Every Man a King, Part I - Seattle, New Orleans and Riding the Rails
05 May 2010 · by · Be the first to comment!
(Author's note: This is the first of a series on my visit to New Orleans in Summer 2008. A restaurant review is coming, I promise.)
When I stepped off the train onto the platform at Chicago’s Union Station the first thing I said was “God it’s hot.” The humid afternoon air made my clothes fall limp, beads of sweat prickle across my forehead and my duffel bag felt thirty pounds heavier than when I had boarded in Seattle. I heard a laugh behind me and turned to see Ed, a jolly, potbellied auto mechanic I’d met in the dining car the night before. He was on his way home to Gary, Indiana from the Land of a Thousand Lakes and even in heavy work jeans and a t-shirt didn't look like the heat affected him one bit. “Hot, huh? And you’re going to New Orleans?” He removed the toothpick from his mouth, tossed it on the ground then shifted the strap of his backpack from one shoulder to another. He chuckled again, “Friend, you’re gonna die.”
The Illinois Central Railroad put the City of New Orleans into dayliner service in 1947, as a more affordable, single-day alternative to their luxury overnight sleeper the Panama Limited. Both trains ran from Chicago down through Jackson, Mississippi to the Big Easy in about sixteen hours until 1971 when Amtrak took over operations and, after some juggling, discontinued the City of New Orleans. The popularity of Arlo Guthrie’s song of the same name is generally credited as being the reason behind Amtrak’s decision to return the City of New Orleans to service in 1980 on a 19-hour overnight run. Even if it had nothing to do with their decision it's one of the reasons that, after four days of carousing in Chicago, I ended up back at Union Station bound for New Orleans. It's a flippant reason for hopping a train, yes, but not nearly so flippant as the reason why I ended up in America in the first place.
Earlier that year, I was on a Greyhound bus back to the coast from Revelstoke when I stopped to visit a friend overnight in Kelowna. The bus station there was unremarkable, a dusty waiting room filled with passengers harboring knives and grudges, all sitting in chairs designed by the Marquis de Sade. The attached cafe was a different story, it was like a holdover from the past; Formica counters, awful pictures of food on the wall and a menu that hadn't changed since Trudeau's long walk in the snow. Over a fried egg sandwich I lamented the gradual disappearance of places like these, mom and pop operations selling soul food that warmed the heart as it hardened your arteries. I decided that since, at the moment, I had the time and the money – why not see some of these places before they're gone? As a devoted fan of James Lee Burke, when I think of unhealthy, dilapidated things with character I think of the American south and so three weeks later, with Chicago behind me I was passing through Fulton, Kentucky on the City of New Orleans.
On the Seattle-Chicago Empire Builder train our car attendant was Ghul, an impish bald man of indeterminate origin who was a master of turning up with free alcohol whenever I was in danger of boredom. On this leg of the trip our attendant was Sal, a native of Louisiana who operated at half-speed while making damn sure we all knew he didn’t care whether we had a good time or were eaten by toothless mutants. At dinner, a couple proudly told him that they were newlyweds going to New Orleans for the first time on their honeymoon. The ensuing silence made me think he’d fallen asleep behind his sunglasses until finally he said, “Ain’t that a bee” and swaggered off to give someone else their opportunity to be ignored.
In the dining car, different groups are sat together in order to make the most of limited space and every night you have a chance to meet someone new, although there’s no guarantee that your dining companions will care to do anything but truffle their meal down at light speed and get back to their roomette. There’s also no guarantee that if they stay, they won’t be rude, insane or, worst of all, boring. My dinner on the City felt like it would never end; I was sat with a family of missionaries who were completely besotted with their youngest member. He was, at most, seven and appeared to me to be an unremarkable and rather loud little monkey but according to them he had climbed mountains, built houses for the poor and knocked up an entire beach volleyball team or something to that effect. When I’d finally managed to steer the conversation away from little Buddha I blundered onto one of their other great loves: sitcoms. You can’t imagine my surprised joy when the conversation ground to a halt after I brought up Two and a Half Men: “That’s a little too risqué for us. You know, we really should be getting back to our room.”
The next day at lunch I was sat with Bill & Frank, a couple in their mid-50s who were regulars to New Orleans and great conversationalists. Bill was an accountant and Frank worked for Amtrak’s administrative division in Baltimore. They were devoted fans of the filmmaker John Waters and connoisseurs of great rum and after our meal they invited me back to their room for a chat and as the crumbling beauty of the American south slid past they tried to educate me on both subjects. Though the films of John Waters sounded unique and fascinating Bill & Frank's dissertation on the finer points of Angostura 1919 came with samples, so it received the bulk of my attention.
As we crossed over the bayou nearing New Orleans, I accepted an offer to have them show me the finer points of its nightlife the following evening and returned to my roomette to pack. By the time we reached the city the rum buzz had settled into a golden glow but I was still in no condition to face a day that clung to me like fryer oil. I’d planned to walk the thirty minutes from the station to my hotel in the French Quarter but after stepping onto the platform I knew that had been a pipe dream, even without a skinful of booze. I learned that in the heat of daytime on the Gulf Coast any ambition not directly related to cold drinks or fried food is short-lived. Since my walk into the Quarter promised neither I hailed a cab.