Train Songs

There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind who were crucified for what they tried to show. And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time but the truth remains and someone wants to know.” – Kristofferson

In the morning dark, he stood in a cold corner at the entrance to the train station up in Michigan.  A young blind man was sitting on a vinyl chair across from him and they had in common their guitar cases.

“Looks like a narrow case ya got there, Dave,” he said.  “Must be electric, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah, it is.”

Dave pulled his white cane closer and tilted his head toward the voice.  A cab driver had dropped him at the station, referred to him by name at the end of his daily routine, and said Dave’s ride to work would be along momentarily.

“How long you been playin’?”

“About ten years.”  Dave had turned his head to face the speaker.

“Yeah, I’ve been at it about 40, myself,” he said.  “I play acoustic.  All I seem to do.  Hours and hours on end.”

When I looked at the guitar man, I was reminded of the fictional conversation between the young Kris Kristofferson and the grayed and wrinkled musician in a Nashville bar.  He sized up Kristofferson and his guitar and said, “It’s a rough life, ain’t it?”  The answer was, “Yeah, I guess so.”  “You ain’t makin’ any money are ya?”  “You been readin’ my mail.”

But this bard was no longer a boy and his chances of becoming Kristofferson had long ago expired.  His hair was strung in tangles from a bald spot on the top rear of his head and a pair of outsized glasses teetered crookedly on his nose.  The profile lacked a chin and his overbite almost hid the lower row of teeth.  A small shoulder pack was on the floor between his feet and it was covered with the kind of dirt and grease smears that come from years of sleeping under bridges and an open sky.  A frayed blue pullover sweatshirt was all that kept him from the cold and I noticed his canvas shoes were an unidentifiable color after the miles and the music.

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It’s Snowin’ on Raton

“What do you play?” Dave asked.

“Only my stuff.  All original.”

“Oh wow.  Hours and hours?”

“Yep.”

When the agent opened the door to the station, the guitar man seemed relieved to be indoors and sat quickly on a chair.  He pulled out a thick book from his backpack and it had the kind of clear plastic cover that protects library loaners from wear.  I watched him read and thought that he was consuming words like food but it was only a novel by an unknown author.  He turned away from the pages after a while and kept looking around at people until finally he stood and went to the ticket window.  I was a few feet distant

“Yes, I called on the 800 number last night and made a reservation?”

“What was the name?”

I did not hear the rest of the conversation but the ticket agent stood motionless and patient as the weary musician reached into his pocket and delicately removed several twenty-dollar bills.  He held them in front of him for what felt like a long time but I did not know if it was because they were so rare and precious to him or he wanted others in that room to see that he was in possession of money.  I watched him slowly count them off and then push cash in a neat pile under the window in exchange for a ticket.

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Westbound on the Southwest Chief

“I’m going to New Mexico,” he said.  I realized that he had been aware I was watching him make his ticket purchase.

“What’s out there?” I asked.

“Something different than here and it’s warmer.”

His tee shirt was thin and white and had the name of a painting company in black letters across his chest.  “Meyer Painting, LLC.”  I thought that maybe he had done some work for them to buy his ticket.

“Are you going to sing and play out there?”

“Mister, I’m going to sing and play wherever I am.”

“Yeah, I reckon so.”

He took up his book when he sat down and read for 30 minutes or so and then dug in his pack and took out a pencil stub and a note card.  I thought he might be making notes for lyrics but he quickly finished a scribble and walked back to the ticket window and slid the paper beneath the glass.

“Mam,” he said.  “You were very helpful to me and I just thought I’d give you this web site address.  In case you’re interested, all my music is there.”

She smiled, pleased that he had thought of her and maybe because she felt for a moment like she was doing something more than just the prescribed duties of her job.  When he got back to his seat he put down his pack and his book and picked up the guitar case and held it against his chest with his hands locked by intertwined fingers and he looked silently out the door to the railroad tracks.

I thought it possible the guitar was the only thing he had ever owned or maybe it was the only thing that had never slipped away.

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About James C. Moore

James C. Moore, co-author of New York Times best selling “Bush’s Brain” and three other books, communications strategist, novelist manqué, columnist without portfolio, Emmy winner, long-time TV guy, genial wiseacre, aging without grace.