The 20th Century

Michael Martone


In the 20th Century, the train named The 20th Century left New York for The Heartland, an all Pullman Consist, plying the mainline rails of the old New York Central known then and now as The Water Level Route.


On August 22nd, 1938 in the 20th Century, the consist of the train named The 20th Century consisted of:

Class J-3a (4-6-4 Hudson) steam locomotive: NYC 5450;

Class MP Postal car: NYC #4857;

Class CS Baggage-club car: NYC VAN TWILLER;

Class PS Sleeper (17-roomette): CITY OF CLEVELAND;

Class PS Sleeper (17-roomette): CITY OF DAYTON;

Class PS Sleeper (8-section 1-drawing room 2 compartment): CENTACORRA;

Class PS Sleeper (6-section 6-double bedroom): POPLAR PARK;

Class PS Sleeper (6-section 6-double bedroom): POPLAR HIGHLANDS;

Class PS Sleeper (6-compartment 3-drawing room): GLEN ANNA;

Class DA Dining car: NYC 654;

Class DA Dining car: NYC 655;

Class PS Sleeper (6-section 6-double bedroom): POPLAR GROVE;

Class PS Sleeper (13-double bedroom): MACOMB HOUSE;

Class PS Sleeper (13-double bedroom): PRINGLE HOUSE;

Class PS Sleeper (13-double bedroom): ONONDAGA COUNTY;

Class PS Sleeper (13-double bedroom): ASHTABULA COUNTY;

Class PSO Sleeper-Buffet-Lounge-Observation (1-drawing room 1-single bedroom): ELKHART VALLEY.


In the 20th Century, the train named The 20th Century, train #25, was an All Pullman Limited that departed daily from The Terminal, Milepost 0.0, each night at 5:00P (Railroad Standard Time) from Track 34, Westbound for The Heartland; the passengers boarding the train walked The Red Carpet that was rolled out, 100 yards along the high platform, the crimson pile woven with silver threaded letters, spelling out the train name, The 20th Century, in a streamlined stripes and san serif lettering; and The Conductor tipped his conductor’s kepi with one hand while the other hand held the pocket watch he watched as each passenger walked the 100 yards of The Red Carpet toward the doorway to the doorway of The 20th Century to be greeted there by The Conductor and given, by The Porter in a white tunic, a red carnation for the gentlemen and vial of perfume, named after The 20th Century, for the ladies, and then, after all were on board, cleared his throat and announced in a confidant voice the single word “’Board!” 


SAFE Employees make a SAFE railroad.  With SAFE employees, a railroad devoid of any mechanical safety devices CAN and WILL be operated safely.

Fog, rain, sleet, snow and other adverse weather conditions cannot and will not cause personal injuries, if the individual is a SAFE individual and knows how to function safely under such conditions.


In the 21st Century I am The Conductor on the train named still The 20th Century; and we have our Orders: Westbound, Depart The Terminal (Milepost 0.0), underground, emerging from the tunnel in The Heights and run Wrong Main on the Eastern Shore Line of the Hudson at Harmon (Milepost 32.7) crossing the river where it is not on fire at Albany (Milepost 142.2) with The Passenger Consist and proceed on The Main Line of The Water Level Route, Highballing with All Due Speed and obeying, when necessary, all Slow Orders but with no Meets or Passes, no sidings to be taken or trackage rights utilized or switches to be aligned or moves in reverse, only The Passengers to be transported, deliver safely and on time into The Heartland.


Westbound Slow Orders for the train named The 20th Century, and we are to proceed with caution, slow running as these rivers of The Water Level Route are still on fire:

The Grand River

The Huron River

The Maumee River

The Sandusky River

The Buffalo River

The Cuyahoga River

The Oswego River

The Mohawk River

The Upper Hudson


As The Conductor of the train named The 20th Century, I ride at the tail-end, the very last car, in what would have been, had this been the 20th Century train named The 20th Century, The Observation Car, but what is more accurately called The Caboose, also known, in the 20th Century, as a “crummy” or a “way car” or a “hack” or a “bozo wagon” or a “stay safe” or a “monkey wagon” or a “crumb box” or a “bobbler” or an “ape cage” or a “cabin car” or a “shove box” or a “kitchen car” or a “hack flat” or a “gorilla cage” or a “parlor shack” or a “go-cart” or a “shove car” or a “whiff wagon” or a “motel 4” or a “brain box” or a “brain car,” “brain” because that is where the brain of the outfit, me, The Conductor, lodges.


On the train named The 20th Century, I am The Conductor, The Brains of the Outfit, and together with The Engineer, The Fireman, The Brakeman, The Flagman, The Pullman Porters, The Passengers, and The Passengers’ Pigeons I am Westbound and Highballing at 10 miles per hour, having left The Terminal and heading for The Heartland one thousand miles away.


