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Harrison Scott Key| Longreads | October 3, 2023 | 14 minutes (4,055 words)
In 2014, the National Rail Passenger Corporation, best known as Amtrak, pulled off one of the epic marketing coups of U.S. railroad history—granted, there haven’t been many of late—when they announced the Amtrak Residency for Writers, where they would send 24 writers on cross-country trips, meals and beds gratis, to write the Great American Novel. The announcement of this perfect marriage of two beloved dinosaurs—trains and publishing!—set Twitter aflame, like hearing Panasonic and Oldsmobile had teamed up to launch a new line of gas-powered fax machines.
Around the same time, evil scientist Elon Musk announced his plan for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transport system where humans would be jammed into cans like Vienna sausages and shipped across the nation via pneumatic mail; meanwhile, Astronerd Jeff Bezos and his Amazonian Savings Monster continued to strip-mine the foundations of the literary ecosystem. So this little PR stunt by Amtrak, the desktop PC of the global travel industry, a national embarrassment to hide from your European friends, smelled of quiet revolution. Together, trains and writers would lay siege to the behemoth of late-stage capitalism.
Attention was paid. MacDowell, the celebrated New Hampshire residency, receives 4,000 applications a year. Amtrak received 16,000, including mine. Having just landed my first book deal, I was in urgent need of somewhere quiet to finish the manuscript, and when I think “quiet,” I think “trains.”
I knew just which one I wanted to ride. I was born hardly a mile from Central Station in Memphis, Tennessee, midpoint for that fabled locomotive of song, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans. As a boy, this train called me awake at my grandmother’s house in Greenwood, Mississippi, its sonorous horn summoning me to a day of biscuits and books. As a young man, the same train clattered over a derelict coffee house in Jackson, Mississippi, where I loafed on allergenic chesterfields and first dreamed my name onto a title page. As a grad student in Illinois, attempting to finish at least one story that would not induce suicidal ideation, I watched the City of New Orleans roll past the windows of another coffee shop, slow and steady. How perfect to ride this train while actually finishing a manuscript. I applied with gusto.
But alas, Amtrak did not pick me, and I was forced to finish that book at a residency in the Hamptons, like a peasant. Two years later, I applied once again, but the Amtrak Residency for Writers, that hope of insolvent rail barons and writers everywhere, had already disappeared without a trace. Subsequent books I wrote in my driveway in Savannah, Georgia, tortured by the sound of other Amtrak trains—the Silver Star or the Palmetto—while the City of New Orleans was out there somewhere, heaving its way through natal lands.
And so, earlier this year, with the idea for a TV pilot rattling through my brain, I decided it was time, finally, to ride the train that ran through the landscape of my young imagination. As an American author whose books command upwards of $3.09 on eBay, I could fund my own residency.
“Where will you sleep?” my wife asked when I announced this plan.
“I have no idea.”
“Will you poop on the train?” she asked, troubled at the thought.
“I assume so, in the designated areas.”
“It doesn’t seem safe.”
I’ve wandered solo across three continents, from Cannes to Kowloon, but maybe she was right. When I travel solo, I can lose my grip a little—neglecting hygiene and ordering Caesar salads nonstop. Generally spiraling. So I texted Mark, my oldest friend.
Mark and I met in ninth grade in Star, Mississippi, and have been best friends now for nearly 35 years, though we’re opposites in almost every way. I come from a tortured nuclear family of farm chores and football, while Mark was a peripatetic child of divorce, shipped from Mississippi to California and back again, an underage drinker lost in books and skipping school. I once discovered in his bedroom a waterlogged library copy of Plutarch’s Lives, three years overdue.
“You should return this,” I said.
“What are they going to do, arrest me?” he said.
His insouciance toward authority shocked my young soul. Senior year, I broke into the guidance counselor’s office and forged his school records, just so he could graduate.
“Thanks, I guess,” he said. He had the highest IQ in school.
After graduation, I took the academic track across six different states, covering my steamer trunk in diplomas and achievement, while Mark lit out for the horizon on the City of Neverland to guide raft trips, work in secluded mountain resorts, and play his guitar up and down river gorges for women who couldn’t easily run away, due to the gorges.
