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Washtenaw Flaneurade
30 November 2011
Red Stick Railing
Now Playing: Best Coast--"Crazy For You"

Last year, the growth of security theater around the already pallid corpse (for me) of American air travel--in other words, the new TSA regulations--drove me to promise myself that I would give the allegedly pallid corpse of American rail travel a shot next year. I'd been mulling over the idea in any case for a few years, and found the extra irritation of the TSA (potential, as it turned out in my case) simply the straw that broke the camel's back. I'd taken the train a couple of times as a kid, from Baton Rouge to Memphis and back again to visit my uncle, and a couple of times as an adult, once from Ann Arbor to Royal Oak (a Detroit suburb, for you non-Michiganders) for my friend's wedding reception, and from Ann Arbor to Chicago and back again for my aunt's graduation from Methodist seminary at Northwestern. All trips were quite pleasant (and inexpensive, at least the more recent ones), and fairly short (though the Royal Oak trip was only the start of my odyssey that day, a bracing hike and bus ride through one of the first major American metropolitan areas to have been planned with an eye towards making pedestrians obsolete).

This year's Thanksgiving trip would be a different matter altogether. I'd board in Ann Arbor, take the "Wolverine" train to Chicago, have a three-hour layover in Union Station (site of the famous Brian DePalma Potemkin ripoff in The Untouchables, which had once been my favorite movie in middle school), and then take the "City of New Orleans"  (famously celebrated by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson) from Chicago to Hammond, Louisiana, a trip lasting through the night and much of the day. From this last named, seat of Tangipahoa Parish, and a pleasant town (one of probably more than a few "strawberry capitals") north of New Orleans and east of Baton Rouge (and best of all, south of Tickfaw, one of the greatest place names in human geography) which I got to know quite well during the horrible city directory job I had right after college which helped kill my first car (among other things), my people would pick me up and drop me off, as it's only a half-hour drive from Baton Rouge. The other possibility was going all the way into New Orleans and then taking the bus to Baton Rouge. The pickup seemed simpler, all agreed.

Louis CK's great riff on air travel is well-taken, but I've been growing disillusioned with the medium for a while. Planes have shrunk to tin cans, airports have lost their cosmopolitan flair, at least for me (the airport always used to be my favorite part of the trip), and last but not least, the round trip shuttle from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro Airport usually runs around $100 ($45 each way, then tip). Add to that an airport tax running somewhere around $50-65 and there can be a fairly hefty financial argument for rail travel. My ticket actually cost a few dollars over the cheapest available airfare, but there was all that stuff I didn't have to pay, and the lure of adventure (or at least unfamiliarity) offered by the train that the plane (something that admittedly, pace Louis, "flies through the air... incredibly") didn't really conjure anymore. So, mindful of the issues, I committed myself, and set off the 21st of November, traveling across the country to my boyhood home.

I doubt I'm spoiling this for anyone, but it was fantastic. It'll be a good long while, hopefully, before I see the inside of a plane again. Where to start?

1. The scenery was a huge selling point. It's a fine and memorable thing to see the earth from 30,000 feet up or however high you fly, but it does start to get samey, especially if you follow, as I have for the past decade, a well-worn groove between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast (flying from Akron to Santa Barbara to visit my friend Karen, she of the aforementioned wedding reception, was an eye-opener--not only was it my first experience of the Pacific, but also my first exposure to proper, stereotypical mountains, with snowcaps, edges, and everything). Forest, rivers, farmland, lather, rinse, repeat. It makes a colossal difference to see it all from the window of a train. The beginning and end of my trip were especially noteworthy, as I previously had quite different experiences of those landscapes.

