Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Wasn’t that, after all, why we liked the music?"

The late Mick Farren, on The Killer and his drugs: "Since the beginning sex and drugs have been inextricably bound up with rock’n’roll music.
In fact, those eminent psychiatrists, frenzied Bible Belters, and rabid conservative moralists who prophesied in print and pulpit that rock’n’roll was a “communicable disease,” that it led to drug addiction, promiscuity, juvenile delinquency and the probable downfall of Christian values and civilization as they knew it were absolutely right. They may have got the reasons pretty ass backwards, but in substance they were right. Wasn’t that, after all, why we liked the music?
Rock’n’roll—beyond any doubt—has always needed high octane fuel. Anybody who tells you different is a damn liar, and about as trustworthy as that godforsaken individual who passes up a joint or a mirror or whatever with a superior smile and the statement, “I don’t use the stuff. I’m naturally high.”
If you don’t believe that rock’n’roll ran, right from the start, on one kind of scheduled drug or another, go ask Screaming Jay Hawkins, or Little Richard, or Johnny Cash or even Elvis (although that would admittedly prove difficult without the services of a high priced medium). Best of all, ask Jerry Lee Lewis. 
Jerry Lee Lewis has to be the archetype and the ultimate survivor of that time when rock’n’roll was getting born in the back of a station wagon on some back road of the South, en route to a one night stand in a high school gym or Legion Hall. At the start of the sixties Lewis and his band the Memphis Beats were busted at a motel in Grand Prairie, Texas, and charged with possession of 700 amphetamine capsules. This was in the days when being busted for speed meant a traffic offence, not a narcotics beef.
From "Sex & Drugs & Rock'n'Roll," Home Grown (1979). Reprinted in Elvis Died for Somebody's Sins But Not Mine: A Lifetime's Collected Writing (Headpress, 2012). Farren died in 2013.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Opening Day," a Roger Angell short story from 1950

Roger Angell began writing about baseball for The New Yorker in 1962, filing his first Spring Training report from Sarasota, Florida in the April 7 issue. He'd been with the magazine for many years by that point, and had published many stories, a handful of small, "Talk Of The Town" pieces, a couple of which were baseball-related, and one substantial World War II article ("Iwo Mission," January 6, 1945) about a harrowing mission in the Pacific Theater. (Angell served in Air Force and had worked as a writer and editor at a military magazine). In doing some research, I discovered "Opening Day," a short story published in the April 22, 1950 issue of The New Yorker. Until the 1962 Spring Training essay, this was Angell's longest piece about baseball for magazine.

"Opening Day" is charming, if slight. The story takes place in an unnamed bar on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan on Opening Day, presumably of the 1950 season. Here are the opening paragraphs:

