks from the large males. They can’t hide away all the time and they don’t look for an even larger male to protect them. They adapt. They use their senses to discover if a male is around. If so, the sow tries not to feed in the prime areas when the male is likely to feed. But if she or her cub is charged and the sow must fight, she fights tremendously. And who of us would suggest if she fails and is killed, or her cub is killed, that she asked for it?
At the trailhead I check the map for distances. A man with a toddler is ahead of me.
“How far you going in?” he asks.
“Don’t know yet.” I evade the question. Though my instincts say he is harmless, I won’t give my destination. Smiling, I leave them behind. My goal this trip is not to act as a female grizzly would, or any particular animal, though I often think about what I know of animal behavior. I want to become my own animal. To do this I must shut off the cultural white noise and remember what it is to think with my body. My cerebral cortex has been thoroughly colonized, but my haunches are still pretty pre-cultural. My hands and feet are quick to solve problems when I trust them to.
I approach two middle-aged women at the top of a long stair-like climb. They’ve been resting and watching my small steps and deliberate foot placements.
“How much does that pack weigh?” one asks in fatigued awe.
“I have no idea,” I say with a breathless laugh. “Never weigh your pack. You want to believe it’s lighter than it is when you start out, and to brag it was heavier than it was when you get home.”
This attitude is more self-preservation than suicidal tendency or ego. If the pack is too heavy, my back will tell me (I try it on at home). But put a number to it and my brain will convince my body it’s too heavy regardless. Or worse, if I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to know the pack is plenty light and should be no problem. Animals don’t weigh loads, and I know that when I’m out on my own my body amazes me. What seems heavy in the driveway seems infinitely doable on the leaf-strewn trail.
You are thirteen, swinging down from the cherry tree by your window. It is quiet except for the sounds of cars nearby and your mother’s voice in your ear: not after dark . . . never alone. . . don’t you read the papers? No one understands your restlessness. The suburbs suck. Your brothers get to go where they want, even at night. You get to go to your room. Because there’s nothing else to do you walk the black edge of the road, with each step daydreaming of woods, dogs that come every time you call, and strong, kind boys. A half moon winks through the trees. Then someone whistles. “Hey baby, you don’t have to walk.” You remember where you are. Stuck. The car doesn’t stop. What if I want to walk, you think. What then?
Like many female adventurers, I’ve had to learn the hard way and I break society’s rules. I’ve struggled free from some of the traps western culture has set out to extirpate my instincts, and I feel lucky not to have lost a limb so far. Although a mouthy child, always be polite, was firmly ingrained by the time I became an adult. Attached to that was don’t make a scene. Following these rules makes it almost impossible for the civilized female to prevent a threatening encounter with a male, so caught up is she in giving him the benefit of the doubt until he has his hands on her, is forcing her into the car or on the ground.
I laugh at the centuries-old message that civilization is created for and maintained by women. Civilization — that place with walls where humans deceive themselves about the extent of their control and buy into the myth of security. The only place, we’re told, where women can be safe. I am not less safe in the wild. Statistics show I’m at greater risk of attack in my house or on a city street, where unethical men may prowl the night, than I am miles away from a trailhead or parking lot. I don’t trust what civilization and culture tell me anymore. I trust my gut. Out alone, I look everyone in the eye once and then avert my gaze (but never, ever look down). I turn to face anyone coming up the trail from behind. I can look ornery and unapproachable in seconds. I don’t wear the shroud of fear and vulnerability I’m told is attractive, is feminine. I bare my aggression, like teeth. If a man does not understand how to respect my privacy — a kind of territory — then he deserves whatever growls he’s given.
Two young women day-hiking ahead. One steps aside and as I pass, whispers: courageous.
It breaks my heart.
Someone rounds the turn below you. Something about his size, or that he’s alone, or the way he cocks his head sends a tremor up your back. There is a large boulder and you slip behind it. What about this person makes your ruff go up, makes you not even want to sniff out his intentions? It doesn’t matter. There are no walls here and disappearing is not hard. As he reaches the boulder and moves past, you’re crouched, ready to pretend you were peeing if he looks. He doesn’t look. Why would he? No one expects you to be here. A little amazed, you watch him march uphill, oblivious. A wren perched without moving in the bushes nearby meets your gaze.
Men are animals. This is what I’ve been told countless times before driving cross-country or going camping by myself. Most often it’s male friends who have drummed this into my skull. I understand them to mean that men are driven by their dicks which pulse with instinct, not reason. They mean that men can act badly. Well, women are animals too — treated like such is the way many feel. And animals are animals. I leave civilization to be with animals and to be an animal, and surely I can allow men inside this definition in the same, less derogatory way I’m including myself. Most animals, especially the best killers, the blood-thirstiest, have ingrained inhibitions — both social and genetic — that keep deadly conflicts among members of a species to a minimum. Especially prevalent are the inhibitions males of these species (most birds and mammals) have that keep them from physically attacking a female. It seems our culture evolved too fast; our hereditary inhibitions couldn’t keep up.
Or maybe the messages given females are social inhibitions devised by patriarchal culture rather than biological evolution. The messages: “You’re putting yourself in danger!” — as if women should never take risks or don’t want to; “You’re asking for it!”— the ”it” presumably the same as in “doing it”; and “Take someone with you!”— an especially problematic message for single women since more than 80% of sexual crimes are committed by someone we know.
Women are domesticated through fear. We’re taught that we need — no, deserve —protection. A privilege that we enjoy like poodles who’re primped, dressed in bows, and carried around. I don’t want to be a decoration or a pet who waits for her husband to come home. My husband and I do things together — climb, hike, kayak, bike, read, debate. But we also do things separately. And when I go into the woods alone he has to defend both my decision and his to others (not to stay, but presumably to have let me go).
Even in other primates, possibly the most social of animals, members take time by themselves. For some people, being alone in a crowded city street or bar is enough, or having the whole house to oneself. I need the woods, mountains, and rivers which remind me dirt and sweat aren’t undesirable, that I have muscles for a purpose. I need places without mirrors. In all their good intentions, people who’ve tried to keep me safe have helped keep me from discovering myself and exploring my creativity, my body, and the land. A room of one’s own? Yes, but an isolated canyon, peak, or valley occasionally is just as necessary. Let me go, I begged my mother. Let me go, I begged the voices in my head. I never would’ve married a man I had to beg this way.
When you reach the lake it’s still sunny. You hurry, hoping to get in a quick dip while the sun is full-force. After scouting out a place in the steep granite walls that will let you camp above, unseen from the banks, you reclaim your pack and huff it up manzanita and scree to the flat. The wind, as if it’d been waiting, surges as you pitch the tent. You check from below to make sure it’s hidden. Once it’s weighted down with rocks in each corner and over the stakes, you explore the shoreline. All the hikers have left. Each time the sun’s consumed by a cloud you wonder, Is this it? Kingfishers rattle. You strain to hear the sounds of conversation carried a long way, relax when you determine it’s the wind-thrown water hitting logs and rocks. As a stellar jay cries and heads for the lone Jeffrey Pine, you settle in to listen to the voices.
Even with everyone gone, I have to concentrate on the sounds around me, make them familiar, before I can completely relax. The animals that live here know these sounds, but I’m new to this habitat. I’m used to rustling leaves and eastern rivers, not the irregular slapping of lake water on a rugged shore. Sun heats my face and I begin to strip, hoping it will hang around long enough for me to run into the cold, clear water. Then a cloud shoulders the warmth aside and, reluctantly, I pull my shirts back on. Am I being wise or wimpy, I wonder. Skinny dipping is an obsession of mine, even when it’s too cold to really swim. Immersing myself in natural waters is a conscious reminder that I don’t have control over things like temperature, depth, or what’s on the bottom. It’s a reverse-baptism, one that celebrates my body and mortality by baring myself to this beautiful, relentless creation. Two mallards come right up to where I’m filtering water, and I enviously lose myself in their antics and the iridescent blue, green and purple feathers up close. As they paddle away I screw the lid on my bottle.
“Is that water potable?” I spin. The man has stopped a respectful distance away.
“No, that’s why I have a filter,” I fumble. I didn’t hear him. I hadn’t heard him.
At first this is all I can think, but as a woman catches up with him I realize this time it’s okay. Maybe animals stalked from downwind feel this way when they finally get a sniff of a too-close stranger.
“Sorry if I startled you. I didn’t expect to see anyone out here,” he’s saying. “You know there’s a winter storm watch. . .”
I nod. I’ve categorized him as one of my kind — pleasant outdoor enthusiast who appreciates solitude. “The weather report called for snow down to 7,000 ft. That’s why I didn’t go any further in.”
“5,500 is what I heard.”
We all look toward the lake, imagine snow covering the shore, pines, and granite ledges. The hush of the next morning.
After they leave I feel truly alone. It’s wonderful. The wind has picked up and I’ve started the stove even though I ate my sandwich only two hours ago. Like the other animals, I must scurry for food before the storm hits. In my case, hot food. The temperature is dropping fast. As creamy garlic pasta burps in the pot, I squat on a boulder to get a better view. Like an animal, I stayed when people fled to their cars. Like an animal, I’m not uneasy that a storm is coming. Perhaps, as for the other animals, this can be a kind of home. At least I feel at home, the way when the curtains are pulled you can walk around in your underwear, not caring if your hair’s combed or teeth brushed. Here, on this ridge, I’ve escaped society’s gaze.
The steep scree and aspen slopes rise above on three sides. Could the black bears around here scramble up them? It’s hard to imagine. I stare at the nooks in the rock walls as I eat way more than I need, trying to hoard all the fat against a cold night. I compare each gust with the last and each one’s stronger. No bears pass through. The barometric lows before a major storm make animals lethargic, I recall. That and my full belly has me thinking it’s time to den.
A few drops of rain convince you to take a last pee in the half-light. Something moves, a dark head bobs in and out of the tall manzanita. Your heart stops. They’ve come for you. More follow the first, but they’re in baseball caps. You look back and the bear becomes a guy whose navy sweatshirt hood is pulled tight around his head. You’re disappointed.
And nervous. They came from another direction, off-trail, and head toward the high point of nearby rocks. They didn’t see me but can’t help but notice the tent from where they’re going. My brain says to zip up tight, avoid contact, but my body wants to stand ground. They know where I am; I want to see where they are, where they go, and when they leave. Can they tell I’m female? Probably not in my shell and hat. But if they come closer. . .?
They’re not dressed for the weather that’s coming. They don’t even carry daypacks. What brings them out here? To my place? I remember how ethologists say an animal will be the most aggressive toward others of its species in familiar territory. The fact that I’ve settled in may be why I’m not interested in retreating. It doesn’t take long for them to wander out the back way they came, and I consider how I’d feel if I were holed up in the tent now. I wouldn’t know they were gone. Even if I peeked out and didn’t see them, I’d wonder if they were hidden. I’d worry all night. My body made the right decision.
It’s started raining and I consider keeping the food bag in my tent. What animal will be out in this? Or I could just stash it in the crook of a small tree. I mean, there aren’t many tall enough and all the lower branches on the pines are broken off so that . . . but my body is not listening.
My hands grab the unwieldy clothesline and double-bagged food, while my feet and eyes hunt for a suitable spot. There is really only one option. The pine is on a steep, scrubby slope which makes it difficult to get into good position for an underhand throw. I didn’t often have to hang food where I’m from, but after a couple tries I lob the rock over the branch and the tied rope follows. Now I stand amidst juniper and rock. It’s only me, with no reinforcements, and I’m enough.
Finally in the tent, wet gear off to the side, I think about how I came to doubt myself. Was it that I was born with a suburban spoon in my mouth which fed me all those white middle-class fairy tales about how great it is to have men do everything for you? Was it that in the seventies and eighties females were working hard to prove their competence in the male world of commerce, emphasizing their minds and masking their bodies? Was it that no women I knew sought solitude outdoors? In the metropolitan area of my youth, the wild was something only men were supposed to crave, and then only a few weekends a year when they tested their brawn against their pin-striped brains.
