I am the only free man on this train! And the rest of you are CATTLE!

I took a train trip the other day, my first one in more than five years. I went from Oceanside to Long Beach, and then back again. It made me feel very special, except for the part on the way back to Oceanside when I accidentally took some guy’s seat and didn’t realize it until he came back like 30 minutes later, saw me there, and gathered up his stuff from the overhead rack in as much of a huff as he could muster (by the way, it’s kind of hard to muster huff when your arms are raised above your head). But I convinced myself it was his own fault for being gone so long, so I didn’t feel stupid for more than a minute or two.

Trains have always held a special place in my heart, partly because my mother’s father used to work for the Southern Pacific railroad.

Actually, my father was a railroader, too, for a little while. And my mother worked as a dispatcher at the Watsonville Junction, so I guess technically, she was, too. One of my earliest memories is of getting on a train (or getting off – it’s a little fuzzy) to go visit my grandparents (or to come home from visiting them). I don’t remember the actual ride, but I clearly remember going up the steps into the railcar. Or coming down.

I haven’t been a prolific train rider during my life, since I live in southern California and in an age when people are fairly agnostic about transportation that doesn’t involve one’s own automobile. But I am rather proud to say that I’ve crossed the Isthmus of Panamá, as well as much of England and parts of northern France, by train. Trains are making a comeback, and I am all for it.

Being at a train station gets me feeling all nostalgic for a time I never knew because it reminds me of people greeting each other or saying goodbye in old movies, whereas nowadays people just stand in the front yard and wave goodbye to you – if you’re lucky. Sometimes they just say “see ya” as you walk out the door and they don’t even look away from the tv. Fortunately, my family are pretty much the front yard waving type. Hellos and goodbyes are usually accompanied by plenty of hugs and kisses.

My mom told me once that she and her friends used to go down to the train station and, every time a train pulled in, they’d pretend to greet each other like long-lost friends, making a big emotional to-do. Then they’d split up and wait for the next train to come in and then do it all over again. I tried that once with my sister at the airport. We thought we were hilarious, but I have to admit it didn’t have the same kind of charm as those train station scenes my mother described. Airports are cavernous and echoing and they have that cold fluorescent lighting. They’re much better for when you want to do stuff that requires cool sound effects. Back in the day when security was laxer, you could go outside when the jets were revving up and you could scream “Steven! Throw me the tennis ball marked number 1!” But try having a touching reunion when you’re screaming at each other like banshees. No, train stations are more suited for that kind of thing (reunions, not screaming).

So, as I was on the train, watching the surf and the palms and the blue sky, and considering how wonderful it is to live in a place where one can look out a train window and see surf and palms and blue sky, I started thinking I really ought to travel more by train. Not only is it more environmentally friendly (or so I'm told), but it’s way less of a hassle, and – if you’re traveling alone – sometimes it can even be more economical than car travel. And as I thought about the wonders of train travel, I began to wish I had a book to read because staring out the window was starting to get old. Naturally, following this train of thought led me to wonder if I had a favorite train book.

Other than one from my childhood (which actually kind of gave me the creeps when I was little), it was hard to come up with any train book at all, favorite or not. I could think of plenty of boat books, like Moby Dick, and all those Horatio Hornblower adventures and the Aubrey-Maturin novels. I could even think of some boat books that I’ve actually read, like The Sea-Wolf, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite books. But train books?

The only train book I could even think of was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The thing is, I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie books, but that’s not one of them. I did, however, enjoy seeing the movie, except I thought the part where they all stabbed the guy was kind of disturbing (but that was back in 1974, before I had been desensitized by Poltergeist and The X-Files and real life, etc).

Some of my favorite movies are train movies. Let me see, there’s Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). And there’s . . . . Maybe that’s the only one.

Well anyway, I have some favorite movies that have scenes on trains, like Vivacious Lady (1938), and Unfinished Business (1941), and Penny Serenade (1941), and North by Northwest (1959). Hmm. Now that I think about it, the train scenes in those movies are all about sex.