It was just past noon on the first day of the baseball season. Herman, the bartender, was washing glasses, and the front door of the bar on Ninth Avenue was hooked open. Even behind the bar, he could smell the warm breath of April moving across the room. The only other person in the bar was a small gray man in a large fedora, who was sitting at a table in a booth, He was studying a copy of the Morning Telegraph over his beer, carefully underlining his horses with a pencil. “‘Take me out to the ball game’,” Herman sang softly. “Tum-tee turn turn turn tee.” He held the last glass up to the light and then placed it on the shelf behind him. “‘Buy me some peanuts and CRACK-erjack,’ ” he sang.
            "For Christ’s sake,” the man said quietly, looking up from his paper.
            “Sorry,” said Herman. “Opening day, that’s all." He put down his towel and walked around the end of the bar, under the big television set, and over to the jukebox, beside the front door. None of the titles on the machine were new ones, but Herman studied them at length before he dropped in a nickel and pressed the button for “Deep Purple.”
            As the music began, a small boy wearing chaps and two holstered cap pistols rode rapidly through the front door on a tricycle. “When’s it start?" he asked, circling Herman expertly. “Cause I gotta go home to lunch.” He wheeled down the straightaway behind the bar stools, narrowly missed a hatrack, and came up the other side of the room.
            "It ain’t gonna start at all for you, Julius,” Herman said sternly. "You stay in here one more minute and they’ll be in after my license. Six squad cars and the Mayor and J. Edgar Hoover. Then there’ll be no bar, no ball game, no television, nothing. So wheel right on out, see? Go home to lunch or I’ll be up and see your old lady again.”
            “O.K.,’” Julius said. “Don’t get sore. I’ll be back, though,” he said over his shoulder as he disappeared into the street.
Soon two well-dressed women, Mrs. Foltz and Mrs. Kernochan, enter the bar, atwitter with excitement at the start of the baseball season, complaining about endless, dark winters of nothing but watching wrestling and basketball yet buoyed by April and their confidence that the New York Giants will prevail in the coming season. The man preoccupied by horses overhears and joins the conversation, unwittingly setting himself up for some tart scorn and moral judging at the hands of the two women. Contentious talk turns from the immorality of horse racing, gambling and Sunday ball games to the far more dangerous topic of Giants versus Yankees—with a peaceful, agreed-upon dismissal of "them crummy Brooks." As voices and tensions rise, Herman steps in to cool things down, and a sense of civic politeness—leavened with the forgiving balm of the start of baseball—prevails. After the man scoots off to place a bet, Mrs. Kernochan admits to finding him "kind of cute," whereupon she's greeted with a guffaw and a friendly pinch on her ass by her friend. "Spring is sure here, all right," she said. The smitten and curious Mrs. Kernochan's eyes, meanwhile, are sparkling. The End. And the Beginning. “Opening day, that’s all."

Angell preferred to write nonfiction about baseball, to report what he sees, to essay the always surprising marvels of the game, to sift the ordinary facts and the mythic details. "Opening Day" is a pleasant fictitious vista of barroom hopes and April optimisms, less a story about baseball than a story about the charmingly loosened mores among women and men drinking in a bar in the afternoon as Spring does its devilish work. But as the title makes clear, the story is a tribute to a particular, "Play Ball!" optimism. Angell's talent for evocative narrative detail that so enlivens his decades' worth of baseball writing is vivid here, and so many of his baseball-related interests are present: the romance of saloons; the charming, dogged innocence of child fans; the good-natured if intense ribbing among competing fans; female interest in the game; New York as the mid-century Capital of Baseball; the personal possibilities between men and women against the backdrop of America's greatest game.

I found this photograph of a Manhattan bar taken in 1950 by the great Berenice Abbott. It's across town (on First Avenue) from the fictitious bar in "Opening Day," but it helps me to see the kind of saloon that Angell imagined his baseball fans inside of, on high noon on the first day of the season. For the record, in 1950 the Yankees won the American League pennant by three games over the Detroit Tigers, and swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series; the crummy Brooks took second place in the National League, the Giants third. The gambler in "Opening Day," an unapologetic Yankees fan, had plenty to crow about were he to wander into a bar in April of 1951 and find Foltz and Kernochan perched there, drinking highballs.

Photo via Artsy.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Impossibly large noise: AC/DC in '78