You are five, racing around the front lawn behind your older brothers on the first really warm spring day. Your mother calls you aside and hands you a shirt. You start to cry and point at your brothers. “Little girls are different,” she says. “Little girls wear shirts.” But you cry harder and beg for one day more, one day, and she relents. No longer sure what the game is, you roll down the hill again and again. Grass sticks to your back and belly. Climbing the magnolia you pay special attention to how smooth the bark is as you hold the trunk. Your brothers go inside. It’s getting cool. Under the wisteria you tuck your knees to your bare chest for warmth, afraid to go indoors. Afraid of never being let out.
With short hair and a penchant for dirt, I was always mistaken for a boy when little. I prided myself on being a tomboy and wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs until puberty dropped me into a vat of pink-glitter lip gloss. Luckily, once at college, the hippies got me comfortable with a clean face again, and the rednecks reminded me that flannel could be flattering.
Today I’m still caught off guard by the people — both males and females — who describe me as butch. When single, I learned it was easier to move around in social circles if I grew my hair long. A man I’d been working with for over a year and whom I admired, asked if I knew how much taking up knitting had changed my image (why do people assume lesbians don’t knit?). This man and I took high schoolers on hikes and longer trips. In the woods I felt no qualms about spitting if I had to, competed in belching contests, and — like the male leaders — didn’t suppress any gastric emissions caused by the rice and bean diet. Not my behavior in a restaurant, but they didn’t necessarily know that. It now occurs to me that those actions construed as manly are really me at my most animal.
How did it happen that men get the freedom to act as animals? Do we really think they can’t help it, or, rather, that we can help it more than they can? Maybe it’s feared that women who let themselves be a little wild will, like the woman who married a bear in Northwest Indian tales, choose not to turn back. I don’t know if that’s still a possibility anywhere in the world, but it’s not one I’d choose. Still, I’ll claw and kick for the chance to temporarily drop as far out of human society as possible. And to spit when I need to.
The wind is crazy now, pushing your tent’s dome from all sides, bending the poles concave at times. You hear each gust gather in another valley and grow to the great growl of Urset that charges over the ridge and shakes your den. Maybe you are trespassing. Your full bladder whines insistently so you slip out of your bag and into rain gear. Outside it’s dark, as if the earth rolled into a cave. The cold rain stings your butt with its quills. Shadows everywhere shift and settle. Remember what the elders say: if you meet a bear, open your coat and show that you’re a woman.
Back in my sleeping bag trying to warm up, I wallow in memories of sun on my skin: hiking the Cumberland Island beaches on my first backpack trip, all of us naked except for what we carried; stripping my shirt off every lunch stop during desert day hikes; standing nude, shin deep in the Colorado River, admiring the rich colors of the Grand Canyon while a breeze slips between my legs; celebrating Independence Day by skinny dipping solo in the Rio Grande, stroking back and forth from America to Mexico.
I’ve always wanted to get rid of barriers between me and the earth, but it wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I finally returned to the outdoors as the little girl I was before impending breasts and periods separated me from boys and nature. I remember nervously approaching the reservoir’s edge with others for a dip to wash off all the grease and stress of the restaurant’s late shift. I said I’d go but wouldn’t strip. No one cared. When I’d almost reached the water, others were just starting to splash into the shallows. The dark swallowed the details and suddenly I felt more self-conscious in underwear. The next instant I was wading to where the black water could slide over my chest.
What do we lose when we become afraid to ever bare ourselves, emotionally or physically? When we’re uncomfortable being naked except to make love or wash? The distrust of our bodies is crippling. As girls, we’re told they beguile ceaselessly and cruelly, so we clothe ourselves to hide or accent them. We’re told they’re weak and can’t protect us, so we cower. Then, sometime when we’re older, we hear from women who’ve found their voices, who have begun to expose these lies. They tell us together we can fight to make the world safe someday. I know their work has made it easier for me to shape my life, and I’m grateful. But I don’t believe the world will ever be completely safe for anyone. And I’m glad because a safe world has no room for wildness.
At midnight the rain slaps the nylon even harder, unlikely to ever gentle into snow. Can this cheap tent hold up for six or seven more hours of this? I feel certain a pole will snap or nylon tear. As it is I’m riding on the raft of my Thermarest, the decomposed granite outside unable to absorb this much water. It’s pooled underneath my groundcloth and the tent floats between where the corners are staked. The fly doesn’t even cover the back of the tent where the full force of the storm has soaked the wall. I imagine trying to hike the steepness in these gusts with a full pack in the dark. I don’t think I could get down the manzanita slope, let alone keep from getting blown off the narrow cliff-edged trail. For a few minutes I stare anxiously at the nylon sides pressing in on me. Then I remember why I’m here. No animal would stay awake worrying about what might happen. It’d just react if something did. Abruptly I release the tension in my body. The reality is I don’t want to have to deal with a busted tent or stashing my pack so I can get to the car in the dark, but I know I could. Now I concentrate on the noise and let it drown out the cultural messages my brain tries to send. The storm distracts me from pointless human worry, and I welcome it.
You’re on the borderline between awake and asleep, afloat in a deep pool of belonging. Your heart reaches out to other creatures burrowed in this place, enduring the same forces. To creatures nested in places you’ll never know, living lives you can’t imagine. In their world the expectations are simple. You sense that their world is your world but without the lies. You release those lies, which turn into ravens calling and winging above the dark valley. You have not taken back the night.
Better, you are sharing it.
October 17, 2009 1 Comment
My cousin asks about the ride I just did in New York City. I tell him it was great. I take a sip of beer, “70 miles and I got to bike through the Lincoln Tunnel and over the George Washington Bridge. The tunnel was the best part, all the yellow lights spaced 6 feet from one another. Everyone was surrounded by a web of their own shadows, all we heard were the echoes of other cyclists screaming; I cawed like a crow. I would’ve liked the bridge more if a razor blade hadn’t found its way into my rear wheel, but that’s New York for you.”
Condensation slides down the bottle and drips off my fingers; I make patterns on the orange tiles poolside. “There were a few professional riders there.” He nods but looks a little distracted. “I kept up with them for the first 30 miles, was even in front at one point.” I don’t mention that it didn’t last. The winds on the Westside Highway were crazy; I felt like I was going backwards. With all the people passing me, it probably looked that way too.
My cousin, the state trooper, seems hesitant but curious. “Let me ask you something.” He looks around to see if anyone else can hear, as if I’m about to tell him something secret. “Why are all these cyclists doping?”
I laugh then shrug; the answer I don’t give him is that they take drugs for the same reason I stopped.
It’s just after 10 p.m. I come home from work angry, frustrated or disgusted; I heat a frozen pizza and smoke a bowl. My friends are either out of town or occupied for the night. I sit and think about the store and the customers; I wish I had a new job, but I’d settle for a punching bag. My mind recycles the day’s stupid questions, stupid answers – the annoyances of a meaningless job. I smoke another bowl then decide to go for a walk.
Outside, the air is cool and heavy and damp. It recently stopped raining and I like the sheen of the wet roads under moonlight. I look at my bike, chained and waiting to take me to work the next day. I grimace in disgust and decide not to go for the walk; I decide to take the bike somewhere other than work.
I go up Hamilton Street and find myself out of breath at the top of the hill. For some reason, instead of coasting down the other side I get out of the saddle, stand on my pedals and kick each leg down. I push harder with each stroke, trying to build instead of maintain momentum. At the corner of George Street I take a left and ride through the College Avenue campus: buildings I studied in, a spot where I used to sit and read; I ride past 4 different apartments and dorms I lived in and dozens that friends have moved out of. I find the entrance to a walkway along the Route 18 Bridge and ride to Busch Campus, past classrooms I failed out of, more familiar dorms.
I feel sweat, cool in a dark breeze – it clings to my hair, it slides along my jawbone and drips from my chin to my shirt. I feel free, like a little kid riding to his friend’s house.
The streetlights bounce off the road. No cars in sight. I ride through the nature preserve and a family of deer runs parallel to me, 20 feet off my side. They pass a small trail I turn onto. It leads down to some park I don’t know about. It’s flooded from the rain, sunk under the muck of the Raritan. I stop where the path slips into the water. Across river, the lights of New Brunswick fill houses and flood the streets. From a distance they seem less offensive, less like crack houses and roads full of balled up underwear, banana peals, and torn bits of paper.
I’m curious to find out what I can make my body do. I’ve been riding daily; I don’t get tired from 12 miles so I decide to push up to thirty. There is no way I would’ve thought about doing this a month ago.
Early morning I take to the street with three liters of water on my back and an empty stomach. I’ve never ridden this far, but I think food might cause me to cramp up. 88 degrees, 15 mph; I’m sweating, but not as much as I need to. 20 miles into the ride I run out of water; I stop to refill my CamelBak at a water fountain. I start cramping up on my way back home and finish off the 30 coasting at five mph
I pull up in front of my apartment and climb off my bike. My knees weak, but not quite buckling. I wonder if I should’ve stopped at the 20 mile mark or at 25 when my legs went numb. I lift the bike onto my shoulder and walk up the stairs to the door of my apartment building. My arms are shaking. The key is in my hand but I can’t get it into the lock. I put the bike down, hold my right arm with my left and thread the key. I struggle to turn the lock, but eventually pry the door open.
With the bike back on my shoulder, I climb 3 flights of stairs. In my apartment I throw some mac and cheese in the microwave and get into the shower with my clothes on. I hang the wet clothes on the shower rod and towel off. I can’t believe how hungry I am.
A shaking finger pops open the microwave and I grab a fork. One bite and I’m in the bathroom. Four liters of water spill out my mouth. At the time I think I just pushed my body too far too soon, that it’s overexertion, that my legs are being vindictive, my body pulled thin. My stomach locks.
I leave the bowl of food beside my bed and pass out for two hours. Dehydration is dangerous; over hydrating is a different kind of terrible. Water intoxication, (hyponatremia) looks like dehydration and comes with the confusion, nausea, and fatigue. An excessive amount of water floods the body, dilutes a person’s salt content. The blood contains fewer minerals; eventually muscles, the brain, the heart, everything weakens. Some get sick, some shift into a coma, some die.
After the 30 mile ride I wonder what was worse for me, the extra 18 miles or the four liters of water. I assume it was the water, choosing stupidity over lack of ability; after all, I want to ride further, I don’t care if I drink that much again.
“You really could’ve fucked yourself like that.” I’m at a party talking to a friend about what happened; he laughs at me. The loud music, our conversation, the sweat packed bodies – it seems like we should be talking about liquor instead of water. I ask him some questions about bikes, long rides and repair. He doesn’t know anything either, “But someone was telling me about a bike library over near Commercial Avenue.”
The Bike Library is more of a bicycle graveyard. It’s raining the first time I see it. Dozens of bike frames, random parts and several piles of tires and inner tubes. Nobody is there so I try again the next week; my rear wheel is bent so it rubs against my break pads with every rotation; it’s making my rides a lot harder, at least my legs are getting built up.
“That’s not safe,” this is a kid named Ryan talking to me. I’m immediately skeptical of anyone who shares my name. He’s got a thin red beard that works down to the middle of his chest; he’s got a canteen hanging by his side and clipped to it is a set of camping utensils. The knife and spork bang together as he diagnoses my bike.
“You broke a few spokes.” He illustrates this by prying several of them away from the wheel. He also points to a dent in the frame, “Hit by a car?” I tell him I bought the bike used, I’m not sure. I find out that aluminum is unsafe if there’s a breach in the integrity of the frame. He tells me that it’ll probably be fine to ride for a while, but there’s no way to know when it’s going to split open. I imagine riding downhill and hearing a snap, seeing the ground come closer and my face sliding down the street. Helmets can only do so much.
