Sunday, February 25, 2024

'Their Thoughts, Their Longings, Hopes, Their Fate'

A new record: stopped three times at train crossings in a single day without leaving the city, driving only to the university library and back, twenty-two miles. Because of its sprawling, unplanned nature, Houston is a dense web of train tracks, as John Bainbridge, a staff writer for The New Yorker, observed more than sixty years ago in his book about Texas, The Super-Americans (1961):

“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.”


Nothing has changed. At the second crossing I got a front-row seat with an unimpeded view of reefers, boxcars, gondolas and tank cars, a miles-long string of slow-moving rolling stock, each car without exception vandalized with spray paint. Waiting at a crossing is cheaper than a drive-in movie. I’m never in a hurry when driving anyway, so why not watch the show? As a side attraction, I enjoyed seeing my impatient neighbor in the next lane pound her steering wheel and cuss soundlessly. Are people aware of how ugly they get when angry? One of my favorite Walter de la Mare poems is “The Railway Junction” (The Fleeting and Other Poems, 1933), a possible allegory that concludes:


“I nothing know why thus we met --

Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:

And what shall I remember, except --

The evening growing late --


“That here through tunnelled gloom the track

Forks into two; of these

One into darkening hills leads on,

And one toward distant seas?”


Trains, not planes, are romantic things, conjuring elsewhere while hinting at danger with their noise and bulk. In my first month as a newspaper reporter, I photographed a guy who had apparently been riding the rails, fallen across the tracks and been surgically dismembered. He was lying on his back with a hideous rictus on his face. I remember he was dirty, sweaty and sunburned. I wrote a story but we couldn't publish the photos.  

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