In the 20th Century, when named passenger trains like The 20th Century were pulled, on The Head End, by steam locomotives, hobos desired to “ride the blind,” the space between the steam locomotive’s tender and the first car that followed in The Consist (usually a baggage car) protected by the unused gangway gasket of the vestibule, protected from the elements and the eyes of The Engineer or The Conductor; there in The Blind of The Limited, a coveted seat, the stowaway right down the line, not stopping, into The Heartland.


In the 20th Century, in The Consist of the train named The 20th Century, The Observation Car was an enclosed observation car with the streamlining lightweight design of the carriage walls forming a tapered U shape toward the rear, and there, that observation car did not have, as many other named trains did, a rear-facing glass door that led to a an enlarged canopied porch-like open decked viewing platform enclosed by an elaborate railing, installed with a drumhead light that advertised the name of the train or the railway it ran on, all to give the passengers a pleasurable viewing experience of looking into the past, back to where the train had already been and to note, with additional pleasure, the optical illusion of perspective as the parallel rails in the train’s wake merged together in the fading distance; I have on this train, named The 20th Century, The Observation Car equipped with such a platform, and I do like to stand on the deck facing rearward as we roll Westbound and Highballing, seeing the throbbing light of the various fires illuminate the dwindling and darkening horizon in our wake, watching the rails of The Water Level Route weld together at what The Rules of Perspective call The Vanishing Point.


33. Employees MUST:

(a) Secure raised windows to prevent their falling

(b) Use every precaution to prevent fires

(c) Dispose of garbage, bottle, ashes, or other refuse material at designated locations.

(d) Avoid objects, obstructions, holes and openings, etc., to prevent tripping, slipping or turning ankle.

(e) Be alert to underfoot conditions that may contribute to slipping.

(f) Employees must stand clear of all tracks when trains are approaching or passing in either direction.  They must not stand on one track while trains are passing on another.

(g) Watch and prepare for sudden starting, stopping lurch or jerk when on equipment.

(h) While on running board of an engine, maintain secure handhold.

(i) Place and secure vestibule gates, chains or bars, before uncoupling or separating occupied passenger equipment, baggage, mail, or express cars.

(j) Replace and secure in a position clear of tracks, apparatus used in taking fuel, water, or sand.


In every direction, 360 degrees, I observe from my perch in The Observation Car how flat the flatness of The Water Level Route is as it stretches out in all directions (and stretches back through time) around the train named The 20th Century; the flatness only disturbed by drumlins of ruins, knobs and kettles of wrecks of pancaked elevators or collapsed barns or spent and sprung silos or grain bins and bunkers or smoldering water towers or crushed and rusted Quonset huts or splintered storefronts and smoke stacks along crumbing strata of streets that in the 20th Century were named Railroad Avenue running along the mainline of The Water Level Route, and, in the flat distance the flat distance is only disturbed (not by copses of trees or forested wood lots) by copses of leafless turbines (their blades unhinged and splintered) and petrified derrick forests; but The Water Level Route was always more or less level even before this most recent leveling when there were the hundreds of miles of close-rowed corn, postdating the primeval hardwood forest that was cleared to make way for the corn and way before that the endless freight trains of glaciers that ground through the country and then retreated only to return on a kind of schedule, centuries in length, that sanded down (in all directions) the lumpy aggregate that abounded, to sand, created the biased underlayment of the same sameness that would become (all these centuries later) The Water Level Route that I am—and my eye are—skimming over all these years of going over going and coming through this smooth though burned over and denuded and buffed and buttered landscape, deserted and abandoned, not stopping and always limited, the vanishing horizon all around me in all directions


(m) Handle freight, baggage, or material in such a manner that pieces will not fall.


In the 20th Century, the train named The 20th Century wasn’t the only named train as there were many others which included: The Commodore Vanderbilt, The Empire State Express, The Knickerbocker, The Zephyr, The Ak-Sar-Ben, The Whippoorwill, The Steeler, The Blue Bird, The Blue Comet, The Blur Ridge, The Blue Water, The South Wind, The North Star, The Humming Bird, The Diplomat, The Empire Builder, The Hiawatha, The Hoosier, The Pacemaker, The 400, The East Wind, The Twilight Limited, The Cardinal, The Shooting Star, The Land O’Corn, The Meadowlark, The Night Owl, The Clocker, The Zipper, The Phoebe Snow, The Cannon Ball, The Noon Flyer, The Planets, The Southern Crescent, The Peoria Rocket, The Curfew, The Silver Comet, The Silver Meteor, The Silver Star, The Auto Train, The Mercury, The Lark, The Midnight Special, and The Broadway Limited that in the 20th Century raced The 20th Century on the paralleling Right-Of-Way of The Pennsylvania through and through The Heartland.