Okay, there’s also The Very Thought of You (1944), which doesn’t actually take place on the train, but the heroine (played by Eleanor Parker) gets off the train in San Diego so she can meet her new husband and have . . . a . . . second honeymoon. Well, the reason I like that part is because I’ve been to the train station in San Diego and I think it’s got ambience and charm. Only they didn’t show the station in the movie. So there goes that.

And then there’s Union Station in Los Angeles, which has been showing up in films practically ever since it opened in 1939. Now there’s a cool station. Every time I see it in movies I annoy anyone who happens to be with me by saying “I’ve been there!” (I also do that with movies that show places in New York, London, Paris, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, the Panamá Canal, or anywhere else I’ve been. I can be very annoying.) One of my favorite movies that happens to have a scene at Union Station is Tender Comrade (1943), and no it’s not about sex. That was in the previous scene. Well, “in” in the way that a movie from the early 1940s ever had any sex in it.

It's very sad and touching because Ginger Rogers (playing a character named Jo Jones) is saying goodbye to her soldier husband who's going off to war, and she puts a brave face on until he's gone and then she breaks down sobbing, and this older woman who has just seen her son or husband or somebody off comes over and comforts her. The older woman is played by Jane Darwell, who was also the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins. You know, the one who sat on the stairs outside St Paul's (I've been there!) and invited people to feed the birds for tuppence a bag.

The thing is, I made a point of going to St Paul’s precisely so I could sit where the Bird Woman sat, but Jane Darwell was never at St Paul’s – not in her Bird Woman costume, anyway. She was on some studio soundstage. Just like I bet Eleanor Parker was never really at the San Diego train station when she made The Very Thought of You. But Ginger Rogers was at Union Station. Well, “at” in the way that an actor in a movie from the early 1940s is ever at any place. I mean, at least they showed the outside of the real Union Station before they cut to a shot of Ginger on the soundstage platform. So it’s kind of exciting for me to go there and see the actual place.

That’s why, when Shannon said she wanted to go up to Los Angeles during her spring break, and asked if I wanted to go with her and Kevin, I thought, “What a great idea! Instead of driving through that horrid traffic, I’ll get to ride on the train again, and I can take my camera and take pictures of Union Station!”

While I was planning for the trip – figuring out train and subway schedules, buying tickets, deciding whether to wear shoes or not – it occurred to me that I ought to take along a book to read. One about trains would be nice, but I didn’t have a copy of Murder on the Orient Express. And then it hit me: I do indeed have a book describing a train trip, only it’s non-fiction, which was why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It’s called Across the Plains and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it. Originally published in 1892, Across the Plains – which recounts Stevenson’s train trip across the US from New York to San Francisco in 1879 – is actually the second part of a larger work called The Amateur Emigrant. (The first half describes his voyage from Scotland to New York.)

RLS is one of my favorite authors. When my children were younger, I used to try to brainwash them into liking him as much as I did. In a little ceremony carried out on the evening of Stevenson’s birthday (13 Nov), each child read or recited a poem from A Child’s Garden of Verses, and then we would eat shortbread and drink hot cocoa. I don't know if they really did learn to appreciate RLS, but they acted like they did.

I think I like Stevenson’s non-fiction writing more than his fiction, but I admit I haven’t read much of his fiction beyond The Black Arrow (one of my favorite books ever), Treasure Island, The Beach of Falesá, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and the beginning of Kidnapped two or three times. I think Stevenson’s real stylistic grace and sense of humor come through more in his non-fiction stuff. For instance, toward the beginning of Across the Plains, he talks about his impression of Ohio:

“. . . morning found us far into Ohio. This had early been a favourite home of my imagination; I have played at being in Ohio by the week, and enjoyed some capital sport there with a dummy gun, my person being still unbreeched. My preference was founded on a work which appeared in Cassell’s Family Paper, and was read aloud to me by my nurse. It narrated the doings of one Custaloga, an Indian brave, who, in the last chapter, very obligingly washed the paint off his face and became Sir Reginald Somebody-or-other; a trick I never forgave him. The idea of a man being an Indian brave, and then giving that up to be a baronet, was one which my mind rejected. It offended verisimilitude, like the pretended anxiety of Robinson Crusoe and others to escape from uninhabited islands. (Just you put me on an uninhabited island, I thought, and then we’ll see!)

