from 2008, part four

18  4  8

Friday morning. Little Rock, Arkansas. We got here night before last around one a.m. Yesterday morning, technically, since it was after midnight.

The train had been a long, lovely ride through moonlight from east Texas, through the forests flickering by in pale shine, the occasional fields awash in dim glow, the sometimes swampy ponds and fens gleaming silver dull; a mysterious, moving vision of dark beauty, softly illumined by the waxing gibbeous lunar orb high above, moving from nine o’clock to midnight.

Daniel gazed out the window while Marjorie dozed. With the lights all out in their little compartment, and the hallway door screened by curtains, they could see the shining darkness passing by outside. D briefly went forward to the view lounge, but the lights were still on in that car, and reflections from the inside covered the windows. He returned to their darker roomette to sit and watch the moonlit forests rolling by.

At one moment, sparks of electric lights suddenly appeared in the trees. Waa-waaaah, howled the locomotive, high-balling at who knows what speed, then slowling slightly as the ghost-lights in the trees blossomed into more houses, with country roads and streets, waa-waaa, waaah, and an entire small town suddenly unfolded from the woods, stretching out its shining streetlamps and traffic, turning its houses and tiny main street shops this way and that, while the train just slightly slowed down to carefully plow its non-stopping iron path straight through waa-waa at the local highway intersection, waa-waa as the feed warehouse on the edge of town, waaaaa into the last bending curve turning away from that momentary vision of light and human lifetimes, away from brilliant electric fires into the soft, succulent darkness of forest and ghostly moonlight where trees and meadows rushed by, a passing silver into grey watercolor haunt of endless movement movement movement rolling away away away away away….

Before those dark hours of moonlight vision, we ate dinner at sunset, rolling through the fields and towns of east Texas, watching trees grow thicker around the scattered towns and open fields. Streaks and swaths of riverland and swamp interrupted the ranch and farmland. Thicker and denser the woods grew taller and darker until we came to the old oil boom regions, where rusting tanks and refineries came and went in and out of the forests.

As night fell we had a fascinating encounter in the view lounge car with Deacon Jones, on his way to Little Rock, to talent scout some baseball players. We would see him again at the station, after we all de-trained. He had checked his baggage, and was waiting.

That reminded me of an event several days ago, in the morning air of El Paso. Tell the story, Daniel

19  4  8          Okay, Mikey. We had rolled around the last corner of the Rio Grande river, in southern New Mexico, finishing our breakfasts in the dining car. The valley passed by outside the eastern windows while dry desert hills and mountains turned and hovered outside our western windows. In the last moments before crossing the river, we came within yards of the Mexican border, and gazed beyond the fence into a neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez.

Then, slowly, we crossed the river by the power plant and made out way through the northern edge of the city of El Paso, crawling toward the downtown railroad station.

20  4  8          And at last we stopped for a twenty minute pause. I climbed down the narrow staircase to the lower level of the superliner train, and stepped off onto solid ground.

Walked along the platform a few cars’ length. There I met a man complaining to the conductor that his bags weren’t unloaded yet. After a few moments comiseration, the conductor nodded towards an approaching, almost empty cart, driven by a middleaged man. “Here he comes with supplies for the train. As soon as he’s done delivering them to the cars, he’ll collect the baggage and return to the depot, sir.”

The unhappy passenger grunted and turned to me as the conductor moved off toward the head of the train.

“What do you think of that,” he frowned, watching the electric car now deliver a bundle of newspapers and bag of ice to the nearest sleeping car while exchanging hearty greetings and handshakes and smiling words with the car attendant, “look at that – he’ll go all the way down the train, greeting and glad-handing and shooting the breeze with every single person he meets, and only then load up the baggage and finally return to the station. Meanwhile I’m standing here waiting and waiting and waiting. Tell me, friend, don’t you think something ought to be done about that? How can Amtrak ever hope to attract passengers, and increase its ridership, if this is an example of the kind of customer service they provide? I ask you, what can be done?”

I nodded, understandingly. “Well,” I said, slowly, gathering my thoughts, and beginning to expand the one simple answer which I have thought about before, having noticed and pondered this very situation, and question, before, “well, there really is only one solution that I can see, only one way to improve customer service.”

“How is that?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked, curiously, the other continuing to fish-eye down the length of the train, toward the electric baggage cart, which by now had only reached the next car.

“Apply the profit motive,” I said.

He turned both eyes back toward me. A whisper of a smile began to flicker around one corner of his mouth. The other eye wrinkled, fixing itself in amusement on my face, deliberately struggling not to look away toward the baggage cart, still only at the second car.

“Yes sir,” I said, “now you may think I look like an old hippie, but I know what made our country great – the free market system. And I know the one way to improve service is to pay people for it. Some kind of bonus, or reward, system for how fast they get the baggage off the train and into the hands of the passengers.”

He fully smiled, nodded, then immediately frowned as he turned to watch the baggage cart slowly trundle off towards that third superliner car. More greetings, handshakes, handoffs of ice and newspapers.

“You may have something there,” he growled, “but I doubt it will ever happen, things being standing as they are now.”

“No. Congress will never authorize any increased expenditure for improved service. And our lame duck president, if I may call him that, would rather slaughter men, women and children in Babylon than help our folks back here at home.” [get their baggage delivered ten minutes faster]

His eyes and body snapped back at me. He snorted, rather good-humoredly, I thought. “Now, young man, you’re talking like the old hippy you said you only looked like.”

……………….