In the 20th Century, crack trains like The 20th Century were Limited, not stopping at stations along the way, the slower trains shunted into sidings so that there would be no stopping to stay on schedule; so The 20th Century, a Limited All Pullman train of the 20th Century needed to take on Orders or Mail or even Provisions while on the move, not stopping, wresting the paper from poles extended trackside by station agents as the train sped by or canvas bags retrieved by hooks from scaffolding suspended overhead the way the superscript “th” levitates next to the car body of the “zero” when I type the 20,th the “th” a floating package, a bag of mail brought on board to be sorted as the train raced to the next station where the sorted mail would be launched back out, on the fly, to travel on with the momentum of the train’s not stopping only to land on some platform inert, inertia overtaken by gravity.


In the 20th Century, sand, which is a nonrenewable resource over human time scales, became extinct, consumed by use in hydraulic fracturing; the sand, held in a viscous suspension of water and guar, pumped miles underground to prop open the pressurized fissures in shale layers, disappeared underground, which is unfortunate as sand—glass sand, dune sand, quartz silica sand, volcanic sand, aragonite coral sand, garnet sand, olivine sand—is vital for the operation of a train such as this one named The 20th Century, which uses sand to increase friction between the steel rail and steel wheel, allowing for the initial forward momentum as well as braking, and the lack of the aforementioned sand necessitates the close inspection of the roadbed by me, The Conductor, of The Water Level Route for small piles of relic sand piles on the ties between the rails, left on the tracks by ancient trains in tiny helpings as they sanded the steel wheels on the steel rails of their trains as they headed, ages ago, Westbound, into The Heartland.


(p) Avoid rubbing face, arm or any part of body with hands while handling creosoted material.


The Finger Lakes are on fire: Cazenovia, Otisco, Skaneateles, Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock, Conesus as is The Thumb, Oneida; and the lakes of north eastern Indiana are on fire as well: Crooked, George, Bass, Clear, Barton, Fox, Lime, Long, Gage, Linta, Cedar, Story, Cree, White, Grass, Loon, Big Otter, Jimmerson, Snow, Hogback, Black, Golden, Hamilton, James, and Pigeon.


At the Head-End of The 20th Century; more than a mile away from where I, The Conductor, am stationed in The Observation Car; The Engineer, The Fireman, The Brake Man, and The Flagman operate and maintain the many locomotives, the slugs and slave engines, and the head-end power generator cars while being monitored, for efficiency and safety’s sake, by Dead Man Switches, augmented with a vigilance control that produces, every few minutes (and the amount of time that passes is random) an alert sound (a buzz or chime or chirp) that signals The Engineer, The Fireman, The Brakeman, and The Flagman to depress designated buttons on their consoles, and, if they fail to do so, the train will automatically be placed into a full emergency brake application, and The 20th Century will stop; those beeps, buzzes, and bells are transmitted to me here, all the way at the tail-end of the train, by means of radio, and broadcast on the squawk box in The Observation Car which is the way I communicate with the Head-End, over a mile away forward, and the crew there at their stations, and how orders are exchanged and messages delivered unlike the ways, long ago, the Head-End communicated with the Tail-End of The 20th Century in the 20th Century, with flags and flares and torpedoes and lanterns and hand signals and bells and air horns and whistles, the whistles that, even now, The Engineer, even now, still uses to warn those who might be waiting up ahead to cross the tracks at the grade crossing, sounding two long whistles and then one short one and then one long one to signal that we are coming through, and I hear that sound even now, drifting along, over a mile away, breaking over The Consist though there is no one at the crossing, not a chance that anyone up ahead needs a warning as The 20th Century Highballs Westbound.


In addition to the canopied platform, The Observation Car on this train named The 20th Century also has an extended-vision clerestory windowed cupola, projecting from the roof of The Observation Car that allows me to see, in all directions, behind the train and off in the great distances on both sides of the train and forward all along The Consist of The 20th Century, over all The Rolling Stock, The Manifest, all the way up to The Head End and The Locomotives there; and, on the roofs of all The Passenger Cars, I can observe the elaborate systems of The Dovecots for The Passengers’ Pigeons, which are also called Lofts or Roosts or Coops or Pens or Houses or Pigeonaires, and what with special apparati in The Observation Car’s extended vision clerestory cupola, I can manipulate the many hatches and doors and gates and passage ways in order to launch The Pigeons on their patrols and recover The Pigeons when they return from their patrols migrating, like a great river or wide lake, folding and flowing along with the long train and its cargo, The Passengers.


(q) Keep desk and other drawers closed when not in use.

(r) Avoid handling electric switches or turning on or off electric lights with wet hands.