I wanted to write stories. Mark wanted to live them. I’ve never stopped seeking achievement and he’s never stopped seeking places to go, the Peter Pan to my Wendy. He even married a flight attendant, mostly for love, but also for the free plane tickets that allow him to join me for book festivals, readings, talks, and conferences across the nation. If I’ve got a king mattress booked, paid for by someone else, Mark’s there. He flies standby and always shows.
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Normally when we travel, I spend much of my free time back in the room, writing, while Mark wanders the city. A few years ago, though, I began to notice that whenever I got stuck on a story, Mark always had the answer, a suggestion that broke the block and carried me through. He had become a kind of muse, a talisman. I write better when he’s around, so much so that we’ve even collaborated on a script or two over the years, with Mark shouting ideas from a jacuzzi while I type. Maybe we could write something together on this train.
“Congratulations,” I texted Mark. “You’ve just been selected for the Amtrak Residency for Writers. Also, you owe me $350.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a train,” he said.
“It’ll be an adventure.”
“What’s the food like?”
The only thing Mark loves more than a trip is cheap, delicious grub—hamburgers most of all—and his grail is the burger at Port of Call, a tiny Polynesian-themed food chuck wagon on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. Mark’s a wayfaring evangelist in the Church of Saturated Fat, confronting heterodox servers about the origins of their meat and fearlessly contesting Yelp reviews that reek of heresy (“Best burger in town my ass!”). To paraphrase a meme making the rounds: the energy Taylor Swift fans have for her music, Mark has for Hebrew National chili dogs.
“We can start with pizza in Chicago and end with a burger in New Orleans,” I said.
“Can we bring our own food?”
“This is Amtrak. We can probably bring our own livestock.”
A month later, in June, we stand in the breezy colonnade of Chicago’s Union Station, a neoclassical block of limestone that makes most train stations look like a garden shed.
“This place is amazing,” I say, fondling a frigid column for inspiration.
“It’s so cold,” Mark says.
The most interesting part of this particular summer’s day in Chicago is that it’s actually winter. I fully expect to see narwhals nosing bergs in the river below us. We’re warmed only by the two Giordano’s pizzas we now carry, so heavy that they, too, seem fashioned of limestone. We picked them up minutes ago, along with six packs of smokes, two bottles of wine, assorted chip selections, candy, gum, and a case of beer for hydration.
Mark is almost 50 and I’m not far behind, but that’s the thing about traveling with old friends. You become young idiots again. Soon, we duck inside and behold Union Station’s palatial interior, two middle-aged Pinocchios inside a Gilded Age whale, and make our way to the Metropolitan Lounge, where Mark raids the complimentary snacks, adding Sun Chips and Sprites to our growing pile of foodstuffs.
“A writer cannot have too many powdered donuts,” he says, handing me a sleeve.
When the call comes, we heave our provisions into a rumbling underground cavern, where the City of New Orleans awaits us. Up close, she’s a mammoth prehistoric beast with a head nearly two stories high. We breathe in the heady fumes. Around the world, 75% of rail transport is sustainably electrified, but here on Amtrak, we burn old dinosaur bones. The fragrance of discovery! Diesel vapors loosen the circuits in my brain, preparing my mind for miles of collaborative writing and toxic hallucination.
“Remind me, what are we going to write?” Mark asks.
“I have a hundred bad pilot ideas,” I say. “We’ll get settled and hash it out.”
“I believe in you,” he says, though I can see he’s talking to the pizza.
A woman in a fun conductor’s cap studies our tickets and with a jerk of the neck sends us aboard the sleeper, whereupon we discover a hobbit-sized vault called a “roomette,” where we, two full-sized creatures of the race of men, will have to eat, sleep, write, and breathe in fraternal disharmony for a thousand miles. I fall forward into my seat as Mark falls into his, for there is nowhere else to fall. Our kneecaps greet one another with a holy kiss and soon we creep backward into Chicago dusk. The seats may seem small, but on Delta, they’d be business class.
