In the slow moments I can still feel the pounding in my head, the pulsar beat of iron wheels on iron rail. Chit-chattering, clanking over track sending short hot taps of sound about and thickly underplayed with dense bass thumps and violence. When a quiet sets in and surrounds me with stillness the power of the train comes back, beating back from the bottom of my joints, reverberating in my body. It grinds me up. It is as though the machine is still propelling me forward, even though I’m at rest.
The machine is love and hate to me. No, hate and love. Hate comes first. Can we not forget the horrible things it has done? The pillage of people and land made possible by locomotives along the iron rail, by their brutal force? And can we ignore the base fact that the rail even today, no, today more so than ever is the hard line down which it all flows? So much wealth, power, so much horrific abundance of material from south to north, east to west. But as with all we are born into, all the things not of our choosing, the rails can be loved if you approach them right, if you recognize. I love them because I embrace them as have countless others, from below, criminally, we’ve held and had the metal conveyors in a way that might very well undermine their very being and symbolism, their first sinister purpose. I love them in an outlaw approach to transform what is into what can be, a new line of attack. I love the rails as has a million hobos, migrants and back lot kids have. I love them as an escaped slave, a jump-ship mutineer, a class traitor, a pure indolent man pissed at the world not living up to itself.
I love the rails because I can imagine a world someday without trains as we know them. I can envision a world that doesn’t’ need to move so much produce and so many people about. It’s a saner place. It’s a utopia maybe, but it’s part of a bigger constellation of qualities that on a different planet earth could make me feel whole and stable, not this sick and anxious creature I am now who quivers in his own body and can’t handle the idea of what others call “success” and “normalcy.” As I am I love the rails and the whole subterranean world that surrounds them, just like I love other infrastructures of the submerged. I love the bridges and tunnels and overpasses. I lust after the concrete walls filled with tags. I tromp through broken glass and industrial waste and rest my tired feet under the cool shadows of grain towers and stacked bricks. In this strange way the machine has only been half winning these past several hundred years. The megamachine might have conquered the land into its expansive grid. It might have sucked the imagination and magic from the world and clamped down upon it a rigid metal break under hot sulfur and tungsten spotlights, measured, harvested, poisoned and consumed. All the same though, this very machine is run by men and women who are dissatisfied on many levels. Lurking below the scaffolds and engines exist a silent world of travelers and poor people, criminals and modern day saints, insane prophets, houseless but don’t call them homeless, riff raff and migrants, all who flux about in ways that defy the linear logic of the computerized monster. Subversion. A true kind of beauty and hope offered up from way down.
I had been watching the Norfolk Southern’s yard in New Orleans since not long after the mighty hurricane blew over and provided cover for the city’s plunder. My first foray across those tracks was with a friend who led me hazardously through one long string of cars after another. We were too impatient to walk around. We climbed through several trains caring not if they were powered up and about to jolt or smash together. Honestly at the time we didn’t know any better. Later that week I stood above the yard on the Robertson Avenue bridge peering down at the longest link of piggy backed flat cars carrying the now infamous first delivery of FEMA trailers. I remember those hundreds of trailers. They sat in that damn yard for a week or so. I crossed through there daily to and from the Marigny and 9th Ward. This was December 2005. New Orleans had just been fatally stabbed in the back, by the USA, by the savage mega-machine. By the fucking C-word.
It’s the only city in which I love the night and can’t wait for the rain to fall on, this low-down, so low-down river bend. The highest vantage point is a bridge or building that will in all likelihood teeter over in the mud-quick earth someday. My beautiful city, I walk through her streets, thick with blood and violence, intoxication, love, warring tribes and crooked cops, pissed face drunks and pit bulls, Indians and clowns, parades and trash mountains. Nobody really thinks any of this will change for the better, or even what “the better” would look like, just that it will change like the course of a river eventually does. And my heavy city drifts down that river, further down on a slick of oil and cash money, cotton, sugarcane and cracked corn through ravaged cypress swamps till maybe someday it’ll slide right off the edge of the edge for good and leave this betraying continent behind. What would be sweet and tearful is if the praline dropped into the bourbon and spilled alcohol on our laps. Then we could lick it up, dance, say fuck the rest, north, west and east of the big river, and we could float on off into the sea of black and neon lights and laughter.
I haunted about the Norfolk yard on every return visit to the city which has been quite often. Something about its location – right along the 9th Ward’s center from where the rough Desire and Florida housing projects used to be to the foot of St. Claude Avenue, and really all the way to the big river. It made the yard feel like an important place. When Nola was still an industrial city with a megaport, before the 1960s and 70s, how much wealth, labor, material, how much of the city’s hard work and soul was tapped from this vein? And how many sad saps and eager kids hopped in and out of Nola through this big riotous portal? This has been such an important place of entry and departure for those black and white country kids coming down from the sticks here along Rocheblave, unhappy southern boys and girls looking for some kind of way out, or at least further in.
Summertime now, two years to the day after the disaster that destroyed Nola and I sat upon the footings of the Almonaster bridge by Florida Avenue at the yard’s north end watching a conductor and brakeman hump a train together. (Humping a train means assembling strings of cars together. Technically this yard can’t operate a hump system because there’s no literal hump build into the switch over which cars can be propelled, cut and sorted onto varying tracks. However the process is still similar. The engine shifts strings of cars up and down while the yardies switch, cut, break and couple trains together and apart.) In from the north came a fresh train rumbling into the city. Halfway down it a lone hobo seated on back of a hopper car crosslegged looked wearily out the side and toward the front into the switchyard. Looking back he saw me perched on the big concrete pilings. Our eyes met. We waved at one another happy and momentarily relieved to see another human being under these massive mechanized shadows and structures, under but by no means crushed by them. His train rolled through down the public belt, a railway beyond the yard that connects the length of the Mississippi riverfront through Nola, from downtown to the uptown.
After a few more minutes the crew finished humping together the train they had been working on and within no time it was off, all horns and speed, but with this whole neighborhood of the city so abandoned, so closed off to its former residents not many motorist were passing by up the line to be scared off the tracks with this show. In the past when the Desire projects were around the residents, thousands of them, used to be cut off from the rest of the city for considerable time as trains like this passed by or assembled themselves in the yards. Now the empty houses, door-less with gutted insides and big gaping hole windows looking all like great square faces were the only ones around to see this freight off.