I spend the afternoon scavenging the piles for the right size wheel, a tube that will hold air, and a new tire since mine was ruined from a blowout. Ryan shows me how to true a wheel and I spend the better part of an hour twisting the spokes of my new wheel with a wrench; finally the rim is straight, or straight enough. I put a new tube and tire on the wheel; it takes another hour. He helps me adjust my front and rear derailleur so my chain can shift gears smoothly on the new set of cogs.
When I’m about to leave I ask if I’ve done everything properly. Kevin shrugs, “If you put the tube on wrong it’ll blow in a block or two.” Feeling uneasy I take the first few streets slowly. Despite the fear of an exploding tire, I can’t help but smile. I understand more about my bike; it’s less foreign and more a part of me.
I start to read a book on bicycle repair and buy a spoke wrench and some other tools. I wonder how far I could go by bike. It’s going to be another month before I start to hear back from graduate schools. I’ve made a short list of things I want to do or attempt and fail. I think about cycling, what to attempt that sounds crazy, that I wouldn’t have dreamed of last week, or last month. I think of On the Road and want it to be better, closer to the asphalt. I convince myself that I can cross the country on my own if I ride every day for the next year. I think of after school specials about bulimia and how the girls say they felt powerless in their lives, that they just wanted to control their bodies.
On the phone, I’m telling a friend about the idea of riding to California. He says, “I know a guy who’s doing that right now.” Before I know anything about Bill Garrett, he’s already my hero. “He’s been gone for less than a week.” And I’m told that he’s already gone from New Jersey, through Pennsylvania, up to New York and then come back through Pennsylvania. Not only is he biking to the west coast, but he’s going out of his way to see friends and family. Knowing that a person is already riding my impossible trip makes me want to go even more. Bill sends daily emails from his tent; my friend forwards them all to me. In one of the first messages I read, Bill says, “I got up during the night to go to the bathroom and was astounded by the sky. Clear, dark, and spectacular. The stars were so clear and bright. The big dipper was right in front of me, almost on the horizon. Back in NJ I’ve never seen it that low.” Jealous, I start training constantly.
On a day off of work I get back from a long ride; I shower then eat and drink continually. The Giants/Eagles game is on. A player is down on the field; he tries to get up, but his right leg buckles. They show the sidelines and the teammate who just ran back a punt is taking oxygen. They fade to a commercial break and I flip around and find that the Tour De France is on. Nobody knows that this year’s winner will have his jersey taken away for doping. Right now I’m wondering if someday all cyclists will ride wearing oxygen masks. I take a bite of my sandwich, my ride dwarfed by the screen. As I’m watching the cyclists, the injured player is taken off the football field.
Between plays, I watch the race. At the final sprint, the riders shake their bikes from side to side to maximize the pressure of each pedal stroke. For the final mile they push harder than the 120 that precede it. Tomorrow they’ll do it again; tomorrow I’ll put 30 miles in after work. This is less inspiring than crushing.
Rather than watch the day’s highlights, I turn back to football, a sport I have no intentions of playing. The Giants are on defense and one of the players has sacked the Eagles quarterback. It’s the guy who was carted off the field earlier; the pain and inflammation had been too much, but with the help of a cortisone shot he came back to the game.
I don’t get tired after biking anymore, but I vary my week with short and long rides. The longer ones are around 30 miles. I push myself, but remember to keep the rest of the ride in mind. I make sure to pace my water intake. My shorter rides are still between 10 and 15 miles. They’re heart choking sprints with no breaks in a lungless body numbing motion. The former is for endurance, the latter for speed. I’ve gone from 12 miles to 30, from 10 mph to 15. At first the speed and endurance grew rapidly, then I leveled off. After a few weeks on this plateau I’m frustrated. I start to rotate days off into my schedule. Even with the rest, my legs don’t push my numbers any higher. I wonder what I can do to push my body further.
One day I get back from a sprint. My lungs burn, my throat is raw, fingertips numb. I make a quesadilla; I sit on my bed eating, drinking Kool-aid and smoking a bowl. I think about my lungs, my distance rides, my speed. I decide to start eating better. More fruit, less of cookies, chips and ice cream. More cooked meals, fewer boxes. I email my friend from college and tell her I’m going to stop smoking pot so I can ride further faster.
The next day I get home from work and open the drawer that contains my pot, pipes and lighters. I remember my flat speed. I close the drawer and grab my bike for a 12 miles sprint. A few hours after I get back I forget, go to the drawer and end up back on my bike. I have the following day off and end up in the park at least 6 different times. A week later I’ve forgotten about the drawer but I keep up the pace. Two weeks later I average a steady 17. At the end of the month I’m over 18.
The numbers keep me going. In fact, I’ve been writing 4000 on my left hand with a marker, rewriting it a few times a week when the ink fades. 4000 is roughly the number of miles I’ll need to ride to get to California. 4000 is what I look at when I’m daydreaming at work or on my rides.
20 miles into the day I think, “This is half a percent of my way across the country.” I find this more motivating than discouraging. I’ve saved my right hand for hills. No numbers, but I have an arrow drawn on it. The arrow aims straight ahead, always aligned with my body the same way regardless of whether I’m going up hills, down them or coasting on flats. I follow the arrow and ignore elevation; it’s all just in front of me, waiting to be pushed into the past.
With my new passion for ignoring hills I decide to visit my parents’ place for the weekend. There’s a highway near their house that is cycling friendly. 9W runs right to the George Washington Bridge. There are no flats; at the top of every hill you see the top of another one in front of you; every turn leads to a steady drop or a sharp climb. More impressive than the hills are the bikes. A friend from New Brunswick tells me, “Hot shot Wall Street bankers ride there.”
I pass a group of Sunday cyclists, some bike club’s weekend ride. Three people have the same $1600 Specialized, one guy has a $3000 Cannondale. My CamelBak is leaking water or I actually drool when I see a black on black Trek listed at $6000. My bike has at least 16 years on all of them. Raleigh Technium 440; unfortunately age doesn’t mean experience. My rusty chain alerts them of my presence and I pass them, eyeing their bikes as we climb a hill.
Another rise, another turn. The riders behind me are gone, but there are two others ahead of me. A turn later I’m close enough to read their cross bars. A Trek 1000 and, “Holy shit, that’s a nice bike.” He smiles back at me, “Thanks.” It’s a vintage Pinarello aluminum frame, sexy yellow paint job and at least $2000 of high end components. He even took out the aluminum fork and replaced it with carbon fiber. The handlebars have carbon SRAM gear shifters infinitely more expensive than my whole bike.
I pass the pair and a few more cyclists before I hit the 20 mile mark. I look at my hand and think, if I could do that 199 more times, I’d be across the country.
I turn around and make my way back home. I’m amazed at how many hills I still have to climb. It felt like the ride out had been all uphill, but unless the topography changed things were split pretty evenly. I follow my arrow through another hill and think of Bill out west, going up a mountain pass.
I get home from work; 9:45. Still 15 minutes till my sister is on the phone with her boyfriend. I call her and she tells me that she’s worrying about our parents’ health. I check to see if any schools have posted a decision yet, one has. She asks if I got in, but the page is still loading.
“Well?” I’m silent long enough for her to know. When I finally speak, I just tell her I have to go. I know one place I won’t be next year.
I change, attach some lights to my wheels and carry the bike down the stairs. I ride to the park. It’s too dark to use the paths so I just circle around the perimeter, front wheel spinning red, rear wheel spinning blue. I wait for my legs to burn, my lungs to claw at my chest. I find silence. I can’t see my hand, but I know the number is there. Bill’s latest email came right before he went to sleep, “The tent is set up. I’m overlooking tree-covered ridges and have birds singing around me. I will sleep well tonight.”
I take a long breath in through my nose, hold it two seconds, out through my mouth, wait two seconds and repeat. The pauses, the pattern, they slow down my heart; I speak and my body listens.
It’s dark even on the roads around the park. I’m blind to my cyclometer, but can feel the pace in my chest slow as the wind comes faster. I pretend to hear the birds outside my tent.
My body tells me that I’ve improved as a cyclist. My thighs are thicker and more toned each month; I breathe easily even though my rides are longer and my speed is faster. But faster than what? Further than what? I don’t know if my improvement has moved me from bad to good, bad to okay, or bad to less bad. When I see a flyer for an organized ride in Lambertville, I send in my registration. It’s 40 miles of “rolling hills” and it starts and ends at a brewery. Lambertville is only 33 miles from New Brunswick; I went there and rode home on a day off a few weeks earlier. I get excited because for the first time I won’t be riding in a vacuum, I’ll have other riders to help gauge my abilities.
Check in at seven; the ride starts at eight; everyone clips into their pedals and we begin. I’m in the middle of the group looking at 60 sets of bike shorts; this in itself is motivation to move up.
I work my way towards the front of the pack by the end of the second mile. Six riders with matching jerseys are directly in front of me, drafting off of one another. At the fifth mile they shuffle positions. I keep my distance; I say that drafting is a cop out. You can go the same speed with nearly half the energy. Of course, I’d probably do it if I weren’t afraid of crashing into someone when they stop short.
At mile 10 we round a corner, “No fucking way,” I’m looking up the steepest climb I’ve ever faced. Already defeated, I shift into the second lowest gear leaving myself one last resort that isn’t walking my bike up the hill. The peloton ahead of me shatters; they’re all out of their saddles, pushing their bodies, piston legs and heaving chests; slowly, we grind our way up the hill. At the half way point the grade gets steeper, I pass everyone, not going faster, just less slowly.
“On your left.” I go to look over my shoulder, but before I get my head around- red spandex flies past me at a speed my body can’t fathom.
Purple face, shaking hands, pounding chest; frustrated, I get to the top of the hill in time to see the red jersey disappear around a corner about half a mile down the country road. I shame myself. This is a hill; I’ll need to climb mountains when I go cross country. Bill just crossed the Cascades, three passes in one day. I gear up, rise out of my seat and give my pedals three hard strokes before coasting for a tenth of a mile.
Disappointed in my early fatigue, I reach for my water bottle. My legs and lungs savor the rest and resume their cadence when my odometer clicks .1.
The next 5 miles I’m alone aside from the cows I pass. Nobody in front, nobody behind. It’s not until I’m in the midst of some of those rolling hills that I hear, “to your left”.
All black outfit, shining Cannondale, Oakleys and a friendly smile. “Are you in front?” I tell him that there’s one more person ahead of us. “What’s your name?” He’s Paul. This rider, obscured by glasses and a helmet; in my mind, he looks like my old boss, same name so they share a face. This is my first high speed conversation.
We turn onto a small country highway. He asks why I’m riding and laughs when I say, “for the crotch numbing fun of it”. His longest ride was a metric century and his favorite stat is top speed; he hit 53 on a nearby highway. I’ve only gotten up to 37. He checks his left shoulder, “Car back.” He drops behind me until a Civic passes us. Paul pulls back beside me, “37? There’s a hill coming up in a little while, you should be able to get 40.” I hit 43; the hill did most of the work. I felt better going 6 on that first climb.
I want to ask Paul about the other hills when he says “Big car back.” I look over my shoulder and see an 18 wheeler. Paul goes in front of me. As the truck is beside us he points his right hand to the ground and shakes it so I know that loose gravel is coming up. Just after the truck passes us I stare at the trailer and all I can think of is currents of air, we could probably get into the 30s drafting behind it. Instead I squeeze my breaks until the gravel is behind me, then I shift into a higher gear to catch up with Paul. I look over my shoulder; no cars coming up so I pull beside him. He asks when I last saw the rider in front. I check my odometer and I’ve been lagging for ten miles. What makes my body incapable of doing what the red cyclist did?
Paul takes his hands off the handlebars and reaches into the back pocket of his jersey. I see him take out an energy shot, a mixture of caffeine, protein and herbs that looks like thick fruit punch. He downs it and puts the packet back into the pocket.
Everything is hidden but his mouth, he’s grinning when he asks if I feel like catching the guy. We don’t talk for the next five miles to save our oxygen for the ride.