“So, the TV show,” I say, but I’m interrupted by Ricky, our car captain.
“Dinner time!” says Ricky, handing us two menus.
“We have pizza,” I say.
“I’ll have the braised ribs in a cabernet reduction,” says Mark.
I cave, opting for the Thai red curry with “plant-based meatballs.”
While waiting for dinner to arrive, we have dinner. The pizzas defy Mark’s highest expectations. We crack open beers and make merry. Ricky soon returns with two additional beers and a pair of brown paper tote bags, marked “Beef” and “Vegan.” Mark winces through his salty entrée, while my plant-based meatballs taste like neither meat nor plants, but a secret third flavor profile you simply cannot find on faster, better trains.
“Okay, the script,” Mark says, as we scoot silently through the heartland. I begin to conjure possible scenes when Ricky interrupts again to announce that breakfast is at six.
“Would you like to eat here or take your meal upstairs?”
“The dining car will be fine,” Mark says, like a monocled tycoon. He cracks another cold one and I pour a cup of pinot. I would like to write, but the blood required in my brain is rerouted to my core to deal with my plant-based decisions.
“Let’s explore,” Mark says, and I agree, hoping that movement will aid digestion.
We climb up the narrow stairs to make our way aft. The gangway is steely and bright, very Death Star, with knobs and fat buttons that open the doors with a deep rattling swish.
In the dining car, we discover an elongated series of Waffle House booths and I make a note for us to return here with my laptop. Moving on to coach, dimmed now, we see a Grizzly Adams type, big as a Kodiak, snoring through his beard, dreaming of pelts. Through the windows, the landscape now gone dark, I see that we’re passing some small prairie village. We stroll through more cars, quiet fathers and sleeping sons in Cubs apparel, a klatch of women in hijabs. The snack bar car features a concession stand serving hot dogs and nachos. Mark wants a wiener, I can tell, though I’m not sure where in his body he plans to put it.
Back in our room, we’re sleepy. Together we attempt to transform the roomette into a pair of bunk beds, but the gallons of beer and wine we’ve poured into our livers have made such large puzzles difficult. Eventually, Mark claims the top bunk and climbs up.
“We’ve got all day tomorrow to write,” I say. “The morning is better anyway.”
“Let’s do it.”
Mark is always a let’s-do-it kind of friend, but it’s possible he was not listening, because I can now hear him snoring. Generally, though, I could propose we paddle a tandem kayak to Bora Bora and he’d consider it. His Neverland lifestyle is highly flex. He now sells life insurance over the phone, a remote job he can hate from anywhere.
As he sleeps, I find a notebook and prepare for the thrill of night writing as we juke through the fruited plains. Around two in the morning, my pen lost in the endless crevices of the world’s tiniest escape room, I awaken. We are stopped.
“What the hell?” Mark moans, above.
“Carbondale,” I say.
We step barefoot out onto the moonlit trackside pavement of this village where I once composed many plays, now mercifully decomposing in nearby landfills. In the dark, Amtrak employees wait patiently for the few stirring passengers to finish inhaling the heavier night air. The South creeps up on you. Home’s getting closer. The idling staff seem somehow both familiar and strange. Large people mostly, tall and rotund, not at all like the fastidious attendants of British Airways. This lot seems capable of throwing human bodies off the train.
Soon, we are back in our berth and dead to the world. At dawn, the train eases us awake as we hum through hills and trees that crowd closer, set to a yellowy fire by a low Southern sun. My notebook remains empty.
“Man, this is beautiful,” I say.
“What’s beautiful?” says Mark, above.
“I see nothing but a wall. I’m trapped.”
Central Station in Memphis, an instrument in delivering our nation’s musical genetic code from the Deep South to the world, has now, more than 100 years after its construction, petered out to a single track. But when you stand on the lonely platform at seven on a clear summer’s morn and look over the city, you can see why some bluesmen said to hell with everywhere else and stayed. I was born here, lived here for many years, and have never seen Memphis so pretty.
“Say, can you boys watch the door for me?” says car captain Ricky.
“What’d he say?” says Mark.
“He deputized us. Guard the door.”
