“The westbound train leaves Winesburg at seven forty-five in the morning. Tom Little is conductor. His train runs from Cleveland to where it connects with a great trunk line railroad with terminals in Chicago and New York. Tom has what in railroad circles is called an `easy run.’ Every evening he returns to his family. In the fall and spring he spends his Sundays fishing in Lake Erie. He has a round red face and small blue eyes. He knows the people in the towns along his railroad better than a city man knows the people who live in his apartment building.”
Overnight I reversed Tom Little’s route, flying east on a red-eye from Seattle to Cleveland. Not long before landing we flew over Clyde, Ohio, some 60 miles west of Cleveland, Sherwood Anderson’s boyhood home and model for Winesburg, Ohio. (Read what I’ve written about it here and here.) The passage above is from “Departure,” the final chapter in Winesburg, Ohio. Mine, too, was an easy run, an uneventful if exhausting journey home.
Throughout the flight I looked forward to breakfast at a diner near my brother’s house. The décor is chain-tacky but the menu is classically simple and American. Here’s what the artist Saul Steinberg, born in Romania but an American most of his life, said about breakfast in America in Reflections and Shadows, a transcription of talks with old friend Aldo Buzzi:
“The only really good meal here is breakfast. When I traveled I ate breakfast at noon, too, and in the evening. A coffee and a local Danish pastry, or even some agreeable novelties. Ham or bacon and well-cooked eggs with toast. This dish comes with tasty home-fried potatoes, cooked with bacon and onion, or with French fries, on which you put ketchup. Raw ham doesn’t exist, but the cooked kind is excellent: Virginia ham with pineapple, smoked ham from the South, or Canadian bacon, which is a cross between bacon and ham. And sausages, and crisp waffles, imprinted by hot irons, which look like the backside of someone who’s been sitting without his trousers on a straw-bottomed chair…”
Steinberg celebrates breakfast and American diners for another five pages, and they read like one of Whitman’s catalog reveries. Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize what’s best about us. Such important incidentals are what I most enjoy about my annual returns to Cleveland. With another seasoned traveler, Zbigniew Herbert, I share a taste for the mundane and unrecognized. In “Delta,” an essay about his visits to Holland (collected in Still Life with a Bridle), he composes a paragraph that reads in toto:
“Petty events, small street-fragments of reality.”