Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Went out training last night for the first time in a while. When I say "training" I don't mean it in the educational way. I mean actually fishing for trains. It's a weird practice that involves a lot of driving around through iffy neighborhoods, listening for whistles, trying to interpret track signals and carrying around spare change to mush on the tracks.

There are at least three things that I really like about going training. One is that I get to hang out with my buddy Kirk and hear him talk about the underside of Houston. I always imagine that taking the tour of the sewers in Paris is a lot like driving around Houston with Kirk. He knows little things. He knows the people who live in the weird houses and he knows that they have no showers and when it's nice they step outside to bathe with the garden hose. He knows where to look near the steel plant to find a bohemian urban gardens where moms bring their home-schooled children to help grow communal veggies. He's taught me that there's so much involved in the inner workings of a city that you can only see it if you peel up the veneer and crawl underneath. And it's not just the history of Houston that that I enjoy listening to or the tweaky little urban oddities that I enjoy finding. It's also the story of commerce that I've osmotically picked up. In some revelation of the obvious, I discovered that commerce drives the metabolism of our country. Trains are the blood vessels, industries are the major organs, and we're just little fat cells, getting bloated on the transported oil, chemicals, cars, and gravel. This isn't the kind of stuff I'd have ever learned in a classroom (even if I had given a crap about social studies 30 years ago...)

The second is the feel of power you get when you're standing 8 feet from a rushing locomotive. Not that *I* feel powerful, you understand. It's the feeling that power is around you. This huge unstoppable metal object hurling past you at 30 or 40 miles an hour (out of the city it's a lot faster) giving you a feeling of vertigo when you stand close. It's probably like the rush tornado chasers feel, only, let's face it... they're really wacko. Trains stay on tracks for the most part. Tornados are a little less committal about direction. The worst you can say about a train chaser is that they're eccentric...

The third thing is that I've developed a real fondness for industrial architecture, and you get a lot of that around train tracks. Dead old train yards. Steel mills. Chemical plants. Manufacturing buildings and warehouses. Recycling plants. Old buildings, reused and repurposed (a corporate term that I usually hate, but it fit the cadence...) Years of patina, piles of unrecognizable old parts, and dirt roads carrying dumptrucks and bobcats.

A lot of that is going away, though, and it makes me sad. The rush to the inner city has driven up the price of land in our area causing developers to tear down these fabulous old structures, scrape the land, and put up acres of townhomes that will soon be owned by people who are going to complain about the trains. Soon those iffy neighborhoods - those untouched ghettos where you find watermelon stands, chickens running wild and people still sitting out on their porches talking with their neighbors - soon they'll give way to urbanized, cookie cutter townhomes. Young, daring professionals on an adventure to the inner city will move in and the people who've lived there for years will be displaced.

We've already lost a metalworks company, where we could watch the graveyard shift lathe out a bunch of stainless widgets, leaving telltale shiny curls piled in the dumpster. We've lost the anonymous manufacturing company that never had more than 10 days in