I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Train Travel Musings

Only a few more days before I leave and I find myself reflecting on the varied responses I've received from people when I tell them about the trip. Responses range from the plaintive (Why would you do that? It will take sooo long) to concerned (You better watch yourself) to the envious ( a slight sigh and ohhh really) and it occurs to me that the responses themselves are anthropological artifacts, telling me a little about train travel that I hadn't realized. (It’s almost an anachronism, isn't it? Travelling by train, at least, in this country and so we've formed these opinions about what it is based upon what?)

I was thinking that to a certain section of people train travel represents a luxury and it isn't the luxury of comfort that George Pullman promoted in his day. Maybe train travel represents the luxury of time, which of all the luxuries available to us is the only one that is accessible to all of us regardless of class. In fact, it might seem that it is a luxury only the very young have.

A friend of mine jokingly suggested that I begin my research by watching movies: Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Silver Streak, North by Northwest (known for the scene at Mt. Rushmore but the romance begins and ends on the train) and so on. All movies I've seen before and I wonder if I hadn't seen them, would I even be interested. What people's responses remind me of is the romance of train travel and I wonder why it seems so romantic and holds some of us in thrall even now, when air travel can be cheaper and faster.

I have never traveled by train before but I am as excited as the first time I took the plane, when I was ten and a half and airlines still served real meals, with silverware, even in coach. There was a wonder that I still have when I glance out of the window and see the ground retreat beneath me. But this somehow feels different. Even before 9/11, I had grown less enamored with the air travel. I don't imagine that my ardor for train travel will die. But maybe I'm guilty of romanticizing again.

Iconically, trains, like all symbols of transportation, represent travel, freedom, an opportunity to leave everything you have known and travel into the unknown. Space ships are inaccessible to most of us; cars are common and individual, personal (Thelma and Louise didn't take anybody out with them); boats also, depending on the size, and planes. Planes don't hold the same mystique. Why is that?

Train travel provides (or seems to) that perfect balance of personal and public space, of freedom and restriction and control and submission. In a plane, the pilot is in control -- of when you take off and land. Not that, the train engineer isn't in control because he is but because the engineer only manages the train, when it comes and goes; the passenger has control over when he will come and when he will go. On a plane, even your physical space is limited to thin-thin boundaries between you and the person sitting next to you. The flight attendant tells you when to sit, when to stand, when it is okay to go to the restroom, when you will eat (or more likely, not eat these days) While on a train, you have choice (and leg room). You chose where you will depart. You're free to move. You're free to socialize or sit silently.

That's another thing. You are grounded, physically. I'm not afraid of heights but the weightlessness of flying seems unnatural myabe that’s why it is in some part appealing. On a train, I am of the earth, a part of my surroundings.

All of this musing has made me wonder what those passengers felt back when their choices were limited and air travel was an extravagance. What did they think?

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