Player With Railroads

I spent a good chunk of my very early childhood at my grandparents’ homes in Ridgeland, South Carolina and Albemarle, North Carolina. While the towns’ characters and looks were quite different in many ways, both of their urban centers had similarities, shaped as they were by the railroad networks within them.

Albemarle was a cotton processing town, so there was a spiderweb of small spurs and crossings hanging off of the Winston Salem Southbound main line, all designed to get slow-moving freight cars close to the loading docks of the Wiscassett and Cannon Mill plants in town. Ridgeland, on the other hand, was always a railroad waypoint: the town was founded at the middle of the old Charleston to Savannah Railroad, and long, loud trains have always barrelled down its civic spine on their way from somewhere to somewhere else.

I was frequently taken down to the railroad centers of these small Southern towns by my grandfathers and my dad, though my interests were different from most little boys my age: I cared less about trains than I cared about tracks. The nascent map and system nerd in me was fascinated by the way that fixed rails could be managed to control huge moving objects, shifting and shuttling cars, making way for engines going opposite ways, building long lines of boxes and tanks, and storing fallow carstock on sidings.

I liked watching trains as they passed by, of course, but I wasn’t looking at their engines or their brightly painted boxcars, I was watching their wheels to see how the tracks got them where they needed to go. And when I wasn’t down by the mills or the crossings, I could often be found poring over maps, tracing with my finger the evocative little cross-hatch railroad symbols as they cut across pastures, wound their way through towns, divided, diverted, spread their fingers into rail yards, then knotted themselves together again like cables connecting mainlines. It was like being lost in the sclerotic circulatory system of a nation already transitioning to its own futuristic autobahn era.

That love of tracks and the trains they carry has stuck with me into adulthood, and I’ve always appreciated train travel, even when it’s not a terribly efficient or effective method of getting places. While the Albany to Penn Station AMTRAK run was a great, quick, affordable way to get to New York City for the many years we lived Upstate, the over-night route from Penn Station to the Low Country of South Carolina wasn’t quite so effective. Marcia and Katelin did that trip with me once, and they still tease me about it, since I gave them our sleeper car, and I sat upright all night long in coach, next to a nice old lady who shared her bucket of cold fried chicken with me.

While railroads don’t color my creative subconscious quite as much as the woods do, they do creep into my writing, especially my poetry — and, as I think about my some of my railroad poems today, I realize that their focus has indeed been as much on tracks as on the trains they carry. The tag line of this current blog (“slow molasses drip under a tipped up crescent moon”), for example, is from a poem called “Jefferson Water,” which describes a midnight trip:

. . . rollin’ down carriage lanes through Porterstown
and Bisco City, Eastern Hellebore, Locust, Clyde,
rollin’ on down that dead rail line, bringin’ me mine . . .

Another one, called “Cow Catcher,” begins thusly:

The engineer stands way back in the dusty cab
of the 2-6-2 engine rolling southwest from Canadys,
bound first for Hampton and then for Savannah,
heavy with a load of southern yellow pine trees.

And then there’s “Annexation,” which evokes a certain part of town where:

A railroad spur splits the annexed land in half.
Rusting grain silos and coal bins
nestled against the tracks.

Or “The Light,” about a trio of disbelieving ghost hunters who have a surprising experience one night:

We looked due west, down the tracks.
There was an overhead trestle about fifty yards out.
We couldn’t see it clearly late at night,
except as a starless black bar above the rail bed.
A little bit further out, the trees closed in around the tracks.
The line had been abandoned for twenty years, at least.
If you hunkered down, it looked like a darkened stage:
trees as curtains, dark trestle making the arch.

Or “The Mill:”

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trains and tracks over the past couple of months since we’ve moved to Chicago, since they’re pretty much a daily part of my existence now. Marcia and I ride the Blue and Red Line subways regularly, the rumble of the elevated trains around the Loop is a part of the sonic experience of being downtown, and the Burlington-Santa Fe North line carries the Metra trains I take out to work in Naperville every day.