Some of you will know the beauty of Ann Arbor's parks and waterways, especially the Huron River, and there was a special pang I felt on leaving the station and traveling alongside the last named for a few minutes, as work and weather have prevented me from doing the old cycle photography for a couple of months. Having ridden to Dexter last summer, and having ambitions to visit Chelsea the same way (the latter not the bloated English Premier League soccer giant but a small town in western Washtenaw County), there was a bit of a thrill in seeing the towns (and inoperative rail stations) on the way west. South Mississippi was another case; on our yearly family trips to visit grandparents in Jackson, we would always travel north along I-55, noting the signs for various towns along the way--Brookhaven, Hazlehurst, McComb (the last named the site of Robert Moses' insanely heroic work in educating and registering voters in the early 1960s). The way was pretty quick, but it never really gave you more than the "18-wheeler view"--gas stations, a McDonald's, and various "gas, food, lodging" signs. The train gave you the lowdown on each postcard-pretty, "Rose For Emily"-like location, city halls, grand, decaying houses, and spruced up, largely unused train stations rolling unobtrusively past amid the kind of landscape that easily cozens gullible Hollywood filmmakers into thinking "maybe it wasn't so bad after all."

All that leaves aside the natural beauty showing up in pretty unlikely places. The endless Southern drill of pine trees, spread needles and rest areas coating I-55 between those aforementioned towns gives way just off the road to a mess of marsh, farmland, and forest in which hawks and egrets cavort unmolested, the latter taking long, flaxen dumps into still, shimmering ponds. The same goes for much of Indiana's Lake Michigan coast (extending into southwest Michigan along the St. Joseph River, site of Spain's brief, hilariously abortive occupation of present-day Michigander turf at Niles--a fittingly Catholic irruption, being just down the river from South Bend and Notre Dame), abruptly shifting from the industrial Moloch of Hammond and Gary into a patchwork of greens and golds studded with ponds, inlets, and the kind of weird, dream-like horizon that you often see far to the north of the Lower Peninsula. Then there's your David Lynch form of natural beauty. I fell asleep before Memphis on the way down (though it came in half-hour increments, from what I remember), but was able to catch the dawn and sunrise on the way back amid the comfortingly bleak prairies and corn plots of central Illinois, feeling time stretch forever and eternity beckon, especially if you're listening to the right music.

2. The culture made a fascinating study. Rail travel used to be a huge deal in this country (and hopefully will be again), and in a place as big and diverse as the U.S., it's hard not to fall victim to certain myths. It was definitely a worry for me, as I knew more than my share of train fetishists in grad school. I can scarcely think about railroads without thinking of "them" (love them though I did) happily moan "choo-choo trains"(half-jokingly, I'm convinced) at the mere mention of their beloved transportation medium. As a result (?), the people-watching wasn't as rich as I thought, but after twelve hours, it'll get a little old, I don't care how vitally human and life-affirming you are. I'm pretty sure there were a couple of suggestive glances here and there, but I'm notoriously bad at identifying and interpreting such, and it was hard to tell in any case when the only thing on most people's minds was sleeping more than an hour at a time. Socializing was limited, but necessary when it came to the dining car, as there were many passengers and limited seating. I wound up striking up a conversation with Marty, a friendly glazier from Springfield, Illinois, who had heard of my workplace and was heading for New Orleans for a family-free holiday (on culture shocks and Ann Arbor: "I went to Illinois, so having a winning football team was a culture shock"). The food was all right, though inevitably overpriced (still, they served food, planes, did you hear that?), and the burger I ate stayed with me for a long time. Beer (basically Bud and Heineken) was the same, though it really didn't cost much more than it would at, say, the Alley Bar. Still, I'll definitely have to plan more carefully in that area next time (which I started to on the Wolverine my way back, forgoing food and grabbing sodas at the CVS by Union Station).

Things reached their peak late at night on my thirty-seventh birthday, which was also the first day of my return trip. I had brought my laptop, and the train didn't have wi-fi (which was usual, except for short routes and easily covered areas, like the northeast corner handled by the high-speed Acela). This was something approaching bliss, to be honest, even if the great British Horror Films "Agadoo Cup" had just started (of which more below or possibly later this week?). I was still able to listen to my music and transcribe stuff I was writing, mainly for a few longer projects (I wrote much of the original of this post between Dowagiac and Kalamazoo). Sitting at a table in the "Sightseers' Lounge" (an observation deck just before the dining car that allows substantial views both sides and above), typing away furiously after I finished a page (I generally try to write manually before typing, especially for these projects, though sometimes, as with this post, it's a little impractical), digging the Edward Hopper-like solitude passengers implicitly request at that hour and usually get, despite the cackling little kid playing Uno with his mom and brother (replacing the other cackling little kid playing Travel Scrabble with his grandma), letting the mood carry me on, the Stygian darkness of western Tennessee rolling by out the window (it may be different during the day), I wrote almost four thousand words that day (mostly that evening, as I was wrestling with The Tale of Genji for much of the remainder), comfortably busting my earlier record. It was a great birthday, all told, though I promised myself more physical pleasures the next day. Speaking of which...

