I've always had a deep, nagging sense that I missed my potential in one glaring aspect of my life, namely, that I could have been—no, that I should have been—somebody who knew more about trains. As I go about writing my memoir one day, as I no-doubt will, coffee-shop sitting, hopefully not in—but let's face it probably precisely in—Florida, wearing pants that are clean and freshly unsodden, my professorial visage spruced and dapper, and cleaved of impossible ear and nose hair, glancing over my laptop screen (and reading glasses) at women half my age who will be smiling at me with smiles not dangerous, the way the best smiles are, but sympathetic, the way smiles happen when they are directed at a kitten, or a baby, as I sit there putting the final touches on Chapter Seven: "The Day I Jumped into the Pool Without My Floaties" and before beginning Chapter Eight: "And Then God Gave Me Erections," I will take off my half-specs, slide my full-specs down off my head onto my nose, lean back in my chair, and reflect on the fact that I never became a great collector of, or expert in, things train-related.
Things started out good for me. My parents bought me an O-Scale train set at an early age. I remember the way the metal track joined together. The way the engine smelled and how surprisingly heavy it was in my hand. I remember the drops of oil you could put in the engine's smoke stack to make it puff real smoke. I remember my dad and I painting green one side of a giant, thin piece of wood to make the base of the layout. And I remember, after it was all put together, slowly moving the red throttle on the electric control, and feeling tremendous and powerful as the train began to move, the excitement of watching it snake around the train town, me the conductor.
And here's the weird thing: Is there anything less exciting than watching a train move, really? Golf, maybe? Turtle staring contests? Ice cream drip races? And yet there's a sort of universal fascination kids have in seeing a train. Today, if I have to stop to wait for a train to cross the road, I wonder what I've done to deserve such injustice, I go through the five stages of grief, beginning with denial: There is no train crossing the road. (For the sake of the drivers around me, I leave off the two additional stages I've tacked on: Heroic Wailing and Unbridled Promiscuity.) But when I was a kid, I used to hope and pray for those black-and-white railroad crossing arms to drop. I used to love hearing the bells. The whistle. My favorite part was seeing the caboose.
Listen: Kids love trains.
Before they are even aware of the romance surrounding trains. Or the metaphors they've come to represent in literature and movies. Or the influence they've had on art and life and culture. They see a train, and they are held breathless for a moment. They see a train, and they see something grand and magical and they know it is a thing to behold.
My sister's dad, Jim, takes photos of trains. Specifically, he takes photos of trains in the Pacific Northwest. He has done this for many years, and these days, in his retirement, he even earns money off of this pursuit. He is known in train circles. He has a book—one, even, that somebody else published for him. But for a long time, he just took photos of trains because he liked to do it. His government job afforded him three-month periods of time off, and while some people might spend that time golfing, or investing in rounds of drinks for friends, or shooting pool, he spent a good deal of it driving America's highways and photographing trains, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, even when he lived on the opposite side of the country. There might be a specific train or a specific location that he wanted to capture and so he would go there and capture it.
It takes a certain kind of resolve to do this. I mean, doesn't it? To set aside things in your life and take time out of your schedule to go and do something like photograph a train? On the one hand, it seems absolutely crazy. On the other hand, it seems so entirely purposeful and real and committed. There are so many things we do that have a clear-cut "why" in life. Why do we work jobs, even some jobs that we hate? So we can put food on our tables. Why do we invest in gym memberships and suffer miles plodding on treadmills? To have better health and to "look and feel better." Why does one person drive cross-country, again and again, sinking money into gas and hotel rooms, spending hours looking at asphalt and flat, boring countryside, to take photos of trains? I'm still not entirely sure, but one thing I do know: Fame and fortune ain't it. And I respect that.
I've always had a sort of fascination with my sister's dad for doing train photography, and have always felt a sort of admiration of him for it, even though I never knew him that well. He took on a sort of "mythic" status for me as a kid, not only because of the train photography, but also because Jim cuts a large and intimidating presence in the photos my sister has of him. In many of them, he had a thick, mysterious beard and a strong, quiet gaze. I knew he'd been to Vietnam and he always looked like he'd seen things that he didn't want to talk about. I ascribed certain characteristics upon him, of honor and loyalty and dedication, characteristics I had no idea if he had or not. But in my head, it's who he was, and in some weird way, who I wanted to be.
Lately, Jim's train photography has been a particular source of inspiration to me. It has reminded me of this thing I spend time doing: staring at a blank screen, filling it with words I find, then erasing them, then finding different ones, cutting and pasting them, stopping, starting over. Doing it despite the fact that nobody really cares if I do it. Despite the fact that nobody is paying me to do it. And writing isn't the only thing: The photos of my dogs (files and files of them now.) The photos of hydrants (growing in number and disorganization.) I mean, the only reason I probably continue to do any of these things is because they all require very little financial investment. If I felt compelled to drive cross-country to get a photo of a particular hydrant? To book hotel rooms and to stay for days away from my spouse? Well, for one thing, I would probably be divorced.
There's certainly more credibility in documenting America's trains than there is in documenting America's fire hydrants. I don't mean to compare the two things. Besides which, what I do is not really documenting, so much. I am not all that preoccupied by the facts of fire hydrants. I'm more interested in them for how they look. But still, you get what I'm saying: WHY? WHY DO IT? And more important than that: How do you convince yourself it should be done when nobody is out there expecting it from you?
I don't know if Jim would necessarily see it this way, but for me, his photographing of trains has always been a metaphor for a self-made life and a self-made existence. It has represented a sort of heroic, dedication to art, and to the pursuit of passion.
And, by God, if I do nothing else in this life, I want to be somebody who does the photographing of trains.
