The American South. See us huddled in that commuter cabin of that antiquated form of transportation, chasing a line of tracks like an endless row of stitches closing some gargantuan wound. See me pressed up against the glass in that jostling space. Atlanta to New Orleans via the Crescent line. A million little vignettes sweeping past my window. A million little lives that I could have lived. A man snuffs out a cigarette with his boot in front of an abandoned textile mill in Talapoosa. A dog behind rusty chainlink in Aniston Alabama cocks its head back to howl at the eerie whistle of the train. People walk those roads, sleep in those houses, eat at those restaurants, hunt those woods. Maybe it’s the blast radius of this noisy train, but the American South was a hobbled and broken thing from the window of that train. There was a beauty to it, but it was a beauty under siege. It was a beauty beset on all sides by the unchecked hubris of man. See the trees singed fall colors, dazzling reds, dappled yellows, the barks glowing neon green with sheen of mildew and buried in the midst of all that startling beauty, a ramshackle collection of trailers or pre-fabs, rotting at their foundation, flanked by chainlink. See a stream running a muddy finger through the gap between two leaf strewn hillsides, sparkling in the winter sun and then the eyes adjust and there is garbage disgorged into it. Piles of tires, a rusting washing machine, a busted cathode television. The hills stretched away from the train, mottled green and red beneath a stormy sky and all across their backs, cellphone towers like quills in the snout of some nosey predator.
Around noon, we hit Birmingham. The city just kind of fell out of the treeline and suddenly it was old brick warehouses and half-hearted skyscrapers. On the face of it, it was the kind of city I would love. Red brick, milk paint, edison bulbs and fire-escapes. A hip beer garden welcomed us as we passed. The train station was far superior to the one we left behind in Atlanta. Most of them were.
Graffiti became a theme of that ride. The artfulness and sincerity with which the people of a city spilled their paint surreptitiously would hint at the mettle of a place. Birmingham’s was lovely. Closer to murals, some of them. Vibrant, cohesive, works, executed artfully by skilled hands under the cover of night.
We stopped for 20 minutes there, the conductor announcing over the PA that this would be the last stop of the trip. The smokers smoked and the walkers walked. We were the latter, so we did a few laps of the platform, batting cigarette smoke away from our faces to the roar of the engine in idle with the nippy Alabama wind teasing at our clothes and prickling our skin. When the time was up, we reboarded the train, saw the other side of Birmingham. People shuffled along the unoccupied tracks, looking for I don’t know what. Vacant stares on porches. A desperate poverty that remained picturesque by the deliberateness of its own spirit. Art prevailed, splashed on crumbling brick. Houses stayed homes, clung to their warmth.
After Birmingham, the landscape changed furiously, over and over again. A military base, a Honda factory, pastures slashed with rivers gave way to auburn woods full of spindly trees turned into tidy housing tracts and then suddenly swamps. Marshy, palmetto dotted wetness. Cranes, turtles, vultures. Duck blinds. Deer blinds.
Tuscaloosa was a college town, complete with all the trappings. Massive stadiums, hip bars, a bustling downtown. It seemed cooler in a more mainstream way than Birmingham. Disneyland-cooler. Then we tore through a series of no-name towns, burnt shell places with boarded up windows, lazy graffiti in angry, jagged shapes. Declarations of ownership and impending violence.
Storms had ravaged that stark space the night before. We crossed two heaving rivers gorged with muddy rainwater and shattered trees. In a clearing at the Alabama border, 10 trees lay like casualties of some terrible battle, chalky mud still clinging to their roots. At the western edge of the field, an aluminum shed had been stripped of all its siding. The metal that had comprised the roof was peeled up to the crossbeam, pointed skyward, presumably into the eye of the tornado that had savaged it.