I wrote this about AC/DC's electrifying, stomping performance of "Sin City" on Midnight Special in 1978:
The power of Marshall stacks vaporizes critical derision. AC/DC were happy to hit the stages to thunderous, fist-aloft cheers even if—especially if?—those cheers induced exaggerated sighs from patronizing pop music critics. What mattered was the onstage translation of beat, groove, and dirty jokes. By the close of the 1978 tour, AC/DC, loud and in control, was an absurdly tight rock & roll unit.
On September 6, the band flew into Hollywood for an appearance on NBC’s Midnight Special, Burt Sugerman’s ninety-minute late-night concert show. Over a popular eight-year run, hirsute host Wolfman Jack introduced many diverse bands to America. AC/DC’s one-song performance on the show is a classic, and goes a long way toward describing why conventional critical sniping of the band has always been irrelevant. They set up on the middle of three soundstages, as Steven Tyler and Ted Nugent introduced them (both barely able to keep grins off of their faces, likely flashing on road revelry from the summer tour). The mini drama of “Sin City” captures everything fun, dangerous, and potent about AC/DC. From the opening, crushing three-chords heralded by Scott’s sleeveless sleaze, the song is loud and on-point. Angus’ cap flies off within seconds. His hair is shoulder-length, and the sweaty mop’s manic in head-banging glory from beginning to end, the guitarist prowling the stage with his favorite Gibson SG guitar in a freak-show: part Chuck Berry, part hyperactive tweener, with a bit of Lon Chaney, Jr. thrown in. He’s grimacing, and his skinny, wiry legs are sticking out of his lad shorts, a book bag bouncing up and down on his skinny butt. When he’s not prowling during the verses, he’s relatively still, bopping back and forth on his semi-planted feet in his soon-to-be-identifiable groove.
Bon? He’s sporting an ugly mullet and uglier denim, but his baseness and tight-jean arrogance is redeemed entirely by his gum-chewing, half-grin, all-amused countenance. This is pretty hilarious, innit? He’s likely drunk, he certainly can’t dance — he looks like the trashy bachelor uncle rocking out at your family picnic — and his stage moves are limited to snaking the mic cord suggestively and striking poses and pointing at the crowd. But those grinning eyes make it all fun, and even half-innocent. The crotch-level girls seem amused and maybe interested behind feathered hair and stoner cool. Malcom, the foreman, is head-down, hard at work. Rudd and Williams are stand-ins for the guys down in the furnace, their hands wrapped tightly and sturdily around their tools, game-faces on, making the whole thing hum and groove and stay in one quaking piece. 
During the breakdown, Angus is on his ass, then he’s twirling on the floor like a crazed Fourth Stooge, now he’s up and (kind of) dancing as Williams and Rudd quiet things down with a hypnotic, funky bass-and-hi-hat line. Angus drapes his uniform tie around Bon’s head, garlanding him, and, after Bon philosophizes a final time on the nature of sinning and gambling and takes a deep breath, the band comes crashing back in, the song leaping in energy and power. By the end, it feels like the inevitable runaway train barreling halfway down the hill. God, it must’ve been deafening. The crowd digs it, though they look stunned during the whole thing, and that’s part of what Bon seems to acknowledge: he’s part understanding, mostly gleeful at what the band has just detonated. He’s sung about Las Vegas and all of the promises and heartaches, booze and powder, luck and destiny, ill-fortune and thrills made manifest in that desert town. 
Impossibly large noise coming out of these five micro-people. Watch it with the sound down and your ears still ring.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mapping the Roads

A nice find today via Open Culture, Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn maps of his and Neal Cassady's hitchhiking trip from July to October in 1948. As I'd speculated—and hoped!—here, it seems as if Kerouac and Cassady sped right through DeKalb on the Lincoln Highway.
Colin Marshall writes:
Surely most ardent readers of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road have tried to map Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s American journey. Above, partially alleviating your own need to take the pains of sketching out that great Beat journey yourself, we have a map drawn by the author himself. Pulled from Kerouac’s diary, it traces the route of a hitchhiking trip of July through October 1948, which no doubt fueled the still-potent literary impact of his best-known book, which would see publication almost a decade later in 1947. Each stop has a label, from the iconic  American metropolises of New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. to the less-known but no less evocative  smaller towns like Des Moines, North Platte, Laramie, and Selma.
Marshall links to other sites with other On the Road maps, including one post with images of the automobiles Kerouac and Cassady caroused in. Here's the '49 Hudson:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Roger Angell, Spring Training, Again

Here I go, reaching for Roger Angell in the dead of winter. A year ago I did myself a favor by re-reading Angell's books in order of publication; this year, with April but a rumor, I'm focusing on his uncollected essays. 