3. The Chicago Layover! I had tried to avoid laying any plans too grandiose for two to three hours free in downtown Chicago (each way!). So when your only stab at megalomania in that regard is a possible visit to the Art Institute, I think you're in pretty good stead. We rolled in around five on the 21st, and after I regained my bearings regarding Union Station, I took a hike down Canal, then Madison Street, wondering how long it would take me to reach Michigan Avenue and possibly the lake (about fifteen, twenty minutes, it turned out). I already doubted my chances of hitting the Art Institute at all, so I simply redoubled my steps and ran right into Reckless Records, a local store with a few locations around the metro area. After finding the Go! Team's new album, Rolling Blackouts (which I've seeking out for a while), I started back towards Union Station, where the line for the "City of New Orleans" resembled the exit visa-seekers' procession in Casablanca. On the return journey into the station, we had our own form of architectural tour contrasting the magnificence of the Loop with the institutional decrepitude of the South Side. As the great skyscrapers slowly came into view, the increasingly cloudy skies actually rendered them more impressive than they might have been on a sunny day. Storing my luggage, I set off for breakfast at Lou Mitchell's, less than a block away. It's a little sad to hear on your way north that "limited breakfast service will be offered" only a couple of hours before Kankakee, knowing that Lou Mitchell's awaits at trip's end, especially when it takes the form of a turkey sausage omelet with gravy and hash browns, city sophisticates (poisonously?) glittering even at half past nine on a Saturday morning, and a little girl giving her too-boisterous uncle a deserved stinkeye.

Lou Mitchell's--and indeed downtown Chicago in general (at least the few streets I walked that day)--startled me with friendliness and familiarity. This impression may be somewhat illusory. A friend sojourned there for a couple of years and went through a nasty depression before returning to Ann Arbor, and I myself got a rather cagey response when complimenting a fellow shopper at Reckless for buying Jules Dassin's 1950 noir classic Night and the City. Even given that wealth of anecdotal evidence, it felt open and accessible in a way I doubt New York ever would (though I haven't been there in ten years, and then only a day). Toronto was the same in many ways, even with that extra Canadian distance. Something to do with the Lakes, maybe? It helped that I was able to stroll through so much cultural history during a walk of just a few blocks, architectural and cinematic above all. Architectural placards (very prestigious stuff in Chicago) stood out in a way I hadn't noticed the last time, and I got into it to the extent of accidentally interrupting an architectural tour at Adams and LaSalle. "Where's the Rookery?" asked some guy in passing. "It's around the corner!" I replied, pretty much exhausting my twenty-second-old knowledge. It turned out, of course, that the guy was leading a tour and the line was part of the spiel. Very briefly chastened, I wound up turning on Michigan, taking a good long optical whiff of the majestic skyline (the Art Institute opened way too late for me to go, especially with that line that suspiciously resembled something out of Casablanca), and then taking a plunge through Grant Park, whose historical importance as the site of the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention has since been eclipsed for me by its importance as the focal point for Haskell Wexler's magnificent Medium Cool. Walking up to the Chicago River's series of bridges (uh... the opening to Perfect Strangers?), then back down and along Madison (ducking inside Reckless again), looking down LaSalle and remembering the first great confrontation in The Untouchables, wondering how much territory out of my walk Ferris, Cameron and Sloane might have covered in forever deleted or lost scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, deciding to track down as many great unseen Windy City films as I could... it was a fantastic morning, and only really started raining once I got back to Union Station. I bounded inside, down the DePalma ripoff steps, and then to retrieve my luggage and head for the gate, where I found that the line for the Wolverine had exhausted my limited repertoire of cheap Casablanca comparisons.