A building of rooks, a watch of nightingales, a constable of ravens, a quarrel of sparrows, a band of jays, a charm of hummingbirds, a cast of hawks, a tiding of magpies, a bevy of quail, a wisp of snipe, a flock, a flight, a kit of pigeons; all of these different kinds of birds are gone, of course, lost, but their collective names remain—a murder, a congress, a fling, a cast, a gaggle, a covey, a brace, a brood, a squadron, a host, a rafter, a fall, a party, a flush, a colony, and a murmuration—and I think about those collective names as a (I will call them) dictionary of drones, The Passengers’ Pigeons, emerge from the doors and hatches and gateways, portals and passage ways of the system of dovecots along the whole spine of the Westbound rolling train named The 20th Century—an exhalation, an atmosphere, a saturation, a sublimation, a steep, a fog, a sleep, a dream.


The 20th Century proceeds Westbound and Highballing at a walking pace on Standard Gauge, hot-rolled steel rail of 130 pounds per yard weight in staggered 39 foot lengths in stretches that, here and there, were replaced by continuously welded rail halfway through the 20th Century (a ribbon of steel, a river of steel) so that the rhythmic click/clack over the joints disappeared from running of the named trains along The Water Level Route, but there are sections of joined rail even now that create, even at this low speed, an exhilarating anticipation in me of the next stutter over the expansion joint, a syncopated skip in the sliding static as the steel wheel flange slides over the steel rails, rails that are held by the elliptically bolted joint bars, nestled in the web between the head and foot of the asymmetrical I-beamed profile; and there it is, the “thunk” of the leading wheel of right side of the forward truck of The Observation Car, a kind of heartbeat that matches my slowed pulse, as The 20th Century limps and lumbers through an almost imperceptible downgrade toward The Heartland.


Before the 20th Century, before the signals, the semaphores and position lights and colored lamps and before radios and telephones and radio telephones that managed all the train traffic on all the rights-of-way with the help of electricity, the trains used hand gestures of its crews armed with bright flags and at night would be lit by the fire of flares or fusees or torpedoes and by hand-powered signals placed gantries spaced along the rights-of-way that allowed dispatchers of trains to raise and lower flags and pennants and often brightly painted wooden balls that when hoisted to the very top of the signal’s pole could be observed by the engineer approaching and indicate that all was clear, proceed with all due speed down the line; today, on The 20th Century, we are Highballing and Westbound, the tracks ahead are all clear ahead while in the cluttered gutters of the roadbed of The Water Level Route I see the discarded rotting ties left over from the maintenance-of-way and, in the edges of the ballast, in standing pools of steaming about-to-burst-into-flame water, a pole or two occasionally with a crooked crossbar and snapped wire of the old telegraphy, and also the gantries and posts of the ancient signals and switches, now long gone, and not needed as The 20th Century is the only train that today plies The Water Level Route, Westbound, Highballing at a walking pace to The Heartland.


In The Observation Car at the Tail-End of The 20th Century, I deploy The Aerostat, a lighter than air aircraft that attains its lift by the envelopment of a buoyant gas, a big balloon or blimp, that is attached to The 20th Century by means of a tether, an umbilical that connects to the Westbound and Highballing train and ferries data from The Aerostat to me, here, in The Observation Car, signals from the various Doppler radars housed aloft, where I can view, as the sweeping hand circles the scanning screens, the enhanced images of the surrounding atmospheres and weathers, the disruptions and disturbances of the sky, the furniture of the clouds—the stratus, the cumulus, the stratocumulus, the cirrus, the altostratus, and the cumulonimbus—and the electronic echoes of the backscattered aluminum tinsel chaff storms that still rage and the topography of the skyscrapers of smoke and curtain walls of the unquenchable fires ascending from the ruined and long-smoldering cities along The Water Level Route—Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Waterloo, South Bend; and there in the mix are the braiding tendrils made up of the blips of The Passengers’ Pigeons swirling around The Aerostat, which is peeking over the horizons, playing out on its string, another category of cloud, while that flock, that flight, sends me additional burbling data as their ultraviolet filters and infrared sensors and their speed sampling pitot tubes and radiation detectors collectively sniff the up-drafting convections; the downward looking Pigeons are downward looking, mapping out the nooks and crannies of the pockmarked landscapes and burning watersheds in mottled shadows the Aerostat casts down from above.


(t) Use torpedoes and fusees for signaling only; care must be exercised to avoid injury from explosion or burning material.