Here's the opening paragraph of "A Heart For The Game," his 1988 Spring Training piece published in the May 2, 1988 issue of The New Yorker:
Baseball sights and settings are so familiar that reporters reëncountering the game at the spring-training camps in Arizona and Florida give an almost perceptible little nod as they step out onto the first field of March and find all in place once again. Here are seven or eight players, larger and younger than one has remembered (as always), gathered around the batting cage, awaiting their turns at the plate in easeful, half-forgotten poses that now slide heck into recognition like a foot into a bedroom slipper. A bat rests briefly against one man’s knees while he pulls the little strap on a pine-smudged batting glove tighter and presses it closed against his wrist; over here, a player hangs loose, with one spiked foot crossed in front of the other, while one palm rests on the knob of his propped-up bat, taking his weight at the hip; off to one side, a thick armed rookie seizes two hats in one hand and whirls them in a sudden circle; two more of the waiting men converse in undertones while they fussily cock and recock their batting helmets with identical gestures. The sweating coach out on  the mound (he’s a right-hander, so the little protective screen on the down slope before him is set up with its lower sector over on the third-base side of the diamond) leans and chunks once again; the batter swings and fouls the ball— tonk!—off the steel frame of the cage, and, his turn finished, leaves the box, muttering; the next hitter hurries into place, pokes the loose balls away from the plate with the tip of his bat, plants his feet, and looks eagerly out for the pitch. “How many—eight?” he asks, and the batting coach, behind the cage, looks at his watch and murmurs, “Six now. Six.” There’s nothing new here; there’s no end to this, year after year, and yet each time out, each spring, it feels surprising as well as comforting, utterly fresh and known by heart—the old game in a young season. Circling the batters, the writer approaches the cage from the rear, takes up his own stance (one foot automatically finds the bottom railing of the cage, like that of a toper easing up to the bar), adjusts his own hat, and tests the tension of the knotted netting in from of him, making sure he won’t catch a foul in the face. The batting coach, an old acquaintance, puts out a beefy paw in welcome, but his eyes go quickly back to the batter. A couple of the players offer recognizing smiles or head-bobs, but their attention is elsewhere; this is business. Then there’s a shock: a traded-for star, a towering, famous figure, stands over there among the rookies and the regulars, looking all wrong in his strange new uniform—and then, in the same instant, looking young and dangerous in this born-again role. Ask D., the writer reminds himself in a mental note. How does it feel, etc.? Work, of a sort, has begun.

What an expansive but intimate panorama Angell observes, creates. Who's D? I assume it's Dave Parker, having been traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Oakland A's in December of 1987. "The Cobra" was still a star by all rights, having slugged 26 homers and driven in nearly a hundred runs in 647 plate appearances for the Reds in '87. Though he hadn't been elected to an All-Star team for a couple of seasons and had been tattooed by MLB's drug investigations of the early 1980s, he was certainly still "towering." He'd go on to contribute, mostly as a DH, to the Athletics' World Series runs in the late 80s, retiring after the 1991 season.

I love that Angell neglects to name this "famous figure" in "his strange new uniform." Such anonymity is of a piece with Angell's evocative description of Spring Training drills, of nameless players and coaches going through the motions a thousand times old, of getting in shape, getting into the swing of Spring, balancing discipline and desire, routine and hopes—sillhouettes of baseball players, less personalities and Free Agents than types and icons. Angell's at his best when writing from his deep wellspring of affection for baseball and its history, especially as that history tells mundane, ordinary tales, like batting practice in March in a desert or the tropics. Here, Angell celebrates mechanisms and habits and sounds that are so old they transcend the men acting them out. The game's always bigger than the players, even the famous ones.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What’cha doin downtown? Andy Shernoff's NYC

Singer/songwriter and mastermind of the (probably) late-great Dictators Andy Shernoff has written some terrific songs about his native New York. Born mid-century in Queens, Shernoff has witnessed New York's decades-long, oft-debated cultural metamorphosis first-hand as a borough rat and 'zine writer, a Lower East Side proto-punk scene maker, and an elder statesman lamenting the Aught Years, Giuliani-led gentrification. Though too infrequently, Shernoff has narrated New York's Punk and Post Punk cultural history in smart, funny, rocking, hook-filled songs in the tradition of The Who and fellow Bowery boys The Ramones.

