Two mornings in a row on the way to work I waited in line for a freight train to pass, an inexpensive variation on the drive-in theater. Only on Monday did I get a front-row seat, but even on Tuesday I was close enough to read the graffiti. I’m never in a hurry when driving, and a miles-long string of reefers, boxcars and gondolas (“Lugging cattle, coal, and lumber, / Crying, `alack, alack.’”) is always a stirring sight. Houston is a dense weave of train tracks, as John Bainbridge, a staff writer for The New Yorker, observed fifty years ago in his book about Texas, The Super-Americans:
“Along with its big-city overtones, Houston has a few small-town undertones, such as the fact that there are some three thousand grade crossings within the city limits; it is not unusual, when driving about town, to be obliged to stop while a train goes by.”
That mélange of big city and small town is one of the qualities I most appreciate about Houston. Trains remind us of the city’s nineteenth-century origins, and railroad sidings are weedy, disregarded places that suggest moving on and staying put. It’s tempting to lull one’s self into sepia-tinted reveries when watching trains pass, but as Eric Ormsby cautions in “Railway Stanzas” (Coastlines,1992):
“I do not write this from nostalgia.
I who once revered as a mercy of
certitude the benignity of fact
am skeptical of every reverie
that leads me backward into dubious time.”