I love the hustle and bustle of passing through Union Station, beneath which vast, knotted networks of tracks carry tens of thousands of people in and out the city every day. Coming back from work each day, I can sense that I’m close to my destination when the train makes a sharp left turn northward in the midst of a huge field of rolling stock, an industrial staging ground for a continent’s worth of commerce.

Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” is rightfully one of the most famous creative pieces ever written about the city where Marcia and I now make our home. I have always loved the language of the poem, and living here, I have come to appreciate its meaning all the more, especially its third line:

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler . . .

I’ve followed and dreamed of tracks for as long as I can remember, a “player with railroads” in my own small, odd way. My life’s mainline has now carried me and Marcia to Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders, which is proving a wonderful way station, its sidings filled with history, its freight yards rich with bounty, its crossings loud and electric, and its roundhouses pointing us toward marvels every way they turn.

It will take a long time to explore and internalize these tracks and trains of Chicago, and to make them our own, each in our own way, sometimes in the sleeper car, sometimes in coach. I look forward to that experience very much — but I also know that there will always be at least one mysterious track for us both, heading into the unseen distance, off the edge of the map, its station stops and final destination unmarked and unknowable to us, until the time when the conductor shouts “All aboard, and don’t forget your bucket of chicken” and we hop that train, hand in hand, to our next great adventure together.

Five Bands You Need to Hear

If you’ve been following along here for any period of time, it should probably come as no surprise that I listen to a lot of relatively obscure bands. It’s not out of a desire to be counter-cultural or hipper-than-thou, since I would really love it if the charts were dominated by the things I enjoy, because then I wouldn’t have to read about so much crap in the popular music press. No, it’s more just a matter of justice not necessarily being fairly dispensed when it comes to quality music. So to help promote the causes of some of my favorites from off the beaten track, I introduce you to the following five bands who should, absolutely, be better known than they are, if not rich and famous. Some are currently active, some are of historic interest, all are great. I give you a sample from each one, and encourage you to buy something from any or all of them at your earliest convenience. You will be glad you did. As will they.

1. The Weasels: This Albany, New York-based ensemble have been steadily creating an undeniably great body of work over the past quarter century, one perfectly-crafted album after another. Like Steely Dan, the group features a meticulous core pair of songwriters (mysteriously known as Dr. Fun and Roy Weasell) who draft great combinations of session players to bring their archly sardonic compositions to life in glorious jazzy Technicolor, sometimes with trombones. Unlike Steely Dan, The Weasels’ lyrical obsessions include The Larry Trinity (Hovis, Fine and Storch), famous killers, UFOs, and cheese. They’ve got a new EP, Also Sprach Larrythustra, coming out this fall, and their back catalog is highly recommended, all the way through. Sample song: “Jimmy’s Talking Pants.”

2. Octopus: Wikipedia will tell you that there are a few bands that have used this name commercially over the years, but the one I’m talking about is a British psychedelic pop band founded and led by Englishman Paul Griggs, active from 1969 to 1971. They’re better known these days as footnotes in some of their members’ later biographies (Noel Griggs and Malcolm Green went on to play in Spliz Enz, while Brian Glascock played with The Motels andseveral other bands with his late, great, bass-playing brother, John), but Octopus are well worth hearing in their own right, having left one great album, Restless Night, in their creative wake. Its cover must be seen to be believed, which counts for something, even now. Wow. Sample song: “The River.”

3. Doyle: The Misfits are a well-known and historically significant band, though they’ve mostly descended into parody and musical irrelevance in recent years, as bassist Jerry Only preserves the franchise with a variety of sidemen, much to the outspoken chagrin of original singer Glenn Danzig. Longtime ‘fits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein (who is also Only’s kid brother) issued an album a couple of years ago with his own self-named band (also featuring fellow ex-Misfit Dr. Chud and Alex Story of Cancerslug), and rather than being a vanity sideman project, it’s easily the best thing to come out of the extended Misfits family tree in a couple of decades. If you love the horror punk and/or epic screaming lead guitars then don’t miss this classic disc. Sample song: “Valley of the Shadows.”