Mark and I ensure no tramps hop aboard (yet another charm of the rails), and soon we are moving again. The next four hours we’ll chug through the Mississippi Delta. To prepare for a solid stretch of writing through this flat-earther’s paradise of swamps and soybeans, I gather a change of clothes and step gingerly to the bathing closet to revive my tired body. In seconds, I am covered in a rich lather and warmish water coughs its way onto my flesh as I’m lovingly thrown from wall to wall with each new curve. Refreshed, I return to find Mark eating the last gelid slice of Giordano’s as curly-headed Hereford cattle rocket sideways past the window, followed by an announcement encouraging passengers to flush.
“That reminds me. We should eat,” says Mark.
“We need to write.”
In the dining car, a server in Amtrak uniform—with the slight costume addition of an apron—takes our order, quickly presenting us with an omelet and pancakes that taste of motor oil, along with meat-based meat in both link and patty form. We don’t finish the food but appreciate the speed and friendliness with which it was presented. But the real luxury here is what we see through the windows: Swamp. Farm. Weeds. Cotton. Cow. Meth addict. Miles disappear, and so does our motivation. This view’s too good not to sit and stare, the way campfires make you do. Something about the endless movement invites easy contemplation.
“Greenwood! Greenwood!” comes the announcement an hour later. Porters run through cars like captains of the 82nd Airborne, rousing the paratroopers.
“Next stop, Greenwood!”
We disembark briefly to see the town where I first heard the siren call of this old train.
“This is a very historic place?” a blonde giant asks.
He studies the sad little station, looking around for something to photograph, an old courthouse or one of bluesman Robert Johnson’s dozens of possible graves. We can see nothing from here but a ramshackle depot that looks like it hasn’t seen a train since Bob Dylan sang freedom songs at the voter push in ’63.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Norway,” he says. “Where is your home?”
“Here, sort of,” I say. “My grandmother’s buried past those trees.”
The Norwegian Goliath looks past the trees, disappointed. Not even he can see that far.
Back aboard, we move to the observation car—a long-windowed box optimized for viewing the bountiful emptiness all around us—where a shindig has broken out. We’ve picked up many new travelers, ready to party in their Saints jerseys, cowboy hats, and shiny boots fashioned from the hides of slithering swamp creatures. Not much quietude for writing, but plenty of action for research. I count at least three Bluetooth speakers playing music at a full crackling roar—musica ranchera and Bobby Caldwell and Tina Turner. I see cans of beer, purple sacks of Crown Royal, and a woman with nails long enough to get her cast in the Wolverine franchise watching a cattle auction on her phone while eating Corn Nuts.
“I didn’t know they still made Corn Nuts,” says Mark.
“How many stomachs do you have?”
“I’m a complicated man.”
We haul out what’s left of our warm beer and pound a few in good fun. A multiethnic church group in matching T-shirts enters the car to pass out free candy and speak blessings upon us all.
An hour or so later, just past Yazoo City—where I was married—we climb up Loess Bluff and into deep, dark, dripping woods, where, with a great juddering jolt, the party train stops. Fallen power lines sizzle across the track up ahead, we’re told, as well as a few large trees for good measure.
“Could be an hour or two,” the engineer explains over the P.A. “Get comfortable.”
The passengers opt instead to mutiny.
“What the hell?”
“Where we at?”
“A reminder to flush the toilets!” comes a second aggrieved announcement.
“Y’all better be flushing them toilets!” says a passenger to everyone in the car.
The delay affords precious stolen hours to write, and we scoot forward to the hushed Waffle House car—empty—where I pull out my laptop and portable charger. Mark ducks out and returns with a cartoonish hot dog large enough to require its own ticket, setting to work on the massive link with knife and fork.
“How do you not weigh five hundred pounds?”
“This dog’s no good,” he says, finishing it.