We lean into a turn; on the other side we see the jersey at the same time. There’s a long hill in front of us, not as steep as the first, but roughly the same vertical gain. Paul is a faster climber than I am, but I refuse to give in to my legs. I keep my bike in the highest gear I can manage and follow Paul to the top. A mile down the road we take a left and pull beside the man in red, Mike.
“How the hell did you take that first hill so fast?” He lives in the area, “I can’t leave my driveway without climbing a hill.” I think of my rides in New Brunswick, long and flat. I might be jealous.
At the next rest stop, Paul and Mike refill their bottles. I still have a liter so I keep going, “I’ll see you guys in a few miles.” I figure they’ll probably chase me down sooner than that, but they never do. I ride the last 15 miles with phantoms right behind me. My cyclometer keeps telling me to go faster. I follow the arrow on my right hand but every hill slows down my speed on the flats: this is unacceptable. I think about cycling cross country, I think about breathing, I look at the 4000, ignore my legs and the number on my handlebar approves.
When I finish the ride, there’s a celebratory picnic and I’m told to help myself. “You’re the first one back; how do you feel?” I’m happy I don’t have to wait in line for food.
Midway through my second plate of grilled chicken, Paul and Mike sit next to me. “We got lost, ended up riding an extra 5 miles.” And I’d been thinking my endurance overcame speed. We eat and talk about the ride; we watch the line grow longer. This wasn’t a race, but neither is chasing down a car or a person riding in the distance. I’ve never known a cyclist to be content behind someone else.
I point to the line and say, “That guy is my idol.” Sideburns so grizzly they can only be called muttonchops, cigarette in hand, oil-stained t-shirt underneath a leather vest and jean shorts so jagged I’m not sure if they were cut or worn until the bottom half fell off. Paul tells me, “I saw him smoking on the ride.”
I wonder how he made it up the first hill. For the most part, everyone here is in skintight spandex; they cut down drag, but I think that near-naked shame factors in to the increase of speed. No one can see your face if you go fast enough.
I wonder if Muttonchops cares that he could’ve gone faster with the absurd attire, without the cigarettes. I saw some people riding mountain bikes and wonder if they tell themselves, “I’d be in the front if I had thin, no tread tires, if I had rams-head handlebars, if my fork were carbon fiber.” If someone on $4000 carbon bike passes me, I can’t help but to ask myself if it’s the rider or his bike that’s faster.
Half my transition from 10 mph to 20 mph and 10 miles to 50 was eating better, riding several times a day and giving my resin coated lungs a well earned break from smoke. The other half was equipment.
Riding a bike in flip-flops has liberating feel – hovering over the ground practically barefoot, surrounded by the wind, images rushing to be blurred in peripherals. When I bought cycling cleats, there was a strange transition. The shoes have a metal plate at the bottom that locks into the pedal. Aside from providing the opportunity to break one’s ankle in a bike crash, they give you the ability to pull up on the pedals in addition to pushing down.
After I bought the shoes I went home and changed the pedals on my bike and went for my daily ride. My liberated feet were now locked down; very physically, I had become a moving piece of the bike; every pedal stroke made me think of the churning pistons powering an engine. My average mph was 1.2 faster than normal.
A fear of the inevitable collapse of my aluminum frame got me thinking about buying a new bike, when I realized that if I rode cross country I needed a touring bike to carry my gear, I made the purchase. It looks like a racing bike, but it’s built with heavier metal so it’s more for reliability than speed. Steel over carbon fiber and aluminum; but the 20 years of technology that separate my old and new road bike more than compensate for the additional eight pounds. Gear shifters that are built into the break levers and a more efficient drive train give me an extra two mph on my rides.
Then there’s the spandex. The wind is worse than hills are, less tangible, less visible, less predictable. No evidence of what you struggled against. When I’ve worn loose t-shirts and baggy shorts they fill with the rushing air. I become more of a wheel-bound sailboat and less of a blade slipping through the wind. The cycling clothes help with the wind, but place any pit stops or errands out of the realm of public decency.
By far the most important piece of equipment I own is my cyclometer. A magnet on the wheel, a sensor, and a computer the size of a wrist watch that straps onto my handlebars. I don’t know how fast I went before I owned this little device, but the day I bought it was the same day I started taking cycling seriously. The numbers push me when nobody is riding in the park. They tell me I’ve gone faster before; they say I should be going that speed now. Most of my riding is a struggle to go further, to go faster, but I’m left to wonder, how much of my success is because of my body, and how much is because of my gear.
I want to ask Mike if he had to buy a new bike to ride the local hills or if he already had one. I think of Muttonchops and wonder what he’d do on my bike. The sky is getting cloudy so I say goodbye to my new friends; they ask why I’m putting my helmet back on. I don’t own a car.
I find the phone pole I left my bike lock on. The 10 pounds of steel chain links get draped over my shoulder and I start my post-ride ride back to the house I stayed at last night.
I’m more confident that I could make it to the west coast if I keep pushing myself. I get distracted imagining the scenery Bill describes, “lots of farm country — fields of corn and soybeans. Saw one field of small sunflowers.” I wonder if I’ll be paying attention to the fields or if my body will be too tired, my mind too set on the road ahead of me.
From the side of the highway I see a familiar bike on a car roof. With the down grade, I’m going 27 mph, but the car is doubling my speed, I feel sluggish. I wonder how much I’d slow down if I had a car and didn’t ride several times a day. Traveling 30 miles to see friends, getting groceries, going to work, my everyday life is conditioning. To get food to eat I need to practice.
I’m on French Street and the right half of the road is bordered by parked cars; I take the lane. It’s narrow so I’m centered between the yellow line and the row of cars. The last thing I want is a door to swing open and clothesline me.
A horn blares. Over my shoulder I see a mini-van; inside, the driver is thrashing his arms around. I pass a sign, speed limit 25, I’m at 23. Screw him. The horn comes again. He must’ve rolled down his window, “…off the road.”
A few blocks away, the metered parking stops, there are no cars. I wait until this area to ride closer to the curb; the mini-van rides his horn the whole way. As soon as I’m leaning to the right I hear his engine rev; I barely have time to get out of the way before he’s beside me. Inside the van, he’s fidgeting with some buttons on his door and the passenger window comes down. With the wind in my face I hear, “Hey Lance Armstrong, get the fuck off the road.” I could tell this man that roads were first paved for bicyclists but I don’t think he’d care. He’s streaming profanity, occasionally interjecting sentence fragments, “…hit you with my car.”
I’m still riding beside the van when I ask the driver of this two-ton weapon, “Have you ever gotten your ass kicked by a man in spandex?” He looks blank, curses a little more and speeds ahead to a red light. I pull beside him with a smile that says fuck you.
I watch the light for the side street: it turns yellow, no cars coming; I take off a few seconds before he gets the green. The slope of the road gets steeper; I gear up and kick my pedals past 30, till I can’t keep up with the hill.
I pull up in front of my apartment; my legs and hands are shaking. My body, stoked with adrenaline. I barely think about going inside to sit down. With my cyclometer reset, I ride to the park and put in another 20 miles. My legs don’t tire, my lungs don’t ache. When I return, I write down my average mph and it’s 1.5 over normal. I laugh when I read Bill’s message, “Roads are not busy. Most everybody waves as they pass. Farmers out working always wave.”
I see the same faces on my rides. Some stick to mornings, others come after work, but most people ride on Sundays. I pick out distant objects, the cyclists. I check the minutes and seconds on my cyclometer and pick a time to pass the person by. I never know how long the person has been here, what mile they’re on. It’s not a race with the person, just a question as to whether or not I can pass an object.
One day I’m riding back through the park after a campus loop. I decide to get ten more miles out of the park. I see a member of the Rutgers cycling team in the parking lot. His bike is flipped over and he’s changing a tire. When I double back for the last three miles I can see him pulling onto the road. He’s a few hundred feet away when I decide to chase him down. I pace myself at first, creeping up slowly. When I’m 20 feet back I check my speedometer, 18 flickering up to 18.5. I’ve been riding a little over 90 minutes. I have another mile of road left in the park. I gear up and push myself up to 19; I’m grinding my teeth as I pass him. I push harder but hover at 19. With the corner of my eye I check my shoulder and I don’t see the kid. I ease back down to 18. He swerves to my left and blows past. I don’t bother chasing, my legs are shot. I turn onto the street and speed past the cars at red lights.
I check my email and read the final forwarded message from Bill, “I have reached the Pacific Ocean. I wish I could say I had profound thoughts at the time, that I could write something that will be remembered, but I can’t. It just happened.” Rereading the message, I peel a clementine and eat the sections one at a time. Daydreams come of long empty roads cutting through cornfields and rain coming down mountain passes. I wonder if I’ll think of anything when my feet touch the Pacific and I feel the salty breeze, when I hear birds calling one another as they scatter across the setting sun.
October 17, 2009 Comments Off on Ryan G. Beckman
paint with their cameras …
… Others just paint them
The Colorful Camera Series
By Larry Hamill
I began collecting old cameras about ten years ago and starting painting them as decorative objects to place around my studio. In June 2009, I photographed Jonathan Putnam, an actor with the Columbus based Contemporary American Theatre Company, posed with a silver painted Brownie camera. I then superimposed him over a 3-D Bryce computer generated image. And thus began the Colorful Camera Series.
I perused camera stores, flea markets and Goodwill stores for old cameras, painting each with spray paint. Since then, I have asked various members of the community to pose with the painted cameras — exaggerating the camera in each portrait by using an ultra-wide angle lens. Each subject was then superimposed over an image from my library of manipulated images — a process I call “photilation”.
Current plans for the Colorful Camera Series include a 2010 calendar and possibly an I-Book, with the hopes of an exhibit of prints to follow.
October 17, 2009 1 Comment
Capturing the Essence:
Some say photographs
steal the soul, others that
the soul simply is revealed.
By Larry Hamill and Pamela J. Willits
Kojo Kamau grew up on the east side of Columbus, Ohio. As a child, he bought a Kodak Box camera and became enchanted with capturing pictures of his vibrant neighborhood. After graduating from East High School, he took photography courses at the Columbus Art School before enlisting in the Air Force in 1960, where he served as a photographer. Following four years of service, he was hired as a photographer within The Ohio State University’s School of Allied Medical Professions.
Over the years, Kojo visually documented his ever changing neighborhood and the hustle and bustle of downtown Columbus. A collection of his photographs was published in the book, Columbus Remembered.
One of Kojo’s strengths is his ability to capture the “natural human side of people”. From neighborhood barber and renowned woodcutter, Elijah Pierce, to Maya Angelou, Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, Gordon Parks and many others, Kojo has lent his gentle dignity to their photographic images.
For more photos and information about the photographer, see http://www.kojophotos.com.
October 17, 2009 3 Comments
The Coal Spur Kid
Conrail—Johnson City, NY
The first house I ever knew as home is less than a hundred yards from an old rail line that once hauled freight and passengers on a track that snaked along the northern edge of the Chenango River. Now it exists for no other reason than to haul in carloads of coal from the rich anthracite fields in places like Inez, Kentucky, to the local power plant that still eats up metric tons of the black stuff every day. I was only two years old when my parents bought that house and my childhood is rooted there. Nearly three decades later, I guess I’m one of those people who can say they’ve grown up around trains.
But then again, people like that always seemed to me—and still do—rougher, more hardened, and intimate with labor around big machines than I imagine myself ever being. They’re the ones who mean they’ve worked with trains, because their fathers and their fathers’ fathers did. Their histories are, in a lot of ways, more honest; so are their “growing up around trains” assertions. My father was a firefighter, and his was a beer-truck driver, and the only manual labor I’ve known has been delivering newspapers and hauling firewood on a beat-up Radio Flyer wagon with a rusty axel.