4. Love Songs for Lonely Monsters: I first became aware of Love Songs for Lonely Monsters when I downloaded Maximum Ames Records’ great Sonic Harvest compilation soon after moving to Iowa, as a convenient way of orienting myself to the Hawkeye State’s musical community. LS4LM (as they’re colloquially known) contributed a song called “Reputation” to the compilation, and it became an instant Smith Family favorite as one of our most played songs of 2012. While it’s not really helpful to compare one relatively obscure band to another one, LS4LM always remind me of Athens, Georgia’s cult favorite Pylon, with strong female vocals, great lyrics, and angular guitar-based rock with a beat you can dance to. The Monsters issued one excellent eponymous album after Sonic Harvest, after which they appear to have gone into a quiet hibernation, based on lack of gigs or activity on their website. They aren’t (or weren’t) prolific in the studio, but they were dynamite in person and on disc, and deserve to be widely heard. Sample song: “Ganglion Sister (Live).”

5. Good Rats: I’ve written about Long Island’s finest at length before (see “In Praise of Good Rats“), but you may not have listened to me when I did it, so I’m going to keep telling you about them until you get with the program. Rolling Stone once dubbed them “The world’s most famous unknown band,” as The Good Rats seemed (and still seem) to be a band more people have heard of than actually heard. This is a shame. I saw them play live half a dozen times in the ’70s at the peak of their collective powers, at large arenas (stealing Rush’s thunder as openers at Nassau Coliseum) and small venues (a summer party at Eisenhower Park) alike, and they rocked their audiences like nobody’s business, no matter how many people they were playing for. Their studio albums are great fun, too, with awesome chunky rock chops supporting the late Peppi Marchello’s weirdly progressive songs and lyrics, most featuring glorious singalong choruses. Or shout along, if that’s your style. Anybody can do it. At bottom line: you don’t have to be from Long Island to love the Good Rats, as they make everything tastier. Sample Song: “City Liners.”


1. In Des Moines, I generally got up at about 6am, made coffee, did my morning reading on the computer, cleaned up, dressed, and got to work a little before 8am. In Chicago, I get up at 6am, walk or bus to the train station, read my paper and have my coffee in transit, and get to work a little before 8am. Beyond distance traveled, the morning is not radically different, time wise. Evenings in Chicago, I’ve been getting home around 6:15pm at the end of the reverse commute (with about 35 minutes of book reading time on the train), which is about an hour later than I did in Iowa. But by that time, I’ve generally walked some 10,000 steps per my FitBit as part of my commute, which eliminates the need to spend 45 minutes or so on an elliptical at the gym at night. So my time at the office, and my free time at home with Marcia are working out about the same — though with orders of magnitude more things to do within a mile of where we live, Chicago is currently ahead on the scorecard in terms of weekly life routines. I will be traveling a lot more in the new job (trips already on the calendar to Pittsburgh, Waco, Orlando, Knoxville, Grand Cayman, Des Moines, among other locales), but one of my priorities in seeking a new job was to return to have a national (or international) reach, so this is a good thing, which I expect to enjoy.

2. A couple of artsy-fartsy-ish snaps of where we’re living these days. The views still haven’t gotten old for me:


Our temporary apartment in Aqua tower, back lit by the setting sun.


Night view from outside 340 on the Park, where will we be moving in two weeks.

3. Great book alert: I’m about three-quarters of the way through Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and am loving it. I suspect it could result in a Five By Five Books article soon. Unless she blows the ending. (Please don’t! Please!) Standby.

4. Marcia and I have been to two wonderful free concerts put on by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in recent weeks (review of one here), and are very much looking forward to the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and to attending their Annual Fundraising Gala in October.

5. I remain a board member for the Association of Midwest Museums, so I’ve also been doing my part to take in our region’s amazing museum culture. As a vintage plane nerd, I was flabbergasted to learn that the Museum of Science and Industry has one of only two surviving Stuka dive-bombers in the world, along with a complete German unterseeboot. Marcia and I also enjoyed a jazz night out at the Shedd Aquarium, and we’ve taken advantage of the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago membership that my staff at Salisbury House gave me as a parting gift. So much art! The brain can’t process it all! So we just keep going back and going back, happily.