Here are four of his best about NYC, from his stints in The Dictators, Manitoba's Wild Kingdom, and The Master Plan.

"The Minnesota Strip," Bloodbrothers (1978)

A stomping ode to Eighth Avenue between Times Square and the upper 50s, an infamous stretch of prostitution in the 1960s through the 1990s, many of the sex workers coming from the Midwest. Shernoff name checks the Terminal Bar, a dive across the street from the Port Authority. Filmmaker Stefan Nadelman released a documentary about the bar in 2002.

"New York, New York," ...And You? (1990)

An "I ♥ NY" for the bizarro world, originally written for but never released by The Dictators in the 1970s. Shernoff exhumed this anthem about Bronx aflame and junkies, queens, and squares for the short-lived Manitoba's Wild Kingdom.

"Avenue A," D.F.F.D. (2001)

Barring an unlikely burying of the hatchets, D.F.F.D. will be the last Dictators album, and it's a terrific one. This stirring threnody to the East Village sums up Shernoff's bemusement at and disgust with the homogenization of Alphabet City. "When every memory is gone / and everything you know is wrong."

"14th Street," Maximum Respect (2010)

Shernoff's recent band with Keith Streng and Bill Milhizer of The Fleshtones and musician and producer Paul Johnson. This is the kind of fun, pre-Beatles, Bo Diddley stomp Shernoff loves, a tribute to Uptown slummers and bridge-and-tunnel girls coming into the city for some weekend debauchery along the great dividing line between Downtown—and everything above it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sometimes the mind

Sometimes the mind is watching pure film, picturing a story, narratively recalling an event; sometimes the mind is pure language and idea, wondering on an event, interrogating it, intellectually grappling with it; sometimes the mind is pure abstraction, moved by mood, sensation, or song. An essay is a snapshot of the mind.
Kalina Jankowska, Inside the Brain I (2006)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Me + Me: Chino Otsuka's photos

Chino Otsuka's photo series Imagine Finding Me has been pinging around the Internet. Understandably so; it's remarkable. In the series, Otsuka digitally places images of herself into her old photos, lining up her present self with her former self. “The digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine," Otsuka said, "as I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history." The idea of being a sightseer in one's own past is fascinating, but not particularly novel: such touring is what we all do, everyday, is what memory is. What's amazing about Otsuka's photographs is their technical quality, the seamless way she's inserted herself into her past. Long gone are the clunky photoshopped images of yesteryear. Digital manipulation keeps growing in sophistication, and I wonder where it will end, and what that point will look like. Because Otsuka can do what she does so efficiently and successfully, must she? We're aware of image manipulation in nefarious political contexts, marveled at Woody Allen's Zelig, and smile at manipulated imagery as Internet memes. What Otsuka is accomplishing is a new way of yoking the present to the past, the seams erased, the fingerprints unseen. What's to be gained from visually erasing the bridge from the present to the past via 1's and 0's? As always, I wonder what the implications are for memory. I wonder how this will look in a generation, and how by then we will have refined it even further. And to what end.

1977 + 2009, France

1975 + 2005, Spain

1976 + 2005, Japan

1984 + 2005, France

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A homerun, a rooftop, the past

Griffith Stadium, Washington D.C.
Like most baseball fans, I have a crush on sites where old stadiums once stood. I was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C., but too late to remember the old Griffith Stadium where the Washington Senators played—both the original franchise and the 1961 expansion team, although the latter played only a year there before moving to to RFK Stadium in 1962. I'm reading Roger Kahn's Memories Of Summer, and in his terrific chapter on Mickey Mantle, Kahn recounts a 1956 Yankees/Senators game at Griffith when Mantle, famous for his mammoth and long home runs, knocked a pitch out of the park, in right-center, estimated to have traveled 522 feet. The bruised ball, Kahn writes simply, "landed on the roof of a house at 2014 Fifth Street." My curiosity piqued, I headed to Google Maps. Normally I'd check out a site in person, but as I write this I'm 759 miles away and it's eleven degrees below zero in DeKalb. So I must be content with a virtual visit until I head east this summer.

