Chicago and the City of New Orleans

Trip Start Jul 11, 2010
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Trip End Aug 22, 2010


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Flag of United States  , Illinois
Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Chicago, which I've never been to before, actually reminds me of a lower-key New York, combined with some elements of DC. All the chains are the same as DC, except they have DQ in the middle of the city. Never seen that before—I thought they were just near trailer parks and honky-tonk beaches. Oh yeah, and Panda Express isn't just relegated to third-tier malls,
they're all over the place..

And it is low-key. Even the Larouche supporters are less abrasive, and its very clean for a big
city. Grant Park, which runs along lake Michigan, is very nice if a little weird. They have this kind of Hatch Shell structure designed by Frank Gehry. Evidently, any shitty band can play that venue whenever they want. They had a terrible Phish rip-off playing this huge band stand, at eleven thirty on a Monday morning, and the music was as loud as a concert for fifty thousand people, but there were like three people milling around barely paying attention. It was
strange.

The trains came into Union Station. The station itself has a big hall, like Grand Central, but
it was almost completely empty. The roof is glass which makes it hot as shit in there. So, there were about ten people sitting around on random benches in this cavernous space with these industrial fans going at top volume. I felt like I wasn't even supposed to be in there. The nuts and bolts of the station are down below in a kind of low-ceiling airport type space—much like Penn Station, actually.

* * *

The City of New Orleans originates in Chicago, continues through Illinois and onto Memphis and New Orleans. It is, in many ways, a trip through the history of American music. Blues and Jazz with Rock and Roll wedged in the middle. Thousands of blacks, escaping the racism of the Mississippi Delta had taken the reverse route up to Chicago. This is really satisfying the history dork in me.

I had an Amtrak Viewliner Roomette, which was a revelation. It is expensive for a sleeping car,
but its pretty awesome. An attendant showed me to my room. It had a lower and upper bed, so I asked, “Is it just me or is will somebody else be in this cabin.” The attendant, a New Orleanian, assured me that it was just me. In the roomette across the hallway there was an elderly gentleman with a gray mustache, wearing a black derby and purple suit and carrying a trombone case. Awesome. I was definitely on my way to New Orleans.

I settled in. Bottles of water were supplied and a scheduled seating for dinner as well.  Pillows, blankets, sheets, towels—everything you need. And then the attendant announced we'd be making smoking stops.

I mean, what else could I ask for..

The train food is better than airplane food. Not much better, but edible and its included.  It's also miles beyond the Cafe Car turkey sandwich I had on the way out to Chicago. Horrifying. It looked like Turkey Loaf that had failed to come together. I actually shouldn't say I had it. I paid
for it, and looked at it, and threw it out and ate Chips Ahoy for dinner.

I ended up going to bed before I even got to the first smoking stop. It was nice and comfortable good sleep for about five hours. Evidently, they can't control the AC in the sleeping car and it only goes at full throttle. The chilliness work me up and the next three hours were fretful; it was like trying to sleep in a meatlocker.

We pulled into Memphis at about 6 in the morning for a half hour stop so I got off for my smoke
break and to get out of the air conditioning. A mother and a teenage daughter, wearing a typical pissy teenage expression, were on the platform. The mother was sucking down cigarettes faster than I could light them. They were from Jackson, and the conversation went relatively well for about five minutes. Then out of nowhere, after being told by the attendant that there wasn't another smoking stop before Jackson, she turns to me and says, “I want the gov'ment to stop taking my rights away.”

What can you do in these situations? I mean, I fully expected uncomfortable situations like
this in the South. I nodded. “I don't need to be givin' no healthcare to nobody else. I got mine so let me smoke.” I don't know how healthcare was relevant to being told that there were no more smoke breaks before Jackson.

The daughter made a frustrated grunt and ran back into the train. “She gets upset because I'm always gettin' political.” The mother whispered to me.

I just kept nodding and really picked up the pace on trying to finish the cigarette.

“And what gets me is that everybody I meet on this train agrees with me. So I think it must be
the media.”

Jesus Christ, this was brutal. Luckily, it started raining and I excused myself.

“I'm gonna stay and smoke and take my shower right here.” She said. And she did.

After Memphis, the train slows down considerably. It turns out that the train tracks in
Mississippi are not exactly high speed rail. From Memphis to New Orleans, its another 8 hours. What amazes me about it, though, is that a lot of this is across the Mississippi Delta, which is about as flat a place as there is—just miles and miles of farmland growing cotton and corn, with shacks and trailers scattered about. The towns, what there are of them, look like what you would have seen 50 years ago. Like the one in the picture. That's Yazoo City. I love that name. And that's as big as the towns get. Most are whistle-stop towns a couple blocks long beside the railroad tracks, usually with an old general store and a few other unpainted wood buildings, occasional random trash heaps, and a surprising number (I counted three) of overturned vehicles.

After we left Yazoo City I discovered that this sleeping car has showers. That was pretty
awesome. So I took a shower on a train, and it was a surprisingly good shower. I'm feeling refreshed and ready for New Orleans.  Rebirth or Kermit Ruffins tonight—both are playing.


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