Aboard The 20th Century, stored in The Observation Car is The Encyclopedia from the 20th Century in many Volumes; The Encyclopedia’s gilded-edged pages are now deckled, eaten, years ago, by 20th Century insects such as silverfish, book lice, termites, and roaches, and the pages are foxed and, foxing, a brownish stain that looks as if the pages have been singed, scalded, or burned but that does not always affect the actual integrity of the paper pages only stains the paper in spots and along the edges; its causes are unclear but may include the light from the sun, atmospheric pollution, acidic contamination that was not completely neutralized during the manufacturing of the paper, fungal growth, the effect of oxidation of the copper or iron or zinc in the rag or wood pulp from which the paper was made, or high humidity; the foxed and moth-eaten volumes of The Encyclopedia I have on hand are Volume B; Volume H; Volume M; Volume W; Volume R; Volume V; Volume C; Volume Annual 1962; Volume G; Volume K; Volume S; Volume D; Volume I, J; Volume Annual 1955; Volume A; Volume L; Volume U, V; Volume E; Volume F; Volume INDEX; Volume 1938, Volume N; Volume X, Y, Z; Volume O; Volume Annual 1981; another Volume H; Volume P, Q; Volume T, Volume Annual 1926, Volume Appendix; Volume Annual 1996; the other Volume B which I leaf through as we make our way along The Water Level Route into The Heartland.


In the 20th Century, the train named The 20th Century was propelled by locomotives powered by steam (or, at least The 20th Century employed steam locomotives for a good part of the 20th Century until the steam locomotives were replaced by electric locomotives powered by diesel engines), the steam produced by heating water in a boiler until it turned to steam and then forced the steam into pistons that drove the driving rods that turned the driving wheels, steel wheels on steel rail, and, with a little sand for traction, drove the locomotive and all the cars of the trailing consist toward the destination, toward the end of the line; because the locomotive ran on steam and because the steam needed water to be made into steam and because The 20th Century was a Limited, a crack train that would not stop until it reached its destination at the end of the line, the steam locomotive that powered The 20th Century had to pick up water “on the fly,” which meant the steam locomotive’s tender, where the water used for making steam was stored, lowered a scoop that opened below the car and scooped up the water which was stored in mile long troughs between the tracks (a kind of channeled river, a placid finger lake), scooped up for the locomotive, the locomotive never stopping, and stored in the tender to be used in the future to make more steam to propel the engine that conveyed the train along The Water Level Route through the 20th Century; and even now, centuries later, I can see the ruins (the crumbling concrete troughs, the rusting metal pans) filled with stagnant water smooth and still but on the verge of catching fire there between the tracks going on for a mile or more as they slip out behind the platform of The observation Car, a kind of matte green carpet wedged between the tracks as they vanish in the distant past.


There are no hobos now who walk The Right-Of-Way of The Water Level Route, but back in the 20th Century they did, the Hobos, also known as “bindle stiffs” or “bums” or “tramps” or “vagabonds” or “drifters,” and one of The Conductor’s jobs would be to observe, from his perch in The Caboose, the unlawful unticketed transit on the train by The Hobo who would ride in the boxcars or the flatcars or the gondolas or the hoppers or the auto racks or the tank cars or the well cars with a single or double stack of containers or no containers at all or the cattle cars or the reefers where in the days before mechanical refrigeration, when blocks of ice were stored in bunkers at either end of the car, the hobos would hide in iceless empty bunkers to go unobserved by The Conductor and sometimes become trapped inside the iceless bunker on the ends of reefers, the trap door locking from the outside, only to die there without water or starve without getting where they were going, and that, I think, is where the name “Hobo” comes from, “Home” and “Bound,” an abbreviation, an abbreviation of “Homeward Bound” that goes back to the 19th Century and the soldiers of both sides in The Civil War, walking home after being mustered out, walking through all the Private Property by using the Rights-Of-Way of the railroads and sometimes, illegally and unobserved, the railcars of the railroads to take them home, wherever that may be, but what always was to them the heartiest of The Heartland.


A SAFE individual CAN work safely in the dark as well as in the light, if patience, care and caution are exercised.


I hear, from The Head End, over a mile away, the diminished chord bursts of The 20th Century’s warning whistle (two long, one short, one long) as The Locomotive approaches yet another grade crossing signaled by the sign (a black painted “W” on circle of white) planted yards before in anticipation of the intersection and sonic punctuation The Water level Route’s Right-Of-Way has right-of-way to cross the crossing, and then another sounding (two long, one short, one long) as the train continues, and over the squawk box come the warning sounds of the Deadman switch from the Head End cab where The Engineer, The Fireman, The Brakeman, and The Flagman respond to the prompt, indicating by depressing a button that they are still conscious, able to respond to the warnings, but I know that is not true, that there is no Engineer or Fireman or Brakeman or Flagman riding The Head End of The 20th Century as all those designations are obsolete, all have been automated long ago, the various tasks and operations wired into the cybernetic neural net of the train, the droning Passengers’ Pigeons feeding crumbs of telemetric data from their sampling clouds, murmurations swarming around The Consist, signaling the binary switch that switches the binary whistle, minor keyed and far way, wave after wave (two long, one short, one short) from The Head End drifting all the way back to me in The Tail End, pretending and tending The Passengers, deep asleep, on this Limited, All Pullman Express, Highballing into The Heartland.