Thanksgiving itself passed pleasantly and without incident, which was something of a surprise as my brother and sister-in-law were out of town on the day visiting friends in Texas. It was good to see the family, eat and drink, and once more take stock of how much my hometown has changed since I was born and grew up there. As my brother drove me from Hammond, the forests and fields had been cleared more and more with empty lots waiting for McMansions and McMansionettes to sprout. The city itself was thronged more and more with big box shopping centers and developments upon developments, spreading out from a relatively rejuvenated city center struggling to keep control of the exurban centrifuge. I never paid much attention to urban planning issues when growing up, and now that life in Ann Arbor has necessarily whetted my interest, I wonder if the frenzy for development was always there, some neo-"New South" thing that I'd hardly ever noticed due to my fondness for Baton Rouge's more senior districts, like downtown and the area around LSU (not to mention my old neighborhood, which I'm guessing doesn't look all that different). The last time I'd hit the place and veered outside family gatherings, I had been more than a little surprised by the changes in the riverside downtown.

Probably the biggest single change for me to face was the disappearance of Village Square, an old-school strip mall relatively near my neighborhood off College Drive and the site of so many formative experiences and distinctive small businesses. Elliott's Books, where my dad would buy us a book every week when we were kids (and who claimed with partial conviction that their downfall was due to the establishment of my former employer Barnes and Noble nearby). K&B, local branch of the New Orleans-based drugstore giant whose signature logo and ice cream were an indelible part of local culture, and where I worked the glorious summer of 1994. Frumbrussels, the painfully cute candy store where I developed an infernal crush on lovely, lace-curtain Deadhead cashier Julie and wrote a godawful story about it, later published in my college literary magazine (there was a larger one later partly concerning her which wasn't as bad, but still a trial). Last but not least, Coffee Call, Baton Rouge's home of beignets, where my family would eat most Sundays before church, and which I would later treat as my own Cafe Deux Magots--as, in my defense, would many, many others--in the infant glory of my nicotine habit, indulging in reading, writing (the likes of which I cringe to remember), visiting with friends, an hour debate on "Westerns vs. musicals" with a girl named Thais, the incongruity of my K&B workclothes in said setting, the gradual realization of hippies' drawbacks from watching artist Dan, the general thrill of starting to make my own life, and a weeklong fling with the wacky, ravishing Nicole the aforementioned summer, a fling well over by the time we organized a convoy to Lollapalooza at New Orleans (and therein lies a tale). In retrospect, it may have been unsurprising how eerily the memories clustered there, for it was a lovely place I didn't truly appreciate until I moved away. Unlike many strip malls, it was built with a sense of character, its central structure bisected with an L-shaped, verdant expanse of grass and flowers, occasionally spanned by the odd arched bridge, covered to create a strangely Japanese feel. On warm summer nights, when the intense summer heat of the Louisiana day had hoiled off and the kids, myself included, got friskier and rowdier, it could seem like a punkass version of The Arabian Nights, or did to my old suburban self. A few years ago, the central structure was completely torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart; that didn't really hit me until last week.

A weird ambition of mine that's been building for a couple of years is to return for a week sometime and try out a "normal" visit, one that isn't for a wedding, funeral or holiday. You would have to pay me a great deal of money to live anywhere in the South again, but if I had to, Louisiana would probably be the state and Baton Rouge the place. For my money, there's more interesting history, culture and music than elsewhere in the region (and vastly better food) and my personal background might make an easier adjustment (though the opposite could well be true). That, at any rate, was my position until last week. It would be interesting to see if it still holds in the face of the preschool local political trends that have swept the country and have probably hit the South worse than other (though they didn't exactly have to hit very hard). For example, will the public institutions and transit systems measure up against places that believe more in government? Is Eddie Money still available on an hourly basis on the radio station whose call sign I've thankfully forgotten the same way that Dave Matthews still is at Ann Arbor's WQKL? There's information available, but I'd be curious to see how much feels familiar to me and how much I now need to learn. I expect one thing I won't need to learn is that Baton Rouge will always be a part of me, even if I'll likely never again be a part of Baton Rouge.

Apologies for that annoying "stinger" ending. I'm not being ironic; it just seemed rather pat, but I can't quite think how else to end it. Happy December.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 1 December 2011 12:14 AM EST
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