So I was reminded of that baggage by our saying goodbye to Deacon Jones on Wednesday night. He was waiting for his baggage to be unloaded from the baggage car. I shook his hand goodbye. Talking with him a few hours before had been one of my most emotional moments of the trip thusfar there, and still, four days later as I write backwards from Sunday.

We took a taxi to our hotel across the river on the waterfront edge of North Little Rock, set behind the levee wall, and slept.

Awoke Thursday morning somewhat refreshed, ate breakfast in the hotel café, caught the tourist streetcar across the river. Oh my, its very high, I said. No, this is down, it was higher a couple weeks ago, the motorman said. Turns out he’s a refugee from 1980s El Salvador. He was in the army there. Would’ve been kille but he got drunk one night and was ordered into lockup the next day. Crudo, siempre crudo. His squad went out to guard a bridge. Got hit by revel rocket grenades. Several killed – including him – or who he would have been if he’d not been locked up for being hungover. The Lord saved me for something better, he says. On the left you see the new waterfront park where the little rock itself sits buried under the railroad bridge foundation pier.

You can still see the bottom half of the little rock under the concrete tower set on top of it. Le petit roche, here, half way up the river, the delta forest swamps and great prairie regions of east Arkansas give way to the first hills that lead west into the ancient Ozark mountains. The “little rock” beside the river is the first outcrop of stone visible on the surface as you head up-river from the father of waters, Mississippi river.

The ancient French voyageurs and fur traders came up the Arkansas by canoe from the late 1600s on. In 1686 the French founded the Arkansas Post, a fort meant to safeguard their control of the great river. This was before New Orleans, even. The first post was destroyed by floods and re-established on the site that later became Arkansan territorial capital and is the chief goal and destination of Marjorie and Daniel’s trip here: the subject of MOPTK’s 194 masters thesis in history at the University of California (Berkeley). The Arkansas Post 1683-1783.

Before we get there, however, we plan to spend a day in Little Rock. We call cousin Pollyanna Carlysle Krafter and arrange to meet her downtown at the museum of little old houses. She and Mom converse around the gift shop before the three of us are taken on a small guided tour of the old houses. First they show us a movie filmed on site with living history actors pretending to be old Arkansas travelers, businessmen and slaves.

I make light of this institution by calling it merely the museum of old houses, but it is so much more, if you will permit me to cliché. The Historic Arkansas Museum at 200 East Third Street, downtown Little Rock, is both a showplace gallery and secure repository for objects pertaining to the history of the Razorback State. // While his mom and cousin are making delicious love to the gift shop, Daniel spends a pleasant hour perusing the collections of furniture, weapons, toys and Indian artefacts on display in the permanent gallery. He is particularly struck by a large portrait of a mother, young daughters and son and dog. He gazes into the frozen faces, some looking out at him with enigmatic smiles and frowns, others looking at each other. Only the dog wears a look of true adoring love. The others – except the the youngest girl – all seem to reflect a knowledge of the burdens and sadness of life – a knowledge which the youngest, smiling radiantly, has perhaps not yet had thrust upon her by sickness, slavery, and death. The family in the painting is, of course, white. The rich ones all were, back then.

Several days later we will sit in our rental car driven back to Little Rock, waiting the last hour before we must turn it in and go catch our three a.m. train. It will be nearing sunset as I try to write another piece of our journey, transforming experience and recent memory into words. But there is no equalling the sheer power of a flowing river. Even here as I scribble in the heart of an American city, the noise of traffic all around me, even here there is no force, no power, to equal the simple, gigantic movement of water rushing by, the moving, roiling mass sliding sideways, onward, onward, downriver, sliding sideways simply because the gravity of our world pulls it down[hill], and this mighty, universal force, acting upon its huge, fluid mass, leaves it no choice but go downstream.

And yet how many variations in that flow! How many channels carved and then abandoned across the centuries, and millennia, how many forgotten horseshoe shaped lakes and swamps littering the delta flatlands east and south of here!

Each time I raise my eyes from this scribbled draft, [this paper] which I regret you cannot see, there, in your computer screen, dear diary, but each time I raise my eyes I see it. Let me show you in these words. The river, moving, moving, moving. Down between the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock, passt the rip-rap lined shores with their parkforest walkways and raised river walls, under the highway bridges, under the Main Street Bridge where East becomes West, under the railroad bridges, half abandoned, past the old State House, past the tourist hotels, past the riverfront marketplace, past the Clinton Library with its expansive grounds and huge glass building floating on stilts that everyone calls a “trailer, but, mind you, it’s an Airstream trailer…”

Ignorant to it all, the liquid megatons of water roll by, push by, wash by. None of our little sounds, none of our Slick Willie Huckabee debates, none of our sirens racing across the bridges, none of our poetry, none of our music, none of our race relations, none of us matter until you actually touch the water and then… then it will only move around you.

A fish splashes somewhere. The redwing blackbirds flutter on the fence in the river shore park downtown. A poet from California scribbles in the corner. [Pay not attention to that little man behind the curtain.] The sun appears to set. It is almost time for dinner.

A huge riverboat power tug struggles upstream against the current, pushing a barge in front of it[s nose]. One of the first, people say, since the floodwaters were so high last week and week before last. It feels the river, long and strong and fierce all around it. And the river, yes, it feels the boat and barge, a moment of disturbance in the force, a flood diversion, a slight change of course for millions of gallons of water streaming breakneck past the tiny piece of civilization, culture, trade, commerce.

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