“The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose…” Audubon wrote in 1813, and 100 years later, the dawn of the 20th Century, the last passenger, the endling of the species, died in Cincinnati, a ruined city to the south, where the Ohio River still smolders, I understand, as we now ply further north along the rails, Westbound, of The Water Level Route, and the train’s flock of Pigeons, not as vast or numerous as the flocks of old, I suppose, but impressive nonetheless, flow like an undulating pointillist river around and over the silver sides and tops of the shining corrugated streamlined cars that make up The Consist of The 20th Century, so thick in number and synchronized in their aerobatic maneuverings as to be consolidated into one endless skein of organic tissue that folds and unfolds upon itself, an endless printed paragraph with ragged margins left and right, kerned and turning, fine print scrolling page after page, the sound they are making in concert easily drowning out the occasional click/clack of the steel wheel on steel rail below my feet on the criss/cross tread of the aluminum floor plate reverberating in a shudder and thunk through the train, not unlike the ripping of rag paper, an endless zipping tear as they bank and turn and stall and rise in schoolish unison.


The Consist of The 20th Century is mainly made up of Sleepers as this is an all Pullman train of passenger cars configured into compartments of double berths and dormitories of double or triple bunks that run the whole length of the car or stair-stepped roomettes; there is no need for (and there are none in The Consist) coaches nor day cars nor drawing rooms nor lounge cars nor parlors nor diners as there were on The 20th Century in the 20th Century, neither a barber nor a stenographer nor a manicurist nor a governess for the children as there are no children as passengers now, and The Passengers who are passengers on The 20th Century, an all Pullman Limited, are asleep in their berths, their compartments, their rooms and roomettes, their bunks, and their beds; the output of their telemetry making a sonorous sawing, the tractor fed chart folding into trays I examine and cancel, here and there, punched with my antique ticket punch through the brooding collection of dot-printed matrices of dot, dot, dot, dot.  


At night as The 20th Century Highballs Westbound, I like to stand in a vestibule between passenger cars, open the top half of the Dutch door letting the air enter as it moves by, in from out in The Middle of Nowhere on The Water Level Route, heading for The Heartland, and the accordion gasket that encloses the gangway between the cars breathes in and out as the train drifts along the rolling ballast of the underlying roadbed accompanied by the creaks and dings and pings of metal sliding on metal, a chain chiming somewhere; I see the night sky through the cloud of Pigeons pacing the train and there beyond the criss/cross cloudy streaks of glowing fossilized contrails that cut through the other clouds {(the cirrus and the stratus and the cumulous) illuminated in the night by those erratic sparks and flashes, a lightning telegraphy} like luminescent ribs of a ship or cathedral nave, the hundreds of contrails that never dissipate, but permeate, permanently boring holes through the sky, tracks and traces of inexhaustible and inarticulate sentences.


Safety is of the first importance in the discharge of duty; obedience to the rules is essential to safety and is required; in case of doubt or uncertainty, the safe course must be taken; to enter or remain in the service is an assurance of willingness to obey the rules; the service demands the faithful, intelligent, and courteous discharge of duty; to obtain promotion, ability must be shown for greater responsibility; suggestions from employees intended to promote safety, economy, or improve service, are solicited and will receive consideration.


“.,” a “period;” “,,” a comma; “?,” a question mark; “!,” an exclamation mark; “’,” an apostrophe; “”,” a quotation mark; “…,” an ellipsis; “-,” a hyphen; “--,” an n dash; “---,” an m-dash, “:,” a colon; “;,” a semicolon; the cars of The Consist are coupled between the cars by couplers, connecting each unit of the train into a train, like ligatures between letters in cursive writing or the ones in type printing—fi, fj, fl, ff, ffl, fa, fe, fo, fr, fs, ft, fb, fh, fu, fy—that look like, now that I print them, like the ties between the rails (known also as “sleepers”) that blur together below your feet as you step from one car to the other along the jointed diamond tread gangways over the automatic couplers that hold the train together and make the cars of The Consist; the Janney “Knuckle Coupler” (also known as the MCB/ARA/AAR/APTA Type E, Type F, Type H), I think, looks like, when I look at it from above, the ties oscillations below it, a semicolon of sorts, the period swallowed by the comma, the sudden stop and the long pull of the pause.