“But Ohio was not at all as I had pictured it. We were now on those great plains which stretch unbroken to the Rocky Mountains. The country was flat like Holland, but far from being dull.... The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long, aerial vistas; and the clean, bright, gardened townships spoke of country fare and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop. It was a sort of flat paradise; but, I am afraid, not unfrequented by the devil. That morning dawned with such a freezing chill as I have rarely felt; a chill that was not perhaps so measurable by instrument, as it struck home upon the heart and seemed to travel with the blood. Day came in with a shudder. White mists lay thinly over the surface of the plain, as we see them more often on a lake; and though the sun had soon dispersed and drunk them up, leaving an atmosphere of fever-heat and crystal pureness from horizon to horizon, the mists had still been there, and we knew that this paradise was haunted by killing damps and foul malaria.”

Coincidentally, the weather on the morning of our trip reminded me of this descriptive passage. It was actually not so bad, but not the kind you use to induce tourists to visit California. Actually, you want them to come during this kind of weather so that they don’t get the idea that it would be a good thing to make their stay permanent.

The sky was a mostly uniform grey, covering a mostly uniform grey-green ocean. I observed a handful of doughty surfers floundering in the waves, and sodden lumps of seaweed occasionally dotted the stretches of sand, but the sunlit scenes that had so charmed me on my previous trip were not in evidence.

Still, watching the ocean in any season and of any color is preferable to the inland views of housing tracts, shopping centers, and industrial parks one is subjected to after the train gets to San Juan Capistrano.

Upon our arrival at Union Station, but before going up to the waiting room (“room” they call it! That’s like calling the moon a nightlight!) of that magnificent structure and starting to ooh and ah over the Dutch Colonial Revival/Mission Revival/Streamline Moderne architectural style – which I have always referred to as “cool sort of art deco stuff” – we took a turn and went to the Metro Red Line where we caught the subway to downtown Hollywood. We got off at the Highland station and ascended to a tourist- and costumed weirdo-filled portion of the Walk of Fame. About a block away, we came to the Chinese Theatre, where Shannon wanted to take pictures. While she and Kevin looked about for names they recognized, I found the one that was most on my mind at this moment:

Ginger Rogers may not have actually shed tears all over the platform at Union Station, but she was really and definitely here, stepping with her Barbie-heeled shoes and smooshing her hands into wet cement, and writing her name. Still, I felt a bit like RLS did on finding his Indian hero was not really an Indian. In my youth, many a book and movie had been the “favourite home of my imagination”, but I was destined for disappointment. Ginger Rogers had been here, all right, but Jo Jones didn’t exist, and movies are illusions after all. That’s the not-so-fun part about growing up.

After we had our fill of the Chinese Theatre and some food from Baja Fresh, we headed back toward the subway. On the way, I bought a cd from an up-and-coming hip hop artist who was selling his product on the street. Or rather, I bought it from his homie, who then introduced me to the actual artist, who said that we were beautiful – meaning, I guess, Shannon and me. Or Shannon and me and Kevin. But I'm not sure Kevin was included in that assessment of our natures or appearance or wallets or whatever it was he thought was beautiful about us.

We took the subway back to Union Station and proceeded to the main hall, where Shannon and I took a bunch of pictures. Here are some of mine:

The waiting "room":

The old ticket sales place, now closed to the public:

The restaurant, also closed to the public:

Several parts of the station are closed off and sport signs about how people interested in hiring those areas to use as movie sets are invited to call some number or other. I tried to imagine how it was 50 years ago, when all the ticket booths were open, and the big restaurant had real food and real diners, and the information kiosk had an employee in it who could actually answer questions. But since I had never been here in those days, every image that came to my mind was something I had seen in some film.

After Union Station, we crossed the street to Olvera Street, where Shannon took a lot more pictures. I found some very frightening puppets there.

People shouldn’t try to scare people. I think that’s my new motto, at least for now.

We also went to Chinatown, the northernmost (I think) border of which was a couple of blocks from Olvera Street.

