Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin' cards with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Won't you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.


Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done. 

—Steve Goodman (1971)

Over the weekend I was in Fairhope AL visiting my brother and sister-in-law, Guy & Elaine, whom I hadn’t seen in two years. I arrived Thursday evening and stayed through the Super Bowl (which didn’t turn out to be as good as the hors d’oeuvres, but the company was delightful, and we ate chicken wings and chili while the Seattle defense ate Manning’s offense).

Friday evening we dined at Julwin’s a restaurant in downtown Fairhope that mainly serves breakfast and lunch, but once a month serves a limited menu dinner featuing chef specialties. We had a coven of diners in our party (six couples and me), and we learned ahead of time that two of the regular waitresses flipped a coin to see who got the “fun table.” I think the winner was the one who served us.

Anyway, our party consisted wholly of transplanted Yankees, or snowbirds (many of whom aspire to move down here year round, where the golf never ends). As Guy is seven years my senior, I was the youngster in the group at 64. (It’s not often any more that I’m the pup in a social gathering of 10 or more—unless I’m visiting an out-of-town duplicate bridge club for an afternoon game on a weekday.)

Mostly these good folks were strangers to me, and sure enough, the person who settled next to me was Don, someone I’d never met before. We hadn’t been in our seats for five minutes before he announced he had a trivia question for us: “What was ‘The City of New Orleans’—other than the largest metropolis in the state of Louisiana?”

I’m thinking, this is supposed to be difficult? I piped up, “My ride north Monday morning.”

“OK,” Don said, “I reckon that was too easy: ”Who ran that train before Amtrak?”

What made him think this was getting harder? One of my best friends from college, Tony Blodgett, went to high school with Steve Goodman, for chrissake. How young did I look? “Illinois Central,” I deadpanned. “Wow,” Don shot back, “You really know your trains.” Duh.

One of the highlights of visiting my brother and sister-in-law in retirement is that it was easy finding time for catch-up conversations over the course of our three days together—both all together, and with each separately (while the other was on the golf course). My other two delights visiting the Gulf were: a) above-freezing temperatures at the end of January; and b) Cajun cuisine.

Following Friday night’s dinner at Julwin’s (that was memorable both for witty repartee with Don and for the largest serving of brussels sprouts I’d ever witnessed at a restaurant—I think I was only one to clean my plate), Elaine and I had lunch Saturday at a hole-in-the wall sushi joint in Fairhope. (I know, it’s a stretch to claim Japanese cuisine as traditional Gulf food, but at least it was seafood.) While the salmon skin roll was rather pedestrian, I don’t believe I’ve ever had more exquisite hamachi. It was melt in your mouth good.

Saturday night we went to Wintzell’s, a regional chain of oyster houses that started in Mobile. The Fairhope location is tucked into a tree-lined neighborhood on the south side of town, where mutli-colored lanterns create a festive mood in the parking lot. On their menus they have a quintessentially ‘50s-era black & white photo of the stocky patriarch standing defiantly behind the bar, sporting a buzz cut and chomping away on a big black cigar. Those were the days.

We were there for oysters. Half a dozen on the half shell were priced at $9.99; a dozen were ominously listed as “market price,” which could mean anything. It turned out that last Saturday it meant $12 for a dozen beauties, fat enough to audition for a Lewis Carroll Walrus & Carpenter Revue (why bother to eat oysters anywhere else?), which I've truncated here to focus on the relevant portion of this tale of trickery:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
      "To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
      Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
      And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
      "Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
      "Do you admire the view?"

"It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
      "Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
      I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
      "To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
      "The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
      "You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
      But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They'd eaten every one.

I followed up the raw oysters with a dish of Bienville red fish, a baked filet smothered in a cream sauce with Cajun seasoning and grated parmesan sitting atop dirty rice. I had no room for dessert.

After grazing my way through less regional delights on Super Bowl Sunday, I made the most of a six-hour layover yesterday morning in the Crescent City (between the bus from Mobile and the train to Chicago). I started out with beignets & café au lait at Café Du Monde (where there was a line out into the fog hovering over Decatur St), strolled over to a cigar store where I enjoyed a fresh maduro-wrapped obscuro that had been handrolled on the premises, and still had time to pick up a muffaletta to-go for the train ride. All and all, a lovely morning.

I got everything on my culinary wish list but etouffee.
• • •
The City of New Orleans is an historic train. The reason it was on Don’s mind was because he had been reading a book about the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th Century. Lured by higher paying industrial jobs and less blatant racial segregation, Blacks depopulated the cotton fields and drained the labor pool needed for the viability of sharecropping. The City of New Orleans was one of the main vehicles by which this population redistribution was accomplished.

While it’s not particularly noteworthy when I get geographically redistributed—after all, I’m on the road half the time—I enjoyed the humid, mild temperatures of LA (which is the tongue-in-cheek way my friend Dan Questenberry, who grew up there, refers to Lower Alabama) as a sharp contrast from the brutally cold winter that makes it an adventure to even check your mailbox in the upper Midwest these days.

I pulled out of New Orleans Union Station at 1:45 pm with temperatures in the 50s, mild enough that I didn’t bother to put on my fleece vest while walking around town. When I arrived at Chicago Union Station this morning, my magic carpet made of steel had returned me to the land of white (by which I mean snow-covered landscapes, not racial homogeneity). Today, that fleece vest will barely be enough.

And there's a winter storm warning out for west central Illinois from 9 am this morning until 6 am tomorrow. On my final leg home, I will be heading directly into the middle of that storm, where they're expecting 5-7 inches of new snow, accompanied by winds gusting up to 20 mph. Oh boy. There may yet be more adventures before I get to bed tonight.

Welcome home, native son.

1 comment:

Maril said...

you brought back such pleasant memories! When I was in college, I rode the City of New Orleans twice a year - from Lawrence, KS to home and back - and virtually lived in the club car where they didn't care how old you were if you wanted a beer. And of course in N.O. itself, the legal drinking age was (is still?) 18.
Best city in the world for foodies too!