Essays

Free Rides: Writing and Reading on Trains

By posted at 6:00 am on March 3, 2014 1

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In local parlance, a “free ride” means riding New Jersey Transit without buying a ticket. For years, that trick was easiest on the Morris-Essex line, with the double-decker trains going westbound from New York City. A free ride from Newark Broad Street to Dover was possible on the 8:19 pm train, using the following method. Step 1: enter the train in the midst of a crowd, far from a conductor. Step 2: move two cars forward. Don’t stop to peek at someone’s text, and don’t settle for an empty three-seater with a fresh copy of The New York Post. Step 3: choose a car with a clean-check: when the conductor brushes through upon boarding, collecting tickets but not clipping, giving receipts but sticking no slip in the flaps above seats. Step 4: Catch an open spot in a two-seater; pencil in hand with an open book is the best disguise. If an overzealous conductor somehow reaches your car, avoid eye contact. If I were caught, this would be my Step 5: show the conductor my monthly pass, apologize, and explain that I am a fiction writer.

I would never steal a free ride, but would gladly accept one if New Jersey Transit, or Amtrak, offered. I am not the only rider willing to accept that gift. Consider the social media frenzy that erupted when writers recently discovered Amtrak’s free writing residencies. The Wire’s coverage of the story’s background was the single-most shared literary link I’d ever seen. What writer, laptop on a folded-down food tray, or notebook on knee, doesn’t wish they could spend hours drafting on those rails? Dream evolved into reality because of a December 2013 PEN America interview with novelist Alexander Chee, where he says trains are his favorite place to write: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Jessica Gross read Chee’s interview and tweeted her own desire for such a residency. Amtrak offered her a free “test run.” She accepted, and took a round trip on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago: “thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four, with delays.” At The Paris Review, her romantic description of that residency’s spartan, utilitarian space would entice any writer interested in solitude: a 3’ 6” by 6’ 8” sleeper cabin with a window, “two plush seats,” a sliding, chessboard-topped table, a sink, cups, towels, soap, and curtains that can be drawn over two windows facing the corridor. As Gross notes, “I’m only here for the journey.” She was “ensconced” in order to write.

Gross shares how other writers love the schedule of train travel: “Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as ‘suspended impregnable time,’ combined with ‘dreamy’ forward motion: ‘like a mantra, it greases the brain.’” Even writing about writing on trains feels natural. Gross refers to Emily St. John Mandel’s fine essay here at The Millions, which describes a very different type of train: the New York City subway system. There she “scrawl[ed] fragments” of her third novel on “folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book” as her desk. Mandel notes that reading is ubiquitous on the subway, but writing is rare. That’s understandable. Subways are about connections and changes, quick closing doors and an absence of conductors roaming the cars. Trains are longer commitments, more conducive to settling into one’s seat, tuning out, and letting the steady ride transport the mind.

covercoverI have done my fair share of writing on trains, but prefer them as places to read. My train reading is associative: one book leads into another. Lately I’ve been riding the train most often in summers: hour-plus routes that begin in Netcong and Dover and end at the Broad Street, Newark station. I teach a sport literature course at Rutgers-Newark that runs July through August, so one such train-reading litany began with Don DeLillo’s End Zone. The refrain of “hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody” complimented the repetition of my ride: run, slow, stop, start. End Zone sent me to a more recent DeLillo, Point Omega, which is a thinner read, but more directly engages the evolutionary theories of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My edition of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man fell apart when I reached page 36, which ends with this sentence: “In such a vision man is seen not as a static centre of the world — as he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer.” I had to reach under the seat in front of me to grab the pages that broke from the bitter spine.

covercoverTeilhard’s thought is recursive, so I then chose to re-read On Being Blue, William Gass’s 1976 treatise on that color, emotion, and concept: “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects.” Gass sent me to The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Was there ever a writer more syntactically appropriate for the train? “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story” might be inscrutable, but it is still a literary ride. I admit to not finishing Stein’s collection, and other books, that I begin on the train. My relationships with books might last for an entire afternoon, one half of a round trip, or only between stops. Stein’s wordplay inspired me to revisit Patrick Madden’s excellent essay collection, Quotidiana. His short but packed essays are a perfect fit for trains. One essay, “Remember Death,” moves from the band Rush to Montaigne to Mr. Lamb (one of Madden’s high school English teachers that I also had — we are from the same hometown) to Sts. Jerome and Anthony. I moved from the breadth of an essay collection to the depth of a memoir: Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler, which now reads like an elegy for his late father. Butler’s labyrinthine prose made the train car feel comfortably claustrophobic.

