Jefe's House

I did not say “anyways”

by on Jul.21, 2015, under On the Road, Politics, The Press, Theatre

Otherwise the section on Boneyards and me in this National Journal article by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is accurate except where otherwise noted, which is everywhere. Ever feel icky and used by a fellow writer?

amtrakcapture

LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd initiative called the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-distance train, where they would basically stare out the window and type on their computers. The program was bashed by conservatives and lightly mocked on the Internet; yet an astonishing 16,000 people wound up applying. Among the eventual winners were several high-profile media figures, including the writer Jennifer Finney Boylan and the public-radio host Marco Werman.

In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stanley, a 47-year-old Amtrak resident writer who would be taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, before heading to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. Stanley, who wore an Ed Hardy–style Western shirt, is a playwright, performer, and adjunct professor both at New York University and Drexel University. A fan of all things occult, he staged his latest production in the basement of a South Philadelphia synagogue, where he used a Ouija board and a martini shaker, among other instruments, in an attempt to connect with the dead [see Boneyards].

“Now, supposedly, the old station at Harpers Ferry is haunted,” Stanley tells me, as we approach West Virginia, sitting in his sleeper car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called Screaming Jenny, [Um, no. I spent about 30 minutes between DC and Harpers Ferry explaining to this writer that I had visited Harpers Ferry many times due to my love of history.  I told him that the Capitol Limited runs the route of the former B&O Railroad, and that many times I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal which was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of a young Robert E. Lee.  In 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves.  Years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications. Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the very train line we were following. Lewis  met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West.  Talking about the Lewis & Clark expedition got me thinking about Thomas Jefferson who funded it, and I mentioned to the writer that one of the many reasons I admire Jefferson is that whenever a slave in Virginia sued for his freedom Jefferson would represent them pro bono.  All of the above got boiled down by the writer to “but, anyways.”  See below.

At some point during my longwinded Harpers Ferry rumination I spent a thimbleful of time mentioning the legend of Screaming Jenny and quipped that we should keep an eye out for her as we passed the station.] before concluding: “But, anyways, I like Harpers Ferry. The train goes right through it. It’s really romantic.” [A laughable, heavily redacted misrepresentation of my words about Harpers Ferry].

Stanley proved a spirited companion, and the Amtrak Writer’s Residency is, in its own way, an admirable idea. But I couldn’t help thinking that, for an agency fighting a perpetually losing war to persuade Washington of its worth, the program sends exactly the wrong message [Exactly what message does he think the program is trying to send?  This “odd initiative” was created in response to thousands of Tweets to Amtrak begging them to start a writers residency, so they agreed to give this pilot program a go; the point of it isn’t to tout speed, it’s to allow writers to escape their lives for  week or two on an intentionally long and circuitous cross-country route to do nothing but write. If I had been on a high speed rail I’d still have chosen routes that would have made the journey last 12 days]. Train travel, after all, shouldn’t be quaint and romantic; it shouldn’t cater to artists who are purposely trying to go places slowly [Given the expense of cross-country superliner travel I don't think Amtrak is trying to save itself by catering to the starving artist market. Also, the residency is for established, mid-career writers. Both superliners I took across the country coming and going were jam packed with travelers from a variety of walks of life and included tons of families.  Superliners with dining car, sightseeing car and sleeper cars are not commuter trains, so naturally it's going to take a few days to get across the country from Philadelphia to Washington to San Francisco. Also I'm not sure how a faster train necessarily precludes romance and quaintness. High speed trains in Europe are still scenic and lovely]. It should be fast and high-tech and, well, useful. [The many travelers that I spoke with on these packed trains during my 12-day journey found it extremely convenient and useful.  Again the article fails to distinguish between small commuter trains and mammoth cross-country superliners. Personally I liken the superliner and its amenities to a cruise and can't wait to take my own family on a cross-country train trek someday as a non-residency writer].

My own snapshot of filmmaker Simon Tarr.

My own snapshot of filmmaker Simon Tarr.

For now, that vision is going nowhere in Washington; but on the Capitol Limited,the political problems surrounding the future of rail travel seem very far away. After we pass Harpers Ferry and down a couple of drinks from the “bar,” [Not sure why this is disparagingly in quotes; it wasn't meant to be a bar, it was a family-friendly snack counter; in fact, there were two such snack counters that sold a limited choice of alcohols in small, airline-size bottles among other soft drinks, juices, foods and kids' souvenirs, surrounded by the ubiquitous seating of the glass-roofed sightseeing car.] Stanley and I head to the dining car for our 7 p.m. dinner reservations, where we eat passable steaks with Simon Tarr, an experimental filmmaker at the University of South Carolina who himself almost applied for the fellowship. (Amtrak makes you sit with strangers.) [They don’t “make” you sit with strangers.  Three meals a day are included with a sleeper ticket. If you choose to have your meal in the dining car then yes there is community seating.  You can also have meals brought to your sleeper car in traditional room service fashion if you’d rather dine alone. You can also forego the dining car menu altogether and buy food and drinks from the snack counter (which includes hot dogs, burgers, pizza, yogurt, fruit, soda, beer, wine, liquor, mixers, etc.) then grab a seat and bask in the romance and quaintness of traveling through a breathtaking American landscape like the Sierra Nevada.] 

“There’s something about the mental state that you get dipped into, with the sound and the movement, that you don’t get the same way on a plane, that you don’t get the same way not moving,” Tarr says. “I don’t know mechanically why it is, but it makes me ruminate more than I ordinarily would.”

Stanley knows exactly what he means. “See, I equate it with being in the womb,’ he says. ‘The rocking back and forth makes me think you’re in a cradle. Not really a womb. A cradle.”

“Earlier, when the train was stopped all that time, I mean, normally, I’d be freaking out,” Stanley continues. “But now,” he says, all blissed out, “I have nowhere to be.” [Yes, because I’d been awarded a residency, and I was there not to commute, even though I also do that regularly between Philly and NYC. I was there to hide and to write which I did liberally throughout my journey. The wait being referenced here was a 25-minute late afternoon delay akin to any rush hour traffic jam. Had I been given a passenger jet residency and found myself stuck with an airport delay my response would have been the same.  This article seems disappointingly slanted at every small, contrived opportunity against the Amtrak superliner and against the writers’ residency. How smarmy and petty of the writer to cobble together his thesis in such a desperate way.

For some odd reason the US remains staunchly a car-loving culture despite the expense, stress, danger, and crumbling interstate highway system.   I do wish the US would get a sleek, high-speed commuter rail between major cities so the Europeans would stop laughing at us, but then again I’ve also traveled overnight by creaky, hot, crowded, dangerous, slow-moving train in India where you don’t just have to worry about mechanical and infrastructure failures or a lack of creature comforts but also attacks from Maoist rebels, all of which make Amtrak’s superliner look like a first class car on the Orient Express, so it’s all relative.

Bottom line, even if high speed rail is introduced by either government or private investment, separate tracks will need to be installed as the current Amtrak rails are also used by freight carriers like CSX, so there’s no reason the superliners can’t continue to exist quite usefully alongside their smaller, faster, commuter train cousins. – Jeffrey Stanley.]

Blissed out. No argument there.

Blissed out. No argument there.

 

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