So I suppose a more truthful, or at least accurate, description of my coal-dusted childhood would be to say I grew up near trains, or, rather, near train tracks since the appearance of an actual line of lumbering cars was, at best, an every-other-day event. Even then, when I’d hear the low rumble of the engines and the metal-on-metal squeal from the hundred wheels, the real attraction to the slow-rolling monster had less (if any) to do with the actual locomotives and cars—those things that workers or camera-clad railfans would focus on—and far more with what that train could do to the things you left on the tracks.
There are the ubiquitous pennies, of course, but you should see what happens to firecrackers or beer cans, or melted plastic action figures, or some unfortunate kid’s plastic retainer, and even once the bloated corpse of a recently-deceased opossum. Anything that would crush or squish was fair game. Even then, I had heard enough derailment stories to leave the ballast rocks for throwing—which was both the ritual that grew out of frustration at the lack of anything to set on the trembling rails, and my own little futile protest against the noisy beast whose wheels screamed and whose giant steel couplers smashed and banged like gunshots too early on the mornings when I was sent out to roam but too tired to really go anywhere.
But then there were always the rails, train or not. Those actual ribbons of metal that were so hard and so straight in their silence that I’d walk on them like balance beams and never think about all the things I’d left on them to be flattened or severed. They were just there to sit on in the hot middle of a long day in July with the trees on either side of the line shading me from the sun and from the prying gaze of parents or all those other authority figures who loomed always somewhere too close. They felt like they were all mine.
And would it be too hokey or too American to say that one day I saw how these same rails stretched into the setting sun beyond the trestle, toward a point on the horizon that I could now and then glimpse between the valley’s slanting sides that had gathered and held me, my family—two, three generations deep—next to the river running along its green floor? Is it overly romantic to tell you that, on at least one occasion, it’s very likely that I wondered where those rails went, how far they could go if I followed them for a few hours or a few days?
After all, isn’t that how the railroad and its trains have made their way into our imaginations? Some kid somewhere dreaming of just where those tracks can lead, who he could meet—the loners, the outlaws, the thousand archetypes of independence—along that right-of-way, or all the hidden things that are ignored by the highway and completely obliterated from an airplane seat. They’re freedom and adventure all balled up together—or at least the twinkling possibility of these things. Hell, the railroad is possibility.
And if thinking of miles upon miles of steel and wood this way is too hokey, too sentimental, or (and this may sound like the worst of all to anyone who’s never had to wonder about these things) too hopeful, then I guess I’m stuck. Because, even if I didn’t know it when I was a bored kid on summer break just looking for rocks to throw and pennies to smash flat, that’s the stuff living next to the old Conrail coal spur taught me.
When I actually—finally—started following these tracks, walking them just to see where they went, every step down the line took me deeper into what third-generation railroader Russell Butler has called the endless love-hate affair with an ineffable, intangible beast. I found myself wandering farther and farther just to see what I could find out there. Even if it turned out to be just another long pair of rails that merged somewhere too far away, I had seen something that was new and foreign to me, something that held the fascination that everything foreign holds. And, despite every attempt to be satisfied with what I had come upon in the miles and miles of walking, it was never enough. I knew there was more to be seen, that there were more places and vistas that were yet undiscovered—undiscovered by me, at least—and I wanted, I needed to find them. But as is the case with any dysfunctional relationship, one partner will always hold a certain sway over the other for reasons that are so often terribly obvious to anyone removed enough to look at that relationship with vision that isn’t clouded by the storms of fascination and obsession.
The sway that the railroad lines had over me—that they still have over me—is, in all honesty, hopelessly wistful and nostalgic. There is a long history behind and a wealth of promise ahead when you stand on any stretch of the more than 170,000 miles of track braided and woven throughout the country. There is an entire world of senses: grime and grease, the smell of oil and creosote-soaked ties, walls of rusty steel, and polished steel where the wheels meet the rails, the seemingly immovable tons that can suddenly lurch into a smooth, determined roll.
The railroad has in it a song to sing to anyone who is willing to listen, one especially melodic to all of us who grew up in those once-impressive factory and industrial towns that are scattered all across the wide table of the nation like so many handfuls of rusty crumbs. For those of us whose parents pushed us away from home as soon as we could fend for ourselves—not because we were talking up space but because, and I heard it enough myself, “There’s nothing worth sticking around here for”—the most important thing was, no, is the idea that someplace out there is bigger, more exciting, more…everything that isn’t here: that America that all the old travel posters told us to see from the observation cars on The California Zephyr and The Empire Builder and The Starlight Express, the America seen from an open boxcar door.
Whether or not I could ever get to that other place wasn’t (isn’t) really the question—just knowing, or at least believing, that there was someplace beyond the little sphere of my world was enough. And all those trains that run on all the hundreds and hundreds of lines, from big yards and stations, through small, lonely towns and back, they’re a physical connection to all the people who have stories to tell and all those places that are just waiting to be seen. Any little thing that can remind me of this is like a message in a bottle washing up from out of that great sea of the nation.
Conrail / Norfolk Southern—Allentown, PA
I didn’t know who “Steam Train Maury” was, but I did know he was dead after nearly ninety years. And while I suppose there was an obituary written for him in some newspaper somewhere, knowledge of this unknown man’s death came to me in the blustery cold of late November on the dusty yellow side of a train car. The little remembrance was a simple one—his name, birth and death dates, and a solemn “R.I.P.”—written in a quick-yet-deliberate script next to a sketch of a flapping swallow-tail flag with a diamond holding an eponymous capital letter V in its center.
It was easily the tenth one of these simple monuments I’d seen on different cars of this train parked on a service spur running under a rusty hundred-year-old trestle that carried the Conrail and Norfolk Southern mainlines over the Lehigh River into Allentown, Pennsylvania. This was the train and trestle I had walked five west-bound miles of track to photograph with their respective bulk and lacey nineteenth-century girders lit by the orange of a setting sun against the grey of a departing cold front.
And it was really no surprise to see something written on the train. Spray paint on the freights is really just a descendent of the New York City subway graffiti movement that exploded in the early-1970s and was snuffed out less than 30 years later in defense of the mostly symbolic “quality of life” ideal that it supposedly attacked. But it makes perfect sense that graffiti writers would want to paint on trains—the New York subway outlaws got their work to run through all the boroughs; this latest version could get it out to the whole continent.
Still, that image I had always thought of, like a lot of people, was of vibrant aerosol paintings. This memorial to Steam Train was as far from a swirl of transformed letters and numbers as it got; this was just a quick little thing, maybe a few inches square, like something you’d absent-mindedly doodle while talking on the phone. Only, it was on the side of a train and was repeated exactly, specifically, again and again on the cars. They were all alike and freshly-made and said he had died today. I had no idea who the man memorialized was, but such repetition on so many cars that came from so many different places made me realize that this drawing must have been made by someone next to this very train, someone who could be as close to it as I now was, and my mind wandered.
A vision of a craggy old hobo tramping sadly along this same worn path, mulling over the death of his long-time hobo-buddy—good old Steam Train—with a bandana pouch tied to the end of an old walking stick he’d slung over his curved shoulder and (why not?) a dusty fedora perched on the back of his greasy-haired head. Some grey beard who’d been riding the rails for years, marking the cars he’d hopped with a hunk of paint stick he’d likely picked up off the ground in some yard somewhere or from a maintenance shed way down the line. He would’ve been just like the old hoboes back in the day when hopping an interstate train wasn’t considered neither atypical nor federal offense.
And my mind jumped to a middle-school English class where I had given a terrible, thrown-together book report on Jack London and only talked about his train-hopping days. The only thing I could recall about the story was how he had dubbed himself “Skysail Jack” and carved his moniker into water towers, shed walls, and bridge supports along his routes to let everyone know he’d been there; and how his tramp compatriots had an entire pictorial language they’d perfected and learned. A whole list of symbols that told others fresh off the train what the new town had to offer them: where a friendly woman lived, a place for clean water, whether the local law was vicious or lenient, and a hundred other things that any weary, dirty traveler would want to know. It was a complete network of silent, secret communication solely for those in the know.
But now I knew that was more than a century dead and gone and I kept coming back to this drawing and my imaginary artist because they were both right here, in front of me. The drawing gave birth to the artist, and I could see for myself the little details that spoke of this human presence. There was one line that was supposed to meet up with another but stopped short; and then there were the cracks in the car’s surface that a fluid drawing hand had gotten caught on. I could even drag my finger down the drawing’s edge and smudge the paint that was still a little wet. I felt connected to the train, to the drawing, and, suddenly, to whatever hand had put it here.
I’d seen sketches like this before and never thought much about them. Really, they’re not much to think of—all but invisible when the train is roaring past and then dwarfed by those big, more ostentatious spray painted graffiti they exist among. The ones I had seen before weren’t so different from this, either. Sure, the motif would change and the dates, if there were any, would differ, but I had always chalked them up to some drunken kid’s need to do something while hiding out along the tracks somewhere. I mean, that’s what I figured because it’s exactly what I would’ve done. Or I just supposed some transient, some homeless down-on-his-luck guy, was lurking around looking for some secluded spot to sleep in.
I snapped a photo of the little thing. I don’t know why. No, I do. It had something to do with the hopeless sincerity I saw in it. The act of any public memorial is only half-selfish—it’s something mollifying for the one doing the memorializing, yes, but its whole intention is to be seen. Whatever we get from seeing that memorial is innately and tightly bound-up in the re-acknowledgment of mortality that always seems to fall onto us like epiphany, as if we had somehow forgotten that we can’t be here forever. But even in out own worn-out, selfish denial, we can be altruistic as well.
This artist surely knew, or I suppose hoped, there would be at least one other witness, one more person to stop, maybe for just a glance, but still stop and think about this dead man who meant enough to someone to be remembered, even if it was in this unconventional way. When I took that photo, Steam Train, whoever he may have been, along with his memory, continued on, off in another direction. The drawn-on train carried him down the line to who-knows-where, but the image written onto the film in my camera would now part from the train, become something else even. Instead of just riding that steel route, I carried it to the photo lab and then, eventually, back into my own home days, weeks after it was penned onto that dusty car. The memory of a man I didn’t know would now live with me. Even in death, he kept right on going.
And doesn’t everyone want to believe that there’s someone out there who’ll care enough to leave a little remembrance of each of us when we’re gone. Just a little something that maybe someone else might see so, in our sad absences, we can keep on going, even if it’s just as so many quiet reminders that we really were once here. The littlest memorial, even if we make it ourselves, will quietly say to everything that gets left behind, I mattered in some small way.
Standing there with the sun setting and the November wind rustling the few stubborn remaining leaves, I thought about Jack London and how the ninety-odd years he’d been dead was just about the same number of years Steam Train Maury had been alive. I thought about who they both must have left behind and figured it was about time to go.
It was already getting dark and I hadn’t even started the five-mile hike home back up the tracks. The thin chill that had been dancing around all day slumped right down into a heavy cold so I decided to walk the long trestle into the city and get something warm to drink. It wasn’t the safest route in, but most large trestles like this have an open grate catwalk down the middle or on one side for workers to use. This one had a wide center walk and, more importantly, I knew that any train crossing it in the dark would have its lights on and be visible from a good half-mile away. In the worst-case scenario of two trains crossing at once—one bound north, the other south—with me somewhere in the middle, I could lie facedown on the catwalk and have at least a few feet of clearance as the cars rumbled by above my head. And while this was an unlikely situation, I still hurried across in a half-jog once I managed to climb the rocky embankment that led up from the maintenance line below.
My head tucked down and into the stiffening wind, I watched the river rush by and listened to the hollow thump, thunk-thump of an uprooted tree trunk caught in the eddying current against a massive granite support some twenty feet below. The sound of the wind and watery trunk in my ears left me all but unable to hear any train that might roll onto the trestle, so every ten seconds I’d toss a quick glance back over my shoulder and then ahead into the dark looking for only the bright headlight of an oncoming locomotive.
