When I leave the city, it’s either on a plane or a train. On a plane, you have little sense of forward travel once you’ve reached cruising altitude. Everyone channels sardine-ism for a number of hours, and the landscape below loses relevance and becomes a myth, of sorts. On a train, you hurtle through rapidly shifting landscapes of human scale. Each passing view brings you into a new space, posing new questions: Why was that factory abandoned? Why was the last town prosperous, and this town so poor? What sort of building did that foundation once support? The train pushes forward, taking your thoughts with it.
This is where I do some of my best work. I might be writing about the train ride itself, but more likely, I’m writing fiction, or working on 18th century servant research. Dialogue effortlessly pours onto the page between Philadelphia and Lancaster. The Northeast Corridor encourages what I call sprinting. I prefer pen and paper for this exercise: pour onto the page whatever enters the mind – don’t stop to think or censor yourself. Keep it to short bursts, then move on. Use the content later to stretch your writing muscle.
I love the train for various reasons. I’m one less car on the road. You can get up when you get restless, and go for a walk. The Amtrak Cafe Car is somewhat lack-luster, but they serve Corona, in case your coach is overheated (just apply to forehead, then drink). And time that you would otherwise commit to driving to your destination is now your own. With that time, I’ve written things like this:
Northeast Corridor Postmodern
And that’s where I left you,
Under refinery sizzle, crouching
head to the rail and aching
hands to dry lips.
Nose grease on glass and waving
to the shrinking
Great big Ed dealing cars, gnat minions
pumping and squeak-wiping
Sharp creased white
trousers and bowties goodbye.
Trans-Am, or more likely trans-fat
Pork rinds crackling
wrapper, rattling in the car wind.
Antiquated hats take tickets and say
Yes, we know what they say
In the old movies, flickering up there
above this awkwardness.
Rails corkscrew into thickets
Past shimmerings of toxicity
Ingenuity, our bra strap,
pilled and graying, EMERGENCY
Mother shakes her head.
Telephone poles flung into marsh froth, sticks
Pick up, please
But we’ve wheedled newer toys.
Spicy mince bit but
Her funeral cake frosted quick
chemical pink and tasteless
Straining in old photos
Now fissures crack the bleached pavement
which held cars, which held people
Flaccid plaid armchairs,
stony stares in the TV light.
There, paint-choked ornament above
the spongy platform
no lipstick smear, perfunctory
staring over your shoulder after
the SUVs that don’t wave hello.
Steel streams past the pinched yearning,
Fathers flick cigarettes into the street,
Roast beef cooling
the pursed lips of mothers
But we’re all hiding behind the shed
sneaking something strong
snickering wet mouths and ruffle crush
Dabbing at the red smear.
Now I’m hurtling southward,
Past hushed streets no longer suckling
Baggage, energy, Father, the mail
The train no longer stops here,
Town of my christening and
Broken glass in the afternoon sear.
That track-side is mine, swamp cabbage,
then sharp onion grass.