At night, the rivers that are on fire along with their tributaries, the creeks and brooks and rivulets and springs and streams and kills, all on fire, look like red molten carpets rolled out for The 20th Century, and the night sky I observe from The Observation Car is sparking, showering clouds of meteors that look like flocks of Passengers’ Pigeons who in the shadows of the extinguished meteors shadow the meteors’ vectors and stalls, their interceptions and evasions; there is no other light but this grounded combustion, this weary incandescence of dying star dust, and the pulsing afterthoughts emanating from the green screens that surround me, refreshing, sweep after sweep, signaling no contact, no bogie, no hostiles, no nothing out there out there.


Even in the 20th Century, few people understood the lyric found in Blues songs saying, “I’m gonna leave this town, gonna ride the blind,” the sheltered spot between the locomotive’s tender and the baggage car of a crack limited, a fast express, like The 20th Century that plied the rails of The Water Level Route from The Terminal to The Heartland and, because it was so fast, scooped up water the steam locomotive needed “on the fly,” spring, summer, fall, and winter, and, because it was scooping up water “on the fly,” not stopping, the scoop slicing through the water in the track pan, throwing a wake of excess water back toward the blind, super cooled by the winter’s winter temperature, the velocity of the spill, and the chilled exposed metal of the streamlined baggage car the splash froze instantly and encased any hobo in the blind in an icy ice sculpture of ice, flash frozen, only to be discovered at End of the Line deep in The Heartland icily encapsulated on the fly in ice coating the grooves and flutes and baffles of the silver streamlined baggage car of the blind; I think of that as I walk the passageways of the all Pullman Consist, the Passengers all in their berths and bunks, their drowsy robotic Porters monitoring their suspended stasis, the monitors sighing and snoring, electrically dreaming as The Passengers sleep, and in the middle of the night on the platform of The Observation Car, I look back into the past of where the train has been and into the constellations of all the fires burning, singing to myself, the click/clack keeping syncopated time, that I’m leaving, I am riding the blind, waking from what I thought it was to be sleeping only to wake up in The Heartland in The Middle of Nowhere at The End of the Line.


In The Observation Car, I can scan with a bank of scanners the whole spectrum of frequencies, skipping from one modulation to the next, searching the oceans of air for anything (a voice, some music, a baseball game, other named trains plying other routes—The Mainline of Mid America, The Nickel Plate Road, The Route of the Rockets, The Broadway, The Way of the Zephyrs—or even, in the static, the nicknames of railroad reporting marks—The Cheap and Nothing Wasted, The Backward and Obsolete, The Erie Lackatraffic, The Yellow Dog, The Grand Junk, Nights and Weekends, Take Pity and Walk, The Onion Pacific, The Moron, Lousy and Nogood, The I Can’t Go, Bashed and Maimed, The Shake, Rattle and Roll) the scanner skipping through the channels

  • 07 160.215 Chicago West Pullman & Southern - Yard

  • 08 160.230 CSX - Road - Former B&O/C&O

  • 10 160.260 CN/EJ&E - Yard

  • 11 160.275 CSX - Ready Track

  • 12 160.290 CSX - Dispatcher-RB (Calumet City)

  • 13 160.305 Terminal Operations

  • 13 160.305 Iowa Interstate - Yard

  • 14 160.320 CSX - Dispatcher (Calumet City)/SA (Monon)

  • 15 160.335 BNSF - Engine House - Cicero

  • 16 160.350 CN - Road - Matteson Subdivision

  • 18 160.380 Belt Railway - West Yard

  • 19 160.395 CSX - Yard - Barr-Westbound

  • 20 160.410 UP - Road - Villa Grove Subdivision

  • 22 160.440 Metra - Road - Southwest Subdistrict

  • 25 160.485 Indiana Harbor Belt - Road - Dispatcher

  • 25 160.485 UP - Road - Milwaukee Subdivision

  • 26 160.500 Belt Railway - Road - Dispatcher-South

  • 28 160.530 CN - Dispatcher - South Bend Subdivision

  • 31 160.575 UP - Yard - Global One/Proviso Tower

  • 31 160.575 Wisconsin & Southern - Road

  • 32 160.590 CN - Road - Subdivision/South Bend

  • 35 160.635 Chicago Rail Link - Yard/Transfer

  • 35 160.635 CSX - Dispatcher-AW (Grand Rapids)

  • 36 160.650 BNSF - Road - Chillicothe Subdivision

  • 39 160.695 Belt Railway - Road - Dispatcher-North

  • 42 160.740 Amtrak - Yard

  • 43 160.755 CN - Road - Freeport Subdivision

  • 44 160.770 CP Rail - Road - C&M/Fox Lake Subdivision

  • 46 160.800 NS - Road - Chicago Line (former Conrail)