At our best, we can all be kids at a railroad crossing watching trains. At our worst, we can decide that watching trains is a useless activity. Because it is devoid of financial incentive. It is lacking in any higher purpose.
But look: nobody is paying us to watch TV.
Nobody is paying us to read crap on the Internet.
There is nothing inherently better about participating in somebody else's worldview instead of your own.
III: The Big F'ing Story
Jim was married to my mom before my father and her got married. And, for this reason, he has wound up being, for me, a sort of "gateway" to my earlier mom. Because before Jim took great photos of trains and railroads in the Pacific Northwest, he took photos of her. This younger mom. This teen-aged mom. This mom that existed nearly twenty years before I was born. I am tremendously grateful to him for these photos of her, and I am so glad I have some of them today.
Recently, Jim drove a desk that belonged to my mom to his home in Virginia from my sister's house in Dallas, where it's been for the last few years since my mom's death. He drove it in his van, a van often full of train photos and other train accoutrement, but which this time was empty and therefore capable of desk-smuggling.
I drove down to his house a few weeks ago to pick up the desk, and while I was there, he gave me a tour of his basement, which is essentially a giant museum of brass model trains. They are on display behind glass cases that line nearly every wall. Train after train after train. And he knows the name of each one, the type of engine, when it ran, where it ran, on what railroad it ran, whether it was a passenger train or cargo train. Some of the trains he has on display are painted, and some of them are just shiny brass. But each one has a story and when all the stories are put together in one room, it is an impressive thing to see.
There is an inherent sense of "quest" in collecting things, of chasing a thing you are wanting to find. Chasing a thing you are needing to find. Sometimes it's a thing you don't even know exists. Melville knew about this. It's the premise of Moby Dick. And another lesser known, but possibly more ambitious Pierre, or The Ambiguities. The key word with Melville was "inscrutable." (It's a fun game to see how many times you can spot that word in Pierre.) And his characters are often looking for something that is there, right there in front of them, and yet can't be seen.
Here's a list of all the things I've collected at one point in my life, in approximate chronological order:
- Stuffed animals
- Rabbit's feet
- Baseball cards
- Football cards
- Anything involving the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys
- Matchbox cars
- Model Trains and model-train accoutrement
- Star Wars action figures
- Other types of action figures
- Tonka Trucks
- Plastic Military Men
- Garbage Pail Kids
- Paint Pens
- Role-Playing Games
- Lead Civil-War Figurines
- Mobile Phones
- Shot glasses
- Empty Beer Bottles
- Fire Hydrant Photos
Michelangelo described sculpture as finding something that was already there. As both a literal and figurative "cutting away" of all the parts that didn't belong. Collecting is kind of like that, too. It is finding the stuff that was already there, but putting it with other stuff so that it takes on greater significance.
Writing can be like that, too. A lot of the time, writing is piecing together the stuff that was already there, and doing it in such a way that it makes sense and forms a story. Sometimes that story is about a cat in a tree. Sometimes it's about losing a parent.
And sometimes it's about trains.
There's something impressive about seeing all of Jim's trains in the same room together, but there's also something incredibly messy and chaotic and overwhelming about it. Which is the same way stories are. But it's powerful. And either way it tells the story that needs to be told.
And look: that's what this thing is, this act of collecting. This act of acquiring. Or of taking photos. Or of organizing words. It can seem all messy while you're doing it. It can seem like maybe it isn't worth it. But then one day, there it is: all the things all together. And it makes a sort of sense to look at it. And if it's about trains, we can point to it and say, look! Look at all these things about trains! Do you see? And doesn't it mean something?
And the answer is: yes. The answer is: yes it does. It does mean something.
It has to. It has to mean something. Because we've spent hours, possibly even days, chasing the idea, reading about something, exploring how to turn it into words. Or images. Or photographs. Hoping the thing is there, in the end. It's an act of trust. You're hoping that the time you spend chasing the idea will lead to something fruitful. Because if it doesn't? Well shit, you just spent an afternoon writing words on a screen about nothing. When you could have been paying your bills. Or making money to pay your bills.
Sometimes it's a dead end. Sometimes, you spend days chasing a thing and you realize it has no place in the wider collection, the larger work, the broader essay. And if you let it, that can fucking defeat you. Truly. That can make you feel like you've wasted a tremendous amount of time chasing something that was never there. But the fact is, you didn't know. You didn't know until you looked for it. You didn't know until you started cutting away the other shit. You didn't know until you chased the idea down and found out exactly what it was and how exactly it could fit into the overall Big F'ing Story.
Listen to me: there is a Big F'ing Story about trains, just as there is a Big F'ing Story about everything. And it's made up of a bunch of little f'ing stories.
The little boy seeing a a train for the first time at a railroad crossing and feeling its power in his bones. The little girl, whose father worked for the railroad inspecting tracks and who forgot to pick her up one evening at the train station where she was waiting for him, and so she walked, sad, back to her grandparent's house. The boy and his father throttling a train around a train town in their second-story game room. The mother and her son riding a miniature train around a zoo in New Jersey.
The ride we took on Japan's shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2007.
The ride we took from York to Edinburgh in 2013.
The train in Plano, TX that rumbled by the house where my mom spent the final years of her life.
The Mid-town Direct from The City to South Orange.
The "El" in Chicago town.
The Northeast Corridor Acela from DC to New York.
The heavy, menacing cargo train that rolled directly behind a cockroached apartment above an art gallery in Northeast DC each morning. Scaring us awake the hot, humid summer of 1996.
The many, many songs about trains, which I love and which I sometimes put on "Repeat 1." The sounds, the whistles, the bells and grumble—the onomatopoeia—in jazz and blues. The smoke and the metal, in art and literature and movies.
I wish I was somebody who knew more about trains.
But I may know everything I need to know.
"Songs about Trains" was previously published online July 23, 2013.
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