Walk, walk, walk, look. Walk, walk, walk, look. I knew you can never be too careful. I’d heard the stories: veterans who’d worked twenty, thirty years on the railroad were killed everyday. Like the maintenance worker who bled to death after a chemical tanker’s brakes failed. The runaway car rolled silently down the line he was repairing, picking up speed the whole way, and cut him clean in half across his midsection. Or that one about the engineer whose locomotive backed into a line of parked service vehicles and crushed three guys between the bumpers. These were the professionals with hardhats and work boots and high-visibility safety vests. Where that left me, in my worn sneakers and baseball hat, was something I never wanted to think too much about, and by the time I was finally across I was shivering and needed to catch my breath.
I still try to figure out where he came from. Was he there the whole time watching me come across? Or just ahead of me on the trestle? Did he climb up from the riverbank underneath the last stretch? Was he behind me and I just didn’t realize it? Whatever it was that happened to get him there, he was no more than ten feet away when I noticed him on the other side of the tracks blowing warming breaths into his gloved hands. With the sun not completely gone down behind him, I could still make out his dirty jeans, a backpack, a heavy black garage jacket bundled against the cold, and the worn bill of a baseball hat peeking out from under a hood. I figured he was just one of the city’s many homeless up here to drink or piss or sleep. He seemed oblivious to my presence, but I still wanted to get out of there. A couple hundred dollars-worth of camera equipment was reason enough to not stick around. Staring back across the trestle, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other as if impatient for something to arrive, and when my shoes slid on the loose ballast, he looked my way with a slow, unsure turn that said he was as surprised as I was to come across someone else up here.
In the long seconds that passed we surely sized one another up, or at least that’s what I did. I wondered if I could fight if I had to and thought I might get a good quick shot in, unless he had a knife, or a gun, or anything. I tried to gauge how far away the street lights on the busy main road were and wondered how long it had been since I’d actually had to run from anything, or to anything for that matter. In my mind I practiced what I’d say when he asked me for a cigarette, or my money, or my camera. All the things I’d learned from TV told me to just give them what they want and stay alive.
When he blew into his fists again, still looking at me, I was ready to do whatever I had to: run, fight, hand over everything valuable I had and head to the police station to file a report if I could still move. But something drew his glance back down the tracks again and he took a second to look, never moving his hands away from his mouth, before turning back to me, opening one fist into a casual spread-finger wave, and then pointing down to the trestle to where a blinding yellow light said a locomotive was just beginning to rumble its way in our direction from across the darkening bridge.
It tore between us, southbound, with all the noise and terror that is a fully-loaded freight train pushing toward high speed—a high-priority “hotshot” of double-stacked shipping containers that probably wouldn’t be stopping or even slowing down until it reached its destination. In the spaces between the cars flashing by, I would catch moments of him watching them. Like single frames cut from a boring film, I could see him frozen in random poses: standing there looking down the length of the train with a hand on his head to hold his hat down against the wind; facing the cars but watching their path with his hands in his pockets; again blowing into his fists or shrugging his hood back up around his neck.
Then it was past as quickly as it had come upon us. And he still stood there, hands deep in his coat pockets, watching the flashing red light on the rear of last car disappear around the bend. When the world was again enveloped in the eerie quiet that arrives in the wake of a passing train, he looked over his shoulder toward the bridge and back again to the bend ahead, hopped over one rail then the other in a few light steps, and made a casual bee-line toward me.
I had run into plenty of people in the time I’d spent along the tracks—spend enough time anywhere and you’re bound to meet someone. Most were older men; some retired rail workers or train engineers who simply couldn’t stay away, others were just guys who’d fallen in love with the idea of the railroad as kids but never really saw it as a career option. They both always seemed to have at least one camera with them and they always talked openly about a basement dedicated to model trains. And, depending on where you were, there were usually a few dog walkers or drunks wandering a stretch of track. Of course the few times I had to give identification to security guards or railroad cops and talk my way out of a trespassing ticket were always in the back of my mind, too. But all my encounters had been in the light of day—mornings, afternoons—making them, at best, friendly, or, at worst, barely genial. In the dark, away from the security of passing cars and pedestrians, on your own, even a guy who has just waved and warned you of an on-coming train is suspicious.
The uneasiness that had been relieved by that wave he’d given me suddenly returned, and I thought again of running, worried that he’d be right on my heels if I did. I made a fist around the keys in my pocket and waited.
The first words were his and, to my surprise, my anxiety faded almost as soon as he spoke. He said there was a fox carrying its little kits one by one across the tracks seconds before the train screamed through—that’s what he was pointing at—and the whole time he thought we were going to helplessly watch her get hit. The relief he felt at the fox’s survival came through in the timbre of his low soft voice.
He was taller than he looked from across the tracks—as tall as me—and when he stuck out his hand to shake hello, the wrists that poked out between the too-short cuffs of his jacket and the bottoms of his cloth gloves told me we had a similar build as well. Short hair peeked from under the sides of his hat and faded into scruffy week-old stubble on his cheeks and chin that only half-hid a clearly boyish face. I couldn’t tell how old he was, maybe somewhere in his mid-twenties, but he asked the stock railroad questions that always come up—Was I waiting for a train? Did I see the one laid-up back on that maintenance line? Were there any cops around? I knew these questions were a way to gauge my reasons for being around trains without coming off like an interrogator or nutjob. They worked as sort of code that told him as much about me as they told me about him. I answered each in turn and, through his eager additions of his own information, learned that we were both on the long list of those who found themselves fascinated by the train.
He said he had made his way from the same direction I had to also take photos, and he showed me his pack that was loaded with equipment and film while telling me how surprised he was to find someone else who came to this out-of-the-way spot. He described a long line of new chrome auto carriers that was stuck waiting on the trestle an hour or so earlier and how the sun was reflecting off the river so that it was like the cars were lit from below and netted with shadows from above. Since then he’d just been hanging around, waiting to see if any other trains would roll through and was, it sounded, relieved that I didn’t seem like someone who was going to rob or kill him, or even hit him up for a cigarette.
We talked about the train that just came through and about this spot and how it looked at different times of the day and year. He knew all about the big Norfolk Southern yard that was less than a mile from the trestle and, through this intimate knowledge, hinted at ways to get into it without too much risk. When he asked what I thought about graffiti—another stock question that can often reveal more than any other when it comes to trains—I told him the truth, that I liked it and was happy to shoot it and had even done some back when I was a kid living in New York. He smiled and gave a little chuckle at this and I noticed two deep dimples appear on either side of his mouth when he nodded in what I took to be agreement. He wanted to know if I ever saw so-and-so painted on the trains around here and when I said I had—had, in fact just taken a photo of a bright green-and-blue one the day before—he gave that same little nod and chuckle. I added that I had just seen something odd on the maintenance spur train back across the river and wondered if he knew who this Steam Train Maury guy was.
Together, walking the short half-mile to a 7-11 in town, I learned that, in addition to a physiology, we shared a first name as well. Still, he insisted that he usually went by his surname, Vauxhall, even if people usually screwed up the pronunciation of it—ending it with a hard x. In his soft voice that teetered on a mumble, he said, as if in passing, to just call him V; it was easier and that’s what he went by on the trains, most of the time anyway. And then, perking up, he told me all about Maury Graham, a five-time “king of the hoboes” and “official grand patriarch” of rail riders, who had suffered a stroke just a few days prior and was found dead this morning. But it was OK. The old guy had been sick for a while, lived a good life, and a lot of people will remember him.
And right then I felt a rock of disheartened recognition appear in my stomach. As soon as I made the connection he had implied—the one-letter nickname “on the trains,” all that Steam Train Maury information right at hand—I saw that this guy, the one who walked the tracks, hung out on trestles, lugged camera equipment on his back for miles, who was, for all intents and purposes, no different than me, had been the one memorializing the dead man on the cars. It wasn’t some old hobo sentimentally remembering his friend. V admitted that, while he never met the man or even knew anyone who had, he still felt it was important to get the word out that the old tramp had “caught the westbound.” And I felt like I’d been cheated, like someone who suddenly realizes they’re the butt of a joke everyone else (even just one other person) was in on all along.
As we left the store, coffees in-hand for the long walk we both had ahead of us, I wanted to be away from and done with him. I felt an odd sense of betrayal at his not being my idealized and romantic vision of a lamenting hobo-artist, so I lied and said I had to go over to the photo store to drop off some film and then meet my wife for dinner in a little while. Whether or not he believed me, I still don’t know, but he gave a nod that I took to say OK. I half-heartedly suggested we go out and shoot together before the snow started falling and I momentarily brightened at the memory of his hints at knowing a way into the big NS yard.
He took off his backpack and rummaged around in it for a minute before coming out with a pen and a torn sheet of notebook paper. On it he told me to write my e-mail address or phone number and said he’d give me a call next time he was going to go out. I wrote both down so he wouldn’t think I was just trying to get rid of him and said to call whenever, that there were a lot of places I wanted to check out. He stuffed it into his coat pocket and nodded in agreement giving me a quick “see you later” while heading down the sidewalk before disappearing into the dark weeds that backed the scrubby woods bordering the tracks. I still had his pen.
Norfolk Southern—Allentown, PA
On an unexpectedly warm Tuesday morning in December, I got a terse message from V asking if I wanted to come to one of his favorite “benching spots”—someplace to take a look at trains and shoot some photos—a classification yard near Allentown where Norfolk Southern would sort and arrange cars based on destination and assemble them into full trains, “manifests,” that would eventually take those cars to wherever they needed to go. I knew from looking at atlases and online maps that this spot he was talking about sat right on the edge of the large NS holding yard V had hinted at getting into when we first met.
He mentioned that he usually liked to go alone, but for whatever reason—I never got around to asking—he had decided to bring me along. The message explained how it was only about two miles from his apartment and we could follow an old canal towpath all the way there. Outside, it was warm enough to recall the easy weather I had been resigned to not see for months and, in my haste to be out in it, I had already forgotten the wet rag of disappointment and frustration that had flopped down when I found out who V actually was. I thought a nice walk near some water would afford some time to get reacquainted with him, to get a meaningful conversation going on the “deeper issues” the railroad couldn’t help but dredge up.
So I agreed to go and fifteen minutes later we were walking along the gravelly path with the sharp-angled sun on our jacketed backs and a crisp breeze in our faces. The shallow canal that used to ferry boatloads of anthracite coal between Mauch Chunk and Easton predated the railroad that followed it. But this was the case for countless lines, especially in the waterway-laced northeast. A trail would grow up along a riverbank and become a major transportation route; a canal is cut around those impassible spots or, like the one we were following, it was dug as glassy-smooth answer to the churning turbulent eddies of the wide Lehigh. Eventually, the rails are laid along the same general route and that’s that. Now, the slow flowing ribbon of water carried only small sheets of ice that had broken off from the larger cracking masses along its edges. There were crows in the trees and the low rumble of idling locomotives rolled between their sharp calls.
V didn’t say much, despite my attempts at engagement, and the first twenty minutes of our walk passed painfully with me trying to lead him into what I imagined would be an enlightening discourse on the meaning of his fascination with trains—and writing on them.
Attempt number one went something like: “Being out here by yourself probably gives you a lot of time to think…. I always end up making lists of stuff I have to do or remembering something I didn’t.”
A few minutes went by.
Number two: “I never really got into it, but you probably know other people who write….”
The frustration I met months ago, when I first understood that V was just some guy like me and not a wild artist-hobo packed full with stories of love and loss and adventure collected from a life spent on the rails, had returned. I felt sure he was going out of his way to avoid talking about something that, I thought, should matter to him.
So a third to truly test the unresponsive waters: “Can you get arrested for something like this? For drawing on cars? Because I’ve had to deal with cops for just being too close to an engine. I mean, given the rail companies’ histories of protecting their stock at all costs, I’d imagine they don’t look too kindly on people ruining expensive equipment…”
Silence and a look in the direction of a hidden cardinal’s cry.