  • 49 160.845 CN - Yard - Gateway Intermodal

  • 52 160.890 UP - Road - Geneva Subdivision/Rockwell

  • 54 160.920 CN - Road - Joliet Subdivision

  • 57 160.965 Belt Railway - Hump Yardmaster

  • 58 160.980 Indiana Harbor Belt - Road - Dispatcher

  • 59 160.995 BNSF - Yard - Corwith

  • 60 161.010 NICTD - Road/Mobile

  • 61 161.025 Metra - Road - Electric District

  • 62 161.040 UP - Road - Kenosha/Harvard Subdivision

  • 64 161.070 Norfolk Southern - Yard - Ashland/Colehour

  • 65 161.085 CP Rail - Road - Davenport Subdivision

  • 66 161.100 BNSF - Road - Chicago Subdivision

  • 69 161.145 Union Pacific - Yard - Dolton

  • 70 161.160 BNSF - Yard - Cicero/Road - Aurora

  • 71 161.175 Union Pacific - Yard - Proviso

  • 72 161.190 CN - Road - Chicago Subdivision

  • 77 161.265 Amtrak - Car Department

  • 78 161.280 Union Pacific - Road - Joliet Subdivision

  • 79 161.295 CN - Road - Waukesha Subdivision

  • 80 161.310 CSX - Yard - Barr-Eastbound

  • 82 161.340 Metra - Road - Rock Island District

  • 83 161.355 NICTD - Road/Repeater

  • 84 161.370 CSX - Road - Monon Subdivision

  • 84 161.370 CSX - Yard - 59th St. Intermodal

  • 85 161.385 BNSF - Road - Mendota Subdivision

  • 88 161.430 CP Rail - Yard - Bensenville

  • 89 161.445 Belt Railway - East Yard

  • 91 161.475 CN - Road - Leithton Subdivision

  • 91 161.475 Manufacturers Junction - Yard

  • 92 161.490 Norfolk Southern - Road - Chicago District

  • 93 161.505 Amtrak - Road - Michigan Line

  • 94 161.520 CP Rail - Road - Elgin Subdivision

  • 95 161.535 IHB - Yardmaster-Gibson West End

  • 97 161.565 IHB - Hump Yardmaster-Blue Island

that then returns to the top of the list and scans again searching for something, anything only to land on an articulate hush—only two long nothings of silence, one short empty of absence, and one long nothing of nothing.


We have arrived On Time; The 20th Century terminates at The Union Station in The Heartland where, in the 19th Century, the railroads met to establish Railroad Standard Time robbing the sun of its sole power to set time so that the schedules of the limiteds and expresses and locals and milk runs and flag stops and commutes and shuttles and switches and interchanges and transfers and through cars and extras and specials and mixed consists and shunts and meets and dedicated fast freights and holiday charters and tourist run-bys and work trains and business specials and whistle stops and reverse moves and RPOs and fast mails and hazardous materials and cattle cars and reefers and empties and deadhead moves would depart and arrive on time; and on time we cut the Pullman Consist from The 20th Century and set the cut on a siding in the yard of tracks beneath the Union Station and run The Locomotives back around to couple with the Observation Car and then proceed to the wye and wye around so that the depleted Consist now is heading Eastbound and ready to Highball while the Pigeons reconnoiter the canyons and the cliff faces and send back the news that the river here is still a river running the wrong way from a lake that seems to be a lake, and I set the timers that will incubate The Passengers, nudge them to waking, start the clocks again for all of them, who thought, when they went to sleep, they would be transported, transported to another place and thought they would wake up on Mars or the Moon or a moon of Saturn or another Earth or a station in space or in some other solar system or some other dimension but instead will wake up in The Middle of Nowhere in The Heart of Country where the days and days have piled up and where endless nights are stored, a city of big sleeps, the nation’s freight handler after all, with plenty of time to think about time on their hands.


After delivering The 20th Century, The Conductor will Deadhead, Eastbound, to The Terminal (Milepost 0.0).  Those are my Orders. I depart, deadheading, back down The Water Level Route, following the trail of sand and the beacons of fires.  The Water Level Route—without the shifting speeds and gravities of mountains and valleys, tunnels and bridges—advertised that the passengers in the all Pullman consist could sleep.  The Conductor can never sleep as he is The Brains of the Outfit. And, even now as I Deadhead I find it hard to sleep. I find myself counting things. Not sheep. There are no sheep.  I count the countless stars that are still falling. I make lists of lists. I break apart The Consists of trains and assemble them in the classification yards. I listen for the occasional click/clack of expansion joints that disrupts the continuously 130 pound welded rail.  Count the sleepers asleep between the rails. Say the names of places. Find the places for the names. Retrieve my orders on the fly. Fill in the blank spaces of the forms. Stay SAFE. Do the paperwork. Punch the tickets. Connect the dots on the maps. Erase the spaces. Train myself to become lost.  To lose.