Howard University Hospital now sits at the site where Griffith Stadium stood, between Georgia Avenue and 5th Street, and between W Street and Florida Avenue in the Northwest section of the District. Here's a map of the area. As a kind of transparency laid over the hospital grounds you can envision the ghost of the park's diamond, of home plate, of left, right, and center fields:

 Here's the hospital, from Fifth Street:

And here's the house across the street—it's the white building on the corner—the roof of which must've clanged momentously when Mantle's homer landed on it:

I love standing at a site like this, risking sentimentality while imagining that I'm hearing the roar of a crowd (early on in the franchise's history anyway; according to Wiki, the last Seantors game at Griffith in September, 1961 drew a robust 1,498 diehards), watching a line of ticket holders waiting outside, the men in Eisenhower-Era suits and hats. When I do visit the corner of Fifth and Elm this summer I'll listen hard for the echoed clang off of the roof, and picture the ball bouncing down Elm with kids in pursuit, perhaps, or onto roofs of homes further down the street, a single ball, unimportant in itself and just another homer for The Mick, one of his 52 that season—but yet another vanished memento of baseball on a summer day a half a century ago. Griffith, the Senators, and Mantle, all gone.

Mantle in '56

UPDATE: Colin Coghlan alerted me to Historic Aerials, a site at which addresses can be searched for satellite imagery over time. The Fifth Street address yields several shots of Griffith, at its glory and its mid-1960s disarray. Great stuff.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"A Photographer and an Essayist Walk into a Bar"

I was happy to be asked by Nicole Walker to contribute a piece to the Bending Genre blog, a site devoted to essays on creative nonfiction and to Walker's and Margot Singer's terrific anthology, which you can buy here. I took the opportunity to hang out and bend elbows and minds with some of the notable photographers and photog-thinkers of our time, including John Berger, Alain de Botton, Robert Brault, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, William Wegman, and the like.

It was a great time. I learned a lot. Hurting a bit today, but it was for a good cause.


On a related note, read a great interview with Walker and Singer conducted by essayist David Lazar at The Conservant here.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Phil Everly: "It feels good to sing"

Phil Everly
Phil Everly (1939-2014) once described "Devoted To You" as “like an English madrigal." The song was written for the Everly Brothers by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and appeared in 1958 as the b-side to "Bird Dog," a tune about which the brothers had some reservations. They were sold on the beautiful "Devoted To You," however. “It’s a very well-structured piece and it feels good to sing,” Phil Everly said. It feels even better to listen.

The Everly Brothers have provided me with countless speechless moments as I stared at the record or CD in wonder at the duo's close harmonies and melded spirits. Over the years I've cried a lot listening to their songs, sorrow and elation reached only by melody. Speaking about his sometimes vexed relationship with his brother, Phil said, "Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate love." Now that Phil Everly is gone, that melody is halved. But the songs Phil and Don sang are out there, around us and above us, forever.

RIP Phil Everly.

Friday, January 3, 2014

E.B. White, the Railroad, the Transparent Essay

...a land without rail service is a land in decline, or in suspension. E.B. White
E.B. White and his tools
E.B. White's "The Railroad" was published in the February 20, 1960 issue of The New Yorker, as a "Letter from the East." Writing at the cusp of The Space Age, White, then just over fifty years old, laments the condition of the passenger train industry in his home state of Maine, softening his complaints with nostalgic memories of riding the trains as a boy and an adult. "And what's the railroad to me?" White asks at the start. "I have to admit that it means a great deal to me. It fills more than a few hollows. It is the link with my past, for one thing, and with the city, for another—two connections I would not like to see broken." One paragraph later, he asks that rhetorical question again, this time answering more ruefully: "It is a lingering pain in the heart, an old friend who has tired of me and my antics." This pivoting from yearning nostalgia to resigned acceptance creates the essay's wintry tone.