His gait wasn’t fast, but the stride was long—his frame, like my own, borders on lankiness—but somehow it carried him a full step ahead of me, and more than once I found myself working to catch up after slowing to look back down the path. V didn’t look back—not at the path or at me.
Halfway to our destination he slowed a little, turned his head slightly, and shot his first full sentence of the trip over his shoulder at me: “Don’t fuck around when we’re in the yard.” At which I give a half-chuckle that could easily have been read as dismissive—mostly because it was—and he just went on walking at the familiar pace.
Only I got to thinking about his advice, no, his order, and I really began to take offense. How could he have forgotten that I wasn’t some stupid kid looking for a new party spot where I could spray-paint the names of my favorite heavy metal band or brand of cheap beer? He had to have known that I had years of experience and was serious about trains; and the more I thought about it, the more I began to resent his bald-faced assumption of my naïveté and general lack of common sense. So I quietly fumed over it for another hundred yards down the canal.
And then he began to say more. He enumerated all the rules and precautions that had taken him a lot longer than this walk to internalize as second nature; the ones that, as he began to break them down in a matter-of-fact way that sounded like it was straight out of an instruction manual, I saw had kept him out of jail and, more importantly, in one piece:
1) Don’t walk between the rails; stay on the ballast. That old image of “walking the line” on the crossties or on the rail itself, as if it was a just a shiny steel balance beam, is just stupid. For all of their ridiculous weight and size, trains can be dead quiet when they roll and will sneak right up on you. By then you’ll be able to feel the rails’ camber bend, but it’ll be too late to do anything but get flattened. A train doesn’t care if you’re in its way. This fact is paramount.
2) When you cross an empty line, look both ways twice and move across the track diagonally in four steps. This is the minimum number anyone needs to move with any measure of safety: one step outside the rail on a secure tie, two between, and a fourth onto a tie on the other side. You do this because no one wants to carry you and your broken ankle home.
3) Respect the cars at all cost; they are not your personal jungle gym. Never, ever go under a car. When you must climb over one, use the grab irons and ladders and always maintain three points of contact with the car. Get up, across, and off as quickly, but as safely, as possible. If you can go around the train to get to the other side, do it. Climb only when necessary.
4) Most importantly, always be aware of your surroundings. Never wholly lose yourself in anything you’re doing. Know at least two ways to get out of wherever you are and don’t hesitate to use one if you need to. Safety has many meanings in a yard.
Within thirty minutes of the end of V’s lecture, we had crossed a narrow pedestrian bridge over the canal, moved through a muddy stretch of bare trees, and climbed a shallow rise. Stopping at the top, V finally looked back with a half-chuckle and his creased brow unfurrowed in what I could only read as something that was at once relief and, at the same time, measured calm. A few short feet below us sat at least ten full lines of cars, their rust-mottled roofs stretching uninterrupted a good half-mile in either direction through the deserted yard.
V loped down the muddy bank toward the trains and held up a finger to silently say Wait here a minute. He looked both ways, twice; crossed, in four sure steps, the only empty line; stood with his face to a gleaming sun-yellow boxcar and looked around once more before waving me into the quiet yard.
There’s a quick moment in Style Wars—Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s 1983 documentary on New York City subway graffiti culture—when one prolific artist, Donald “Dondi” White, attempts to describe the near-transcendental feeling that accompanies a visit to a train yard. He says, “It’s like you’re in a yard of metal giants…. You’re, like, a little dude in the midst of all this metal and you’re here to produce something.”
And while that specific reference point may have been located somewhere in one of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway storage yards, it’s a point that I came to see is mirrored in every train yard. It’s a point where I found my tiny, squishy, breakable mortal body forced—or, actually, placed—in direct contact with countless tons of unfeeling metal that could, without any goading or even on a cold whim a mile down the track, squish and break that tiny body a hundred times over and never look back. Fear can do a lot for reverence. That’s why there was a definite reverential lilt to Dondi’s voice in the film and it’s the exact same reason for the little moth of anxiety that was fluttering its sturdy wings in the dip of my throat when V seemingly evaporated into the steely air of the yard.
I lost him after stopping to run my hand over the clean berry pink and apple green lines of some intricate piece of graffiti that, from a distance, proclaimed someone’s pseudonym, but from here just dissolved into looping swirls of color. Or, he lost me. V was stopped looking closely at a drawing two cars in front of me just seconds before and then he was gone—that quickly, that quietly—and a chill of panic instantly rolled through me and left its ghost to shudder up and down my sweaty back.
I suddenly felt incredibly and utterly alone. I’d been around trains more than enough times, and had always thought it would be incredible to explore an entire yard overflowing with cars. And it had been. Here, standing quietly, were cars I had only seen in a blur as they passed at a crossing, cars from long-defunct railroads that were now called, honorifically, “fallen flags.” I could touch their rusty sides and be connected with every place they’d been; I could read the penciled work orders some repairman had made—“doors lubed 10/89”—and wonder who had worked on it since. And there were all the other things written or scratched or painted on the cars—nicknames, messages, political rants, a tic-tac-toe game started but never finished—that told me, reassuringly, that I wasn’t the first one to be next to this car.
In fact, in the fifteen minutes we had been walking up and down the lines, I had finished an entire roll of film, reloaded, and was half way through a second. Snapping photos of the cars’ details out on a line somewhere, even a secluded stretch of track, was one thing; but when there are suddenly cars all around, they close in and become something entirely different.
The air in the interior of the yard, between the closely-laid lines, was colder than it had been on the outside and sunlight struggled to make its way even halfway down the cars’ sides. I became desperately aware of the walls of metal that had been around me this whole time, the ones I hadn’t been paying attention to for want of capturing all the new angles and details being this deep into the yard afforded. I didn’t even know where we were in the yard or how far down the lines we had gone before V disappeared; I was just following his casual footfalls, craning my neck like a tourist.
I thought back to our first meeting and grew positive that he’d abandoned me with a spiteful laugh. That he lured me out here as some sort of retribution for ditching him after the trestle those weeks ago. I wondered if someone could be that spiteful. Or maybe it was that he saw someone—a worker or a cop—and ran, got away, left me to be caught. Maybe he even tried to signal me, say Quick, let’s get out of here! with some specific hand gesture that I never noticed.
It was the same panic that accompanies the moment you understand you’re lost deep in the woods or in some city you’ve never been to before. That separation from everything familiar and known. I wanted to yell out, call to him in both anger and fear, and let him know that I knew he was still out there and that he was an asshole for taking off on me. But as I took in the air to shout, I realized that if there was a worker or a cop somewhere nearby they’d surely know the layout of the yard better than I and catch me once they heard the false anger crack a little and echo around all the lifeless metal.
So I did nothing but stand stock still. The crows had flown from the trees and the sun had gone behind one of those thick winter clouds and made the growing shadows kick up the wind into sudden gusts strong enough to rattle the dangling metal security tags on the cars’ doors and make them sound like someone’s jingling keys.
When the temperature rises or drops suddenly—in the bright early morning or when that brightness is quickly snuffed out—the very physical shape of the cars changes just a little. Their riveted and welded seams expand or contract by mere hundredths of a millimeter and send out high staccatos of discordant pings or low aching groans that, as I stood there wide-eyed and alert to every slightest noise or motion within ten feet, frightened me enough to push the pulse in my wrists to a pounding I could feel as those eerie songs careened around me. But up ahead, beyond the fat belly of a black acid-etched tanker, or maybe a little behind me, on a line, or maybe two over, the rolling grumble of footsteps on ballast began to drown out every other sound.
I invented arrest scenarios and figured out what I could sell to raise bail money. I told myself I would be a first-time offender and would get by just fine as long as they didn’t make an example out of me. But if they did? In the hyper-cautious post-9/11 world, being too close to any large machine, if you didn’t belong there, was automatically suspicious; and I had read about overzealous railroads pushing for felony convictions of trespassers. The fears of a terrorist derailing a few hundred cars were, surely, a bit reactionary; but when those cars could be holding millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, maybe there was something to worry about.
As quickly as I could, I dropped down onto my haunches, as if dodging something swung at my head, into what was little more than a standing fetal position, and peered under the cars to see where the sound was coming from. This, V had told me, was the safest way to look around. Hopping onto a ladder or platform or coupler on the end of a car wasn’t worth the risk and only added more obstacles if you did need to get out of there in a hurry. Crouched with my hands on the large loose rocks, I was stable enough to scan the low horizon and swiveled my head as far at it would go, first right, toward what I remembered to be the yard’s entrance, and then left into its depths. I found no one.
I stood like that for what felt like too long just trying to figure out what to do, whether or not I should just pick a direction and head that way in a straight line, hopping between cars until I got to the edge of the yard. Once there I could follow the access road back, I figured.
And then I was struck with the gleaming realization that I could get out. These weren’t impenetrable walls, I told myself; they only held me there as long as I let them. And when I again stood and looked around at the high metal sides of the cars, at the grimy old grey hoppers filled with barley or kitty litter or flour, at the freshly-painted boxcars that carried I didn’t know what, I felt a change, a new sense of security in their silent weight surrounding me. There, buttressed by so much potential energy, I began to see the odd calm and peace that is hidden in the train. It was, I now realize, not unlike the serenity that accompanies a day-long hike, miles-long bike ride, or anything that pushes the body to a confrontation with what its owner thought were its limits, physical or mental.
All around me were the real things I had been photographing and idealizing. They were hard and dangerous and covered in the dirt of labor, yes, but they were also dotted, more often than not, with paintings and drawings done by people who were not me, but who were like me, more like me than I had thought. And all the places that they hadn’t written or painted on held the same potential for communication and contact.
I took comfort in this and by the time I noticed that the footsteps had stopped and that the sun was beginning to crawl back out from behind the heavy clouds, the weight of panic had already fluttered away leaving me free to stroll down the line, deeper into the yard. I raised my camera to my eye far less but saw more—the marks some worker’s boots had made on the rungs of the ladder; a handprint in the dust of a door; a sketch, like V’s, only much older and faded into the very paint of the car, that said “Water Bed Lou’s in Love.”
It wasn’t until my second lap of the innermost line that I finally saw the greasy cuffs and trail boots moving down the other side of the car next to me, trolling slowly back toward the far end of the train. Their familiar long stride told me V was right there, that he had been no more than a couple lines away.
And, as if out of the air, the lightest sting of disappointment and loss appeared. The feeling of being utterly alone, within tilted metal walls in what amounted to little more than a mile-long hallway barely three feet wide, evaporated entirely. I’d had the opportunity to get out of there or to continue on, taking photos and exploring the foreign world for as long as I wanted by myself, and I embraced it. Now with the appearance of another body, it was no longer me focused solely on myself. Even though I had known that V was somewhere out there, his actual presence was only an idea. He was no different from the boot marks or handprints I’d seen; he was no different than anything anyone—including him—may have written on the trains.
This connection reached me as he did, with a half-chuckle that asked Where’ve you been this whole time?
Delaware & Hudson—Binghamton, NY
Even months later, after I had moved from Pennsylvania back to my old hometown in upstate New York, that double sense of being found and of finding something lingered on. This was due, I’m sure, in no small part to the increasing frequency V and I had spent lurking around together before I finally left. Each time we went to a new spot, or even one we were familiar with—like the old trestle or, what would be come to be called in the parlance of the railroad, the “hump” yard in Allentown—I’d felt more sure and aware of everything around me. It’s not that I had stopped looking at the larger train; the massive engines and long snakes of manifest cars still made my mind wander and heart jump a little. But now, when I would walk next to the laid-up trains or even circle around a lone car left on its own, I looked more closely.
In New York, alone, in the deep cold of early March, I still went—in what came to be the shorthand for any activity around them—“down to the trains” on a near-daily basis. I had done my homework, too. Downloading satellite images from the internet and digging through street and surveyors’ maps had given a virtual guided tour of all the regional yards and trackage. In no time I found that the old Delaware & Hudson yard—where long lines of cars would sit unattended waiting for locomotives to reassemble them or pick them up and move them to one of the four other yards around town—was just a short walk from my front door.
