New Orleans by Train, the Adventures thereupon

Alright, I’m writing this nearly two weeks after the fact, but I thought I needed to document this experience.

I was heading down to New Orleans for to give a paper at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, US Branch (IASPM-US), which was to be held that coming weekend. Ever since the financial crunch, travel funding from UofC has gone from “tightwad” to “Monte Burns,” so I couldn’t afford the air fare—even on a low-cost airline. Instead, I took the train.

Yes, that’s right: I took a 19-hour overnight Amtrak train to New Orleans, riding in coach (i.e., without a sleeper bed). It was beautiful and exhausting, entertaining and uncomfortable all at once. There’s just too much to recount in fine narrative detail, so instead here are a few vignettes of especially interesting moments.

Comfortable, Uncomfortable

One of the main benefits of the long-haul “Superliner” trains that Amtrak uses is the “Sightseer Car,” which has wrap-around windows/skylights. Half of the car is made of diner-style booths with tables that seat 4 comfortably, and the other half of the car is filled with fixed lounge chairs that face toward the windows on either side. Both types of seating were wonderful for different reasons: you could sit at the tables with your laptop plugged in and happy work away at projects while the landscape whizzes by next to you, or you could sit in the lounge chairs and watch just enjoy the scenery. The view was especially beautiful once you got into south Mississippi and closer to New Orleans, where the train tracks often went right through swamps, forests, and bayous. That’s not a sight you’ll see from the highway or the airplane, that’s for sure.

I’ve even found an image of the interior of a similar Sightseer car, taken from this Flickr photostream:

Interior of an Amtrak Superliner Sightseer car

Interior of an Amtrak Superliner Sightseer car

On the other hand, things got a bit crowded in the sightseer car as more and more passengers boarded, especially since there was a greater sense of space in this car than in the regular coach cars. Also, this “lounge” car was pretty much the only place on the train where you could be noisy—especially at night—so this sometimes meant that a pair of insufferable hipsters would whip out a guitar and try to sing the blues while conducting an endless and conspicuous discourse on jazz and blues standards for the benefit of any females within earshot. Not that I was witness to such a scene or anything…

The coach cars were certainly more comfortable than airplane seating. The seats were about double the width of airplane seats with easily double the legroom. The seats reclined rather far and included a leg-rest that swung up to help create at least the impression of lying down. Also, ridership was low enough that I was able to grab a pair of seats to lay across. Still…it’s not the same thing as sleeping on a horizontal surface in relative privacy. If I ever have to travel 19 hours on a train again, I’ll look into the price of a sleeper car.

Terms of Endearment

As soon as we hit Memphis, there was a striking shift in accent on the train and sudden rise in diminutive terms. Everyone was calling everyone else “sugar” “baby” “honey” or “sweetie pie,” although that sort of talk didn’t happen between men (surprise!). I also heard people use phrases like “Ah tell you whut” un-ironically.

Chicago Socialite

Somewhere in Mississippi, a group of middle-aged white ladies climb into the Sightseer car with their husbands trailing behind. The men quietly sip their coffees (from the snack bar) as one of the women holds forth on a “friend” of hers from Chicago. She mocks this “rich socialite” friend, who apparently can’t stand being away the big city and complains constantly if she doesn’t have access to institutions of “high art” (e.g., the opera, art museums, theater). As the sketch of this friend is filled in, she becomes more and more a caricature: she has luxurious tastes; she’s insufferably pretentious; she incessantly belittles the “real” people of the “heartland” of America; she’s allergic to manual labor; she’s dependant on the ministrations of domestic servants; she’s taken a dashing pianist as a lover, whom she showers with gifts.

But all of this is unsurprising—ham-fisted, yes, but unsurprising. What I found odd was that, whenever our narrator wanted to do an impression of her “friend,” she affect a “Southern Belle” accent, as if she had just stumbled out of a Ladies’ Auxiliary punch social in Savannah wearing a taffeta hoop skirt. Sure, not everyone can reproduce the Chicago accent, but certainly she could’ve taken on a Manhattanite accent or a New Englander / Kennedy dynasty accent. Those are both readily available in popular media. Instead, this woman used an accent that represented Southern sophistication and elitism to reinforce an already heavy-handed stereotype of the Yankee urbanite.

This scene was already a bizarre one, but it was made all the more strange by the fact that these women mocked this city-slicker and celebrated their own down-to-earth life-worlds while wearing pearls and fancy twin-sets.