Maddening silence descends. For all the green around us, we could be awaiting bandits in a Panamanian jungle. Minutes go by. Mark eats the last of the powdered donuts wistfully. He is out of food and I am out of inspiration, which has rattled on down the tracks without us. We sit in silence inside this hulking old beast, hardly a murmur from man or machine. I return to my screen, wondering at the emptiness before me. How many hours, how many lifetimes, have I sat across a booth from this strange and beautiful man in faraway places—from the frigid glacial shores of Wyoming’s Colter Bay to the briny paradise of South Beach—and tried to write? I’ll never stop trying to fill my days with words. I will die at a table like this, the cursor waiting for a new thought that will never come. I long for Mark’s ability just to sit with food and moan gratefully.
“I’ve got nothing,” I say, closing my computer.
“That’s cool, whatever,” he says.
I pull out the last bottle of red and, after fetching two coffee cups from the galley, pour us a drink. Writers need time, and Amtrak, it would appear, has all the time in the world. But maybe they ended the residency program for the same reasons Mark and I have written nothing on this train: There’s just too much else to do and see. America changing shape before your eyes.
“I love you, dork,” I say, the wine turning me watery-eyed. I’m spiraling.
“I love you, too,” he says.
We unload feelings on each other, the way near-drunk men will, grateful, meaning every wincing word. I talk of my darker days, which he and others brightened with love and care. He shares much of the same. What a gift, to have someone who knows everything about you and loves you anyway. I have so many people in my life demanding things from me: pages, rewrites, interviews, blurbs, money, mowed lawns, answers, food, water.
Mark is one of the few who requires only my presence—and my occasional thoughts about food. If he’s taught me anything, it’s that doing nothing, asking nothing, expecting nothing, is a precious skill to be mastered in a life well lived. Sometimes you have to do, but sometimes you can stop and just be, like this man. Like the City of New Orleans.
We lurch forward two hours later, the bottle empty, along with Mark’s four stomachs and the Microsoft Word document. We soon roll through Jackson and then plummet through the Piney Woods that stretch from here to the Gulf. The party car is quieter now, everyone dozing away their liquor. It begins to rain. We amble toward coach. I choose my place of rest among the many open seats as we lumber toward the Gulf. It’s been slow going, but that’s the point of Amtrak.
Planes always put me in a bad mood. They herd you like slaughterhouse fodder, compel you to undress among strangers, pat your crotch with gloved hands, gouge you for a club sandwich, shame you for bringing luggage, park you on overheated runways, dare you to hate your fellow man. Humanity is stolen in exchange for speed. Sure, you get there quicker. But who are you when you arrive?
We could’ve flown from Chicago to New Orleans in a remarkable 144 minutes. Mark and I will have managed the same journey in a little under 24 hours, counting delays, but you know what? Nobody yelled at me for bringing my own water. And while the roomette was indeed small, I was allowed to walk freely about the length of this wondrous machine and escape every so often to breathe in new air from some new town, while discussing my grandmother’s burial place with a Viking. They even let us bring a case of beer and three bottles of wine. Try that on United.
They say we’re on the “cusp of a passenger rail revolution,” thanks to a new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes “an unprecedented $170 billion for improving railroads,” which I can only assume includes meat-based meatballs and improved wieners, in addition to speed and convenience, though maybe we’ve got enough of both already. Maybe we need to slow the hell down.
I awaken from a nap to one of the dreamiest visions I have ever seen out a window: an ocean planet beyond the glass, placid water stretching as far as the eye can see, gray and wet as the sky—the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world. New Orleans materializes across the expanse, high-rises pushing up out of the water. Sublime is the word. Alien, though I’ve seen this inland sea a thousand times.
We slide quietly through estuary marsh and into the heart of downtown under the brutalist concrete arcs of I-10 and come, finally, to the station. The clouds break and the sun shines down hot as we step down off the train into the city that gave her its name.
A rotund man follows us down, and, tangled in his many bags, tumbles and somersaults onto the platform to great laughter and applause, hopping upright and with a fat smile declaring, “I feel blessed!”
“Port of call,” Mark says.
“I could eat,” I say.
We didn’t write a word, but I don’t mind. I’ve achieved enough for now. Mark and I have done something far more important on this old train: nothing. It was lovely.
Harrison Scott Key is the author of three nonfiction books, including How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, Congratulations Who Are You Again, and The World’s Largest Man. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.