And I would follow tracks for miles, walking their straight and snaking lines, only half expecting to find any cars and not minding too much if they never appeared. The long walks down any newly-uncovered stretch—fourteen miles one day, ten another—took me into spaces that would have been mundane from the front seat of a car but, on foot, became new and foreign. They were the lesser-seen pieces of the more familiar towns and cities that fell within an ever-widening circle of exploration. Small, innocuous places like Sanitaria Springs and the epic-sounding (but diminutive) Steel City that I had hardly even heard of—barely dots on the map—suddenly took on an importance that, had I not marked them as reference points and mileposts on one long journey or another, would have, as far as I knew, remained invisible forever.
There is something about coming across some forgotten or neglected thing, about finding a new town or field or burnt-out industrial area—any one of the thousand things that train tracks go past or through or near or around—that I can only describe as an odd mingling of trepidation and delight. With every next step farther down the line into an unfamiliar space, I would feel an inherent loss of control that bred a certain fear and, at the same time, fostered it. But my surprise that would manifest as open-air exclamations of “Where’d this come from?!” and “Who knew this was here?!” acted as a buffer to that fear and, more often than not, was a warm hand on my back that kept urging me on: just fifteen more minutes and then I’ll turn around, just to that next bend in the track, just to the other side of the bridge. There is always just one more step and I’d usually have to force myself not to take it and head home.
I figured out that I could go to the D&H yard in the morning after my wife had gone to work and walk up and down the lines with abandon, distracted only by the occasional shunting of a manifest or the windy rumble of a hotshot roaring westbound on the Canadian Pacific mainline that edged (and officially owned) the yard. Through the winter, it served as the more-than-apt replacement for the busy Norfolk Southern one V and I had grown intimately familiar with. New to me, though, was the snow that laid itself down on Binghamton nearly every night and how it would blanket the footprints I had made between the lines the day before; and mine were the only ones to disturb the whiteness that appeared that much more brilliant with the light sprinkling of anthracite dust that fell, itself like snow, from the hopper doors of the mile-long coal trains that trundled their way east throughout the cold months. But any journey into the D&H yard had taken on a second purpose.
While there was always at least one scenic photo to take of the scrub- or wood- or wastelands that pop up around trains, there were dozens, sometime hundreds more to take of the train, of what was written on it. The time (and miles) I had spent with V in the months prior to my prodigal return had quietly turned my lens more and more toward the drawings he was doing and the ones that had been done long before his. I began to know the images and monikers—Bozo Texino, Herby, Colossus of Roads, The Rambler, Smokin’ Joe, The Solo Artist, and hundreds more—that began to pop up everywhere once they were pointed out to me.
I learned that some who drew these little icons were graffiti artists looking to broaden their media horizons; others were actual hoboes who still rode the rails as a way of life; and still others, most in fact, were just rail workers who could take advantage of their free time and access to train cars. Looking closely, looking for them, really, revealed, in many cases that there were people all over the continent producing a wealth of these little things. “New York Slim” was obvious; “The Rambler” was from Port Beaumont, Texas; “The Kodak Kidd” frequented northeast Pennsylvania; “Ozone” and “The Raven” were from Roseville, California; “Chad the Dogcatcher” worked in Enola, Pennsylvania; and “Virginia Zeke” spent a lot of his time in Richmond.
Many of the cars that would run on Norfolk Southern trackage would end up riding the Canadian Pacific north and it was likely that V and I, although hundreds of miles apart now, saw many of the same cars in our yards. So I began to notice V’s flapping flag design appearing more frequently, too. Older ones that had faded and weathered sometimes looked like they’d melted into the very metal of the car; others had been covered by indifferent graffiti writers or repairmen who had to put a new company logo or tracking number over them. The new ones he had been brazenly applying when we went out shone bright white or deep black—he used only these two colors—on dark- or light-colored cars.
When I asked him why he used this specific design, he explained that the flag itself was an old logo for the Lehigh Valley Railroad—a local favorite—but co-opted and made personal with a lone V instead of the original L.V. in the diamond. He said that there were probably thousands of these little flags flying on cars and that he had found out through online photo sharing sites that a few had even made it all the way out to California, Texas, and British Columbia, places he himself had never been to and likely never would.
I’d seen it plenty of times. The actual drawing took only a few seconds, but each one was neatly crafted; the speed came from repetition, not a disregard for precision. Every line was of equal importance—from the circle that would become the ball on the top of the flagpole to the symmetrical diamond in the center of the flag—and there was an undeniable craftsmanship in V’s method of first sharpening the paint stick with a pocket knife before standing mere inches away with his left hand on the car and drawing the image at eye-level.
I stood close a few times and saw the soft pigment of the crayon melt on sun-warmed paint of the car and his hand adapt to the effects of the heat by twisting as he drew, like an architect or draftsman spins a pencil to always keep it sharp. And when V tossed half a broken paint stick to me and lifted his chin in the direction of a hulking white refrigerator car, I didn’t know what I was supposed to write. Bands I liked flashed through my head, as did brands of beer and the initials of a girl I loved, lists of vulgarities, political views, and the image of a goofy-looking dog I used to draw on my notebooks in fourth grade—none of which felt like they were the right thing to put on the side of a train. There is a temptation that accompanies every blank space and I felt the urge to fill this blank space with an image that meant something to me, something that could be, like all the names I’d seen often enough to feel like I knew them personally, a moniker, an alter-ego of some kind.
Winding my way among the cars in the snow-coated yard, I would often stop to look back down the lines just to see the prints I had made and wonder what someone coming across them would think. Would they see the back-and-forth zigzags and assume some brakeman was just doing his job, walking the lengths of the trains to inspect the cars? Would they think it was some kids from the working-class neighborhood that abutted the yard playing around on their own industrial jungle gym?
If I could choose, I would want them to follow my tracks, putting a foot first in one then the next, taking a few slow steps next to a train then crossing to another to stand — like I did — and face the car. If they looked up from the prints they were following they would see my quick sketch of a pompadoured guy with Xs for eyes and a pair of crossed train tracks behind him drawn by someone called The Coal Spur Kid.
Then maybe they would conjure up a story for that guy they’d seen on the side of the car and, in telling it, carry him on to someplace new.
* * *
Selected Works Consulted
Abel, Allen. “The Art of Vandalism.” Saturday Night magazine (n.d.), archived on North Bank Fred: Freighthopping, Hoboes, Boxcar Art <http://www.northbankfred.com/canada>
Butler, Russell. “Steel Road, Evanescent Route: My Life on the Line—the Railroad Line” (n.d.), archived on Michael Poulin’s BoxcarArt.com <http://www.geocities.com/boxcarart101/colossusinterview.html>
Cooper, Bruce C. Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865-1881. Philadelphia: Polyglot Press, 2004.
Daniel, Bill. “Monikers and the like.” Personal email, 2 Feb. 2005.
————. Who is Bozo Texino? Dir. Bill Daniel, Prod. Bill Daniel. DVD. 2005.
Gastman, Roger, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler. Freight Train Graffiti. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.
Hultrans, Andrew. “The Mark of Bozo.” Stim magazine, vol. 1, no. 2 (June 1996), archived on Stim Online <http://www.stim.com/stim-x/0696june/features/hobo.html>
Kaplan, Eben. “Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat.” Backgrounder. Council on Foreign Relations online, 3-12-07 <http://www.cfr.org/publication/12800/rail_security_and_the_terrorist_threat.html>
Kerlansky, Mervyn, and Jon Narr with text by Norman Mailer. The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
London, Jack. The Road. Archived on the Jack London Online Collection <http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/TheRoad/>
McKay, J.R. “Bozo Texino.” On Mainline Mac’s Homepage <http://www.geocities.com/lokomac8/bozo.htm>
Parlsen, David. “Art or vandalism, railcar graffiti roll across the land.” Wausau (WI) Daily Herald, 6 Jan, 2004, p. 1A.
Poulin, Michael. “Beer and Boxcars: An Interview with Hollywood and Rum Runner” (n.d.), archived on Michael Poulin’s BoxcarArt.com <http://www.geocities.com/boxcarart101/colossusinterview.html>
Silver, Tony, and Henry Chalfant. Style Wars. Dir. Tony Silver, Prod. Silver and Chalfant. DVD. Plexifilm 2003.
Trackside, Mick. “Freights & Chalk.” Personal email, 31 Jan. 2005.
October 17, 2009 1 Comment
Don’t worry, Spider
I keep house
a domhán alla
ná bí buartha ar bith
ní bean mhaith an tí mé.
cuido la casa
cuando me da ganas
Deborah Humphreys is an artist in community and social worker in Newark, N.J. She received her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College in February.
October 17, 2009 Comments Off on Deborah Humphreys
Christmas Card to Greg
Do you remember Dusseldorf
the Hotel Christina
and the lobby bar
where a fat old man
in several black overcoats
pulled off his beret
to reveal a swastika
tattooed to his forehead
and he shouted at us
We didn’t know what we had done
except speak English to one another
and be young and agile.
Small white Christmas lights
hung in two lines on either side of the
front door, and after the bartender
and to get warm,
we went out the front door,
and up the side stairs
to my room
where we took off our clothes
and bathed together
side by side
Bruder und Schwester.
Jan Wenk Cedras has been involved in theatre, dance, and music for over thrity years. Currently, she lives in Rochester with her daughter who plays concert cello.
October 17, 2009 Comments Off on Jan Wenk Cedras
A Lifetime’s Work:
The Watercolors of Noel G. Miles
Born in 1936, Noel G. Miles was raised and still resides in Philadelphia, Pa. As a child he remembers what he calls urban removal and renewal. “I felt I was witnessing the beginning of American style; which I thought of as the beginning of civilization. I was so impressed with all the interesting buildings that were being developed in Philadelphia. For me, architecture epitomizes the totality of how people live,” he says.
Miles belongs to the old school of “pleine aire” artists (meaning to work outside). Whether it’s in front of City Hall or some obscure building, you can easily spot him sitting on his stool with his drawing board, pencils and watercolors, recreating what he considers to be another architectural wonder. “I am drawn to certain buildings by a feeling I get in my gut. As I begin to make closer observations, I am drawn into all the details and colorations” Miles explains. If weather conditions deter him from working outside, he continues his pieces from memory in his studio.
Crowds of people who pass by and bombard him with questions and comments are another deterrent.. Miles finds it difficult to not engage in conversation since the majority of his success has come from private sales. He feels you never know who your next customer could be. “My pictures ring true to people. I think when you remain honest to your vision and love of creating art, people can’t help but feel it. It’s more than just an accurate rendering of columns and windows; it’s an extension of my own emotional history that merges with architectural history. Many times the feelings can be dark; other times it’s sensual” Miles says. People are often impressed by the fact that he has rendered a building to life; one they may have noticed but paid little attention to.
Miles knew very early on, that watercolor was his medium. He has never been impressed by what the art world considers “in”. Even more so today, he realizes the value of having been true to himself. “Whoever I wanted to be in my painting, I was. That can sometimes take you away from popular interest and demand. My work is not reminiscent of any other artist’s. I can never be anyone except who I am.”
With a long list of credentials and clientele, Miles is most proud that Prince Charles has one of his Philadelphia watercolors in his collection. Also, The State Department Of Economic Development And Tourism will be publishing a book of his Philadelphia watercolors, a lifetime’s work, due for distribution sometime in 2010. He collaborated with the city for the 100th birthday of City Hall and they published “The Splendors Of City Hall: An Artist’s View-The Art Of Noel G. Miles. In 2000, the Republican National Convention commissioned him for their official poster along with a portfolio of his city watercolors as a gift for their conventioneers.
Miles has been a member of the American Watercolor Society for most of his life, and is affiliated with the Philadelphia Watercolor Society. He can be reached at: 215-665-8546, or by email at Noelgmiles@verizon.net
October 17, 2009 2 Comments