“Those Democrats”

As I sit in the Sightseer car and overhear fragments of conversations, I get an inkling that something is going on. Ever since our stop in Memphis, the population of the train has shifted from black working-class Chicagoans visiting relatives in New Orleans to white, over forty, middle-class couples who all seem to know each other. Some of them, I notice, are wearing discreet but visible Republican accessories (e.g., buttons, necklaces, stickers). I begin to notice that many of the women have a similar look: huge, immobile hairdos; disc earrings in gold or pastels; pendulous necklaces; long nails that would never be mistaken for “ghetto claws.” And then, a women bursts into the car carrying:


I shit you not. This woman busts in with this Sarah-Palin-standee and yells, “Sarah’s on the train with us!” And nearly everyone in the car cheers and applauds. Well, everyone except the now-outnumbered passengers of color, who look at each other uneasily. A (white, Michiganite) mother-daughter couple who were heading to New Orleans for the Amnesty International conference look especially uncomfortable.

For the next few minutes, I eavesdrop intensely on the conversations around me, trying to figure out why the sightseer car had turned into a Tea Party rally. As it turns out, this coming weekend was also going to be the Southern Leadership Convention for the GOP, and we were riding with an ever-accumulating crowd of party loyalists.

An hour or so later, I’m waiting in line in the dining car to be seated for lunch. There’s a group of women bedecked in GOP paraphernalia standing next to me, constantly modifying their reservation as more of their friends arrive from the neighboring car. One of the older women—who seems to be the ringleader—turns to the others and says, “We’re probably going to get slow, bad service, ‘cause all of these workers are Democrats, and we know how lazy they are.” The other women chuckle and nod in agreement.

Now, how does she know that all of the dining car workers are Democrats? Well, it just so happens that all but one of the workers are black women (and the other is a gay white man). Any confusion I might’ve had about whether this was coded speech was cleared up a moment later, when this older woman notices me—a Latino, queer, blue-haired man with wide-gauge earrings, an electric-blue Adidas shell-top, and a neon yellow scarf—standing next to her and casts a wary, sidelong glance at me. The other women fall silent. Her head swings back around to her companions and changes the subject. The ladies are less talkative.

Father in Law

In the Sightseer car, a young woman strikes up conversation with me. She’s rocking the dykey, androgynous, boy-girl look; in fact, she’s rocking it so well that it takes me a few minutes to figure out that she’s gettin’ her genderfuck on. She’s going to school in Carbondale, IL, but she misses her hometown of New Orleans. She’s going to go interview for a college program down there and she’s dreaming about moving in with her partner. She’s scrupulous about avoiding gendered pronouns when discussing her partner, which confuses me, considering both my self-presentation and hers.

But she doesn’t get along with her “father in law,” her partner’s father. She doesn’t say why, but she describes it as an irreconcilable difference that she is resigned to bear in order to be closer to her lover. It will all be worth it when she’s back in New Orleans with her significant other. Still, she keeps coming back to her father in law and their estrangement. I begin to wonder if she’s trying to communicate something in coded language, but I can’t quite hear it.

The Communist

As we approached New Orleans, a rather eccentric character attracts attention in the Sightseer car. He has all the style of a mid-life crisis: white hair long to the shoulders, a small ring in one ear, a wide-lapel shirt with a loud pattern printed on it, ill-fitting golf pants, stained white sneakers. He’s managed to get liquored up on the cans of warm Bud Light they’ve been selling at the snack bar, and he’s regaling a group of admiring GOP couples with tales of his deeds.

He wrote a bestseller. He’s independently wealthy. He has property in a bayou somewhere near New Orleans. He loves to go hunting. He hates the “socialist” government for enacting gun control. He thinks that, one of these days, all the upstanding folk of America will be looking down the barrel of a gun with agents of the state on the other side (he’s not clear about who’s pointing the gun at whom). He’s sick of lazy poor people not getting jobs and living like kings off of welfare. He thinks that the real problem with America is immigrants taking “our jobs” from “real” Americans.

And then, a moment of candor: “You know, I made a big mistake back in the 2008 elections: I voted for Obama. Yes, it’s true. I couldn’t stand that asshole McCain and I didn’t much like that Sarah Palin, so I voted for the other guy. But soon after the election, I realized that I made a huge mistake. He’s just…he’s…we’ve put a communist in the White House.”

Without missing a beat, his audience nods and mutters their assent, “Yes, oh yes. A socialist. Communist. Yes.” I, meanwhile, am wondering if the cognitive dissonance of this moment hasn’t broken my brain

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