We did a bit of souvenir shopping there – I bought a box of Pocky Men’s Bitter Chocolate (we spent five minutes trying to figure out why it was called “Pocky Men’s”), and a box of Pocky Chocolate Crush, and a facsimile of a terra cotta horse for Shannon, and a little ceramic frog for Shannon’s roommate – and then, as it was getting close to our departure time, we headed back to the train station.

While we sat in the waiting "room" in those cool chairs you see in movies and on tv shows, some French guy holding a clipboard came up and explained that he was doing a survey. He asked me if I read books.

“Zut, alors!” I said. “Mais bien sûr!”

I didn’t really say that. Instead, I quickly crammed the rest of a Pocky Men’s Bitter Chocolate into my mouth and said, “Books?”

“Yes,” he said. “Do you read?”

“Yes,” I answered with a combination of vexation (having been affronted by such a question) and meekness (wondering if I was going to become too nervous to function).

“Do you ever read self-help or inspirational books? Chicken Soup for the Soul or books like that?”

Well, that quashed any trace of reserve I felt. “No!” I said with great emphasis and trying not to gag up the Pocky Men’s at the thought of reading such stuff.

“You don’t?”

It was kind of noisy in the waiting room, and French Guy was standing sort of towards my bad-ear side, so I couldn’t tell if he was surprised or disappointed, or completely neutral the way I suppose a good survey-taker should be. I, however, could not be neutral. Not when it came to self-help books.

“No, I don’t like them,” I stated with what I hoped was intense fervor. I wanted to add how much I detested that kind of tripey stuff. I think the strength of my feelings was influenced somewhat by having recently finished the supposedly inspirational book The Alchemist. And now it occurs to me that I do occasionally read inspirational books, against my will and on assignment, but I don’t know if I could have admitted it to him.

French Guy said he needed a certain kind of reader for his survey and so he was sorry I wouldn’t do. Then he asked me what kind of books I did read, and I said, “Oh, mostly classics and history.”

That is not strictly true, but I didn’t want to get into an involved conversation about my reading habits because our train was leaving in 30 minutes and because I usually become very nervous when talking to people I don’t know and because people – whether I know them or not – get very nervous when I start talking to them about Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson and stuff like that.

"History?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, wondering if he was expecting some kind of elaboration on my part. He said something else that I really couldn’t understand very well, so I smiled at him (my usual response when I don’t understand what strangers are saying to me), and then he went away.

A little later, I saw him talking to a lady seated not far from us. Apparently she was a fan of the Chicken Soup type books, because French Guy had given her the clipboard and she was filling out the survey questionnaire. We got up to go to our train then, and as we passed them, I noticed that French Guy had a shoulder bag with “Golden Age of Knowledge” written in gold letters on the side of it.

“Golden Age of Knowledge” – how idyllic it sounds! Like saying “Hollywood!” or maybe “Ohio!” But what self-help books or chicken soup have to do with any Golden Age, I am not the one to say.

As soon as we got on the train, Shannon and Kevin, who were seated opposite me, folded up their jackets as little pillows and, putting them on the table between us, laid down their weary heads and promptly fell asleep.

Moments after the train started, the conductor came along, asking for tickets. He stopped by our seats and said, “Do those corpses belong to you?”

“Yeah,” I said, and laughed. Not because I was nervous, which is why I usually laugh or smile, but because I thought what he said was funny.

“Just want to make sure you’re not transporting cadavers for the coroner,” said the conductor, returning the ticket stubs to me.

“Yeah,” I said again, again laughing. But this time, the laugh was because my social anxiety survival mechanism had kicked in. The conductor could have said anything, anything at all, and I would have said “yeah” and laughed.

The conductor went on about his business. Shannon and Kevin slept. I got out my book and read about the train trip RLS took across America a hundred and thirty years ago. The westering sun sank toward the rim of the Pacific. Soon it would be dark, and soon we would be home.


Shannie said...

i do so enjoy reading these :)
you make it sound a thousand times deeper (?) than it really was. or something. kudos.

Shannie said...

oh, and i just want to let you know that i admire RLS, not because I've read anything he's written, because i really haven't, but mostly because i feel special for being probably the only person for miles that celebrated the births of various dead but important authors. i told justina about this and she said i was weird. but that just makes me feel specialer.