With characteristic patience and a clear eye that moistens now and again with sentiment, White surveys the history of the railroad in the northeast, worries for its future, and basks in memories of the train's unique place in history, its hold on a boy's and a nation's imagination, and its particular way of slowing down time into precious, contemplative segments, a stay against a century moving rapidly, if inevitably. There are many beautiful passages in this beautiful essay, too many to quote, ranging from White's earliest recollections of riding the train with his family when he was six, to describing the train both as a wandering boy on an errand and as a "gossip" that, refusing to be rushed, "stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar." And there's this rhapsody:
...gradually the railroads fell in love with the sound of their own whistle, with the brightness of the saloons and the brilliance of the station houses, and even after the whistle dwindled to little more than a faint pooping in the hills and the saloons were with drawn from service and the lights in the station houses went out, the railroads stubbornly stuck to their accustomed ways and the ways of the horse.
This passage echoes an earlier quotation from Thoreau, whose musing on the train a century earlier acts as a kind of moral conscience to White's piece, as White looks back to the railroad's Golden Age and forward to a decade—the Sixties—harsh in its speed and novelty. In fact, when he isn't mildly lambasting the Federal Government for saddling trains with mail delivery and for not doing more generally to help the train industry (I wonder what White, who died in 1985, made of Amtrak's continual operation in the red), he's shaking his head at the culture's loving embrace of the automobile and jet plane. Quaintly, White's half-hopeful that the congestion on the Los Angeles freeways might spur more and more Americans to re-embrace the puttering passenger train as the chief mode of transportation across America. This never happened, of course, and that foreknowledge makes reading "The Railroad" dismaying.

But it also reminds me of the power of the essay as a literary form. One could plug in "printed book" or "wrist watches" (or just about any cultural artifact worried to be vanishing) for "railroad" in White's essay and thus plug right in to the current of White's thinking. Every generation laments its own obsolescence, owns an anxious litany of disappearing things and ways of life. For White it was the passenger train, which told its own local time and required that we slow down with its own slowing, around bends, across rickety tracks, as we savored what we saw out the windows, gliding along, unhurried. For me, it's [    ]. For you it's [    ]. Lay "The Railroad" as a transparency on top of our own essaying, and our observations and anxieties and losses line right up.


"As for planes," White writes,
planes have broken the speed of sound and are reaching for the speed of light to see if they can't smash that, too, and soon we will fly to the coast and get there before we start and so will be cheated of the journey—a dreamlike transportation system that gradually gets to be nightmarish, with people whipped so rapidly from point to point that they are in danger of becoming s race of waltzing mice.... If our future journeys are to be little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there. I believe journeys have value in themselves, and are not just a device for saving time—which never gets saved in the end anyway. Railroad men should take courage when they look at a jet plane, or even at a poky old airliner circling at two hundred miles a hour over an airport waiting for the fog to lift or for its nose wheel to lock into position. The railroad has qualities none can take away, virtues that have never been surpassed. A well-driven train moving smoothly and strongly over a well-laid roadbed offers a traveler advantages and conveniences not to be had in any other form of transportation. Unlike the motorcar, the train does not have to be steered. Unlike the plane, the train can slow down in thick weather. Unlike the bus, the train does not have to pull over to the left every few minutes to pass what is up ahead.
Sigh. What would White have made of the Internet? Of Instant Messaging? Elsewhere in the essay he writes—in good humor—that he knows the train is on the way out, along with his antiquated recommendations and pining for them. His complaints about jet travel are ironically subverted by the two sexy, newer-than-now Jet Age advertisements below that appeared in the very issue of the The New Yorker in which his essay ran. Loss is everywhere. Tomorrow, too.
The New Yorker, February 20, 1960
The New Yorker, February 20, 1960

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pitchers and Catchers Report on...

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." Rogers Hornsby