covercoverAfter a helping of non-fiction, I longed for the escape of fiction again. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is never so romantic and heartbreaking as when it is read on a train. The longing in Paul Lisicky’s Lawnboy felt perfectly metered across multiple stops, and painfully final when the train pulled into the yard at Dover, out of service. I often return to the underappreciated James Alan McPherson when thinking writers, trains, and endings. McPherson worked as a dining-car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad in 1962. Then came Harvard Law School and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but a life on the rails never left him. He edited Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture with poet Miller Williams, and also wrote two train-related stories, “On Trains,” and my favorite, “A Solo Song: For Doc, ” an elder dining-car waiter’s advice to a new hire. These words might have been spoken to McPherson himself: “There’ll always be summer stuff like you, but the big men, the big trains, are dying every day and everybody can see it. And nobody but us who are dying with them gives a damn.”

covercoverI prefer prose to poetry on the train, but there’s a place for verse in transit. Tyehimba Jess’s development of persona in Leadbelly metaphorically matches the transformative aspect of travel, the possibility that we might be reborn in a new place. I’ve read and prepared reviews for Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker, Fables by Sarah Goldstein, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon, Copperhead by Rachel Richardson, and browsed poems in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and Poetry. My favorite single poem to discover on the train is, coincidentally, “Love Train” by Tomás Q. Morín. I first heard it discussed in a Poetry magazine podcast, but read the full poem on the actual page. A woman asks for “Earl Grey cookies / sandwiched around buttercream or marshmallows / made of chocolate,” but her husband returns from the dining car with his “bowl brimming with pretzels, / the snack you wanted least.” That’s not the only problem: “When I came bearing the salted and twisted news, / the room was empty but for a heel.” He’s forgotten their room number on the train, so he opens every door “marked with threes and eights,” waking strangers “like a beggar, no, an angel, / a begging angel who has written on his heart / WILL WORK FOR LOVE.” Frustrated, all he finds are “row upon row of couples asleep,” or riders “staring out the windows like zombies,” unsure what to do “once the newspaper is well-thumbed, / the tea has gone cold, and the conversation is dead.” He finally discovers his wife “in a cafe / in a city we didn’t know, where she is “slowly eat[ing] / a dish of whipped cream and bananas.” Hearts broken and healed, in transit.

At The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara wonders what will happen when the romantic excitement for Amtrak’s residencies subsides, and we get down to dollars and cents. She also makes a smart comparison with David Foster Wallace’s sideways glance at Frank Conroy’s “essaymercial,” “My Celebrity Cruise, or ‘All this and a Tan, Too,’” which Conroy was paid to write. Amtrak’s social-media director, Julia Quinn, told Vara these writer residences are “the most organic form of advertising for us — different people on our trains and exposing their audience to what long-distance travel is like.” The key word here is audience: “We are a for-profit organization, so we are definitely determining when the best time is to send these people. I’m not going to send all of the residents in May, June, and July during our peak system, when we could be selling those tickets.” No one expects Amtrak to offer these residences without any strings, and certainly writers are not the demographic that needs charity the most. But this might be a good time to dull the cynical blade and embrace optimism. I hope Amtrak develops these introductory residencies into a full program, and that these writers are inspired to create new work, breathe life into old drafts, and maybe even enjoy some good reading.

Image via p_x_g/Flickr





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One Response to “Free Rides: Writing and Reading on Trains”

  1. T.A.M.
    at 6:51 pm on March 3, 2014

    Relative to the inexpensively priced cost of a 15 day rail pass, the amount of publicity generated by a few tweets about “free” train travel is extraordinary. Esp. given how totally uncomfortable rail travel is in U.S.

    I guess I was on the vanguard of something because a few years ago, I took the train around the country and it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life: trains are cold, the conductors on power trips & other passengers are (generally) psycho.

    It’s curious that Amtrak’s offer doesn’t specify whether these tickets are coach or rooms. The latter comes with meal service, showers, etc. The former are reclining seats that are comfortable for a comfortable hours, but almost impossible to sleep or work in for any length of time.

    Regardless of class, the cold recycled air, though, is the major drawback of long-haul train travel and I knew no one who lasted longer than 2 days w/out getting sick — or assaulted by the can-be hostile passengers.

    And Alex Chee, good luck with that Chicago to Portland trip. It’s an endless expanse of nothing, packed with Amish whose dieted seem to consist entirely of brussel sprouts (the collective smell of Amish fart is enough to make one jump) and are openly hostile towards “fags.”

    The idea of “writing” on Amtrak, though that wasn’t my goal, strikes me as not so much fanciful, as fantasy. Sure, there’s a sense of movement and the scenery of this country is amazing but other than that … & the food is terrible.

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