The sun had begun its collision course with the prickly skyline as we pulled into Meridian Mississippi. It was the bleakest stop we would make on that journey. The train station itself was deceptively nice. A sprawling, mission-style building that was well-maintained and just almost large enough to block one’s view of the ruins behind it. The city had, as the man beside me stated “made an attempt at being a city.” They had built a few skyscrapers and slapped together a downtown. But the skyscrapers were covered in peeling paint and the windows were mostly boarded up. The downtown looked haunted. Faded signs for furniture stores that had closed long ago. Plywood for windows, bars over doors. At the city’s eastern edge we crawled past a warehouse that had been clobbered down. A man sifted through its corpse for scrap metal. It was a wasteland after that for some time. Mississippi slipping despotically past the windows and the stuttering machine gun flash of sunlight through the naked winter trees.
Night fell and the rest of the train ride was a mad dash through the darkness with my nose buried in a book. The train became loud and close, then. People talked too loudly. A man in the seat behind us listened to an action movie at full volume with no headphones. We ordered a pricey asian noodle salad from the dining car and it arrived seasoned heavily with ice crystals. There was delay on the tracks and we were both exhausted, but all of that was manageable.
We pulled into the station in New Orleans 10 minutes ahead of schedule, made our way to the hostel on foot, in the dark, through this new city with its new people. From this perspective, freshly shaken by 12 hours on a train with nothing but the yawning expanse of mostly-rural Americana and the pressing closeness of trees rushing past. The buildings loomed over us, cars roared by us. We found our hostel on Canal Street, buried between a tattoo parlor and a pawnshop. The hostel was a well maintained and pleasant space. We checked in at the front desk with a smoked out looking 20 year old, humped our bags up 4 flights of stairs to the room. It was spacious. 2 bunk beds that would store our luggage for the next two days and a twin bed that would store our bodies for the next two nights. Having landed in a safe place, it was time to find the next step in our personal hierarchy of needs, FOOD. The asian noodle salad still defrosting in our bag and to this day, I don’t know if it ever DE-frosted. I threw it into the hostel garbage can two days later and heard the tinkling crunch of ice hitting waste-bin like a winter symphony. It was then that knew that the literal god of ice resided within that unassuming plastic container and I turned around and didn’t look back (lest I face his wrath). So… the noodles weren’t going to be an option, which meant finding food elsewhere. The problem was, that it was midnight on a Wednesday and almost everything was closed, especially the places that were likely to feature vegetarian options without a side of severe intestinal distress… almost.
After some comprehensive googling, I discovered Cleo’s. Cleo’s reported to be a mediterranean restaurant in a convenience store setting. What I found it to be in person was a bit more complicated than that. The “convenience store” setting was a different side of Europe than I thought it would be from the description. I was imagining that checkered tile-and-wood aesthetic. A place you might find an older gentleman in a white apron folded over the counter, big spit of meat roasting behind some glass, hand-patted pita in plastic wrap in the front window. Instead I shuffled into a nightclub, choked with meaty smoke, all black walls, techno thumping like a heartbeat over the loose assortment of truly unusual snacks that littered the shelves.
Dunkaroos. This place had Dunkaroos. The Dunkaroo factory doesn’t have Dunkaroos anymore. According to the internet, Dunkaroos haven’t been available in the United States since 2012, which means these were either smuggled into the country (with tiger parts and booger-sugar) or they were almost old enough to see a PG-13 movie in theaters. Eyes watering, train-rattled brain throwing error messages behind my eyes, I ordered their veggie platter to-go (as though I were going to eat it standing up in one of the aisles), then stood there in the pulsing darkness waiting for them to call my name. They did and before I knew it, I was standing there, punch drunk and blinky in the hostel room and as it turned out, I had scored.
The hummus was bright and nutty, the babaganoush was garlic-y and fantastic, the pita was pillowy and steaming. We ate it in our bunkbed in our weird little hostel and then drifted off to an exhausted sleep and all the while our cerebellums rocking gently to the rhythm of a rolling train.
Tune in next week for Chapter 3!