Chicago to New Orleans, City of New Orleans, Amtrak Train No. 59
Every evening the City of New Orleans train is scheduled to depart Chicago’s Union Station at 8:05pm. Boarding this night train was like joining a large slumber party. People unpacked their blankets early, lodged cushions near their heads and tucked themselves in to seats in coach. Quiet came quickly. Every seat was filled. The Conductor announced: “Let’s all get along as if we were at grandma’s house for dinner.”
It was dark outside as we passed Chicago’s commercial loft spaces and warehouses. A full harvest moon was beaming light from the sky. We paused on a bridge. What I was actually gazing at in the sky was the Earth-facing side of the moon being lit by the sun’s light. During a full moon the Earth, moon and sun are all aligned. While on the train there was time to marvel at this beautiful alliance.
As my seatmate settled in, I recalled seeing him in the station ticket line with a young woman. Her arm was wrapped around his torso. He is not an old man, yet he looked frail, tall and thin with a tight face. After having his ticket inspected, the woman released her arm. He told me his name is Chris. He was getting off the train at Yazoo City, Mississippi. Of his decision to take the train, he said: “There’s too much going on at airports. I like staying on the ground.” He then asked my name.
His phone rang and I heard him say “Thank the Lord, Amen” several times. He took to calling me “Miss Mary.” A baby fussed several seats back. Chris tucked a white nylon skullcap around his head. He unfolded a blanket and closed his eyes. Clouds covered the moon.
Most of the people seated in this car were going to Mississippi. I knew this because as the conductor punched tickets he asked each passenger to confirm their destination. I read for a while then flipped up the leg rest beneath my seat. I placed my blow-up neck cushion against the window as a pillow and fell asleep. What I was anticipating I wouldn’t see until mid-day the next day.
I woke up in Memphis. The pale early light of morning surrounded the train. Chris was still wearing the white nylon cap. For those first few moments in the morning some passengers are a bit disoriented. Was the dining car open? Was there a vacant washroom? They stretched their arms and legs, tended to children, and asked the conductor, “Where are we?”
Chris has lived near Yazoo City, Mississippi all his life. He described it as “nice and calm.” He has worked at restaurants and sometimes as a laborer. He was in Chicago for his daughter’s wedding. Of the man she married he said, “He’s a good man. Treats her right.” I wanted to ask him about his life in Mississippi but his mind seemed elsewhere. Before Chris disembarked I did ask him about the white cap he wore. “It just keeps my hair in shape,” he said. “Keeps the curls tight.”
The train rolled on through Mississippi. When I saw the station depots it was like seeing old friends. Most of them looked as I had remembered them while working at the Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR). Some stations looked better than I remembered them. The State of Mississippi bought the depot in Jackson from the ICRR to preserve its history. It was built in 1927.
By noon we had reached Hazlehurst, Mississippi. I recalled an interview I did with freight train conductor John P. White for the ICRR company magazine. He was the road switcher between Hazlehurst and Jackson, Mississippi. His favorite part of the job was training the younger men. “I try to teach them four basic things,” he said. “Safety first. Strict discipline. A day’s pay for a day’s work. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The station at McComb retains a railroad maintenance shop and has added a small railroad museum with a collection of railroad artifacts. Outside, a restored ICRR steam locomotive and rolling stock were parked.
On the City of New Orleans passengers hobbled their way towards the observation and dining cars. It was a rough ride with cars swaying left to right. I asked the conductor about it. “It’s not unusual. Track maintenance is an ongoing thing,” he said. I asked the café car attendant what some of her favorite sites were on this route. “Honestly, I don’t get to see much. It’s mostly fields. But I do like going through the small towns,” she said.
In the café car I sat down with a man who is a journalism professor at a university in Memphis and an elderly lady who got on at Jackson. She was heading to New Orleans to see relatives. He was going to New Orleans to attend a conference. Being an election year, we started talking about politics. She would not vote for Hillary Clinton for president. “It’s not a lady job,” she said.
As we entered Louisiana the landscape changed. Cypress swamps and tree branches draped in Spanish moss came into view. Flat, low-lying wetlands spread out to the horizon.
The City of New Orleans train arrived at the New Orleans Passenger Terminal in late afternoon just in time for happy hour in the Big Easy. Chris would be back at his home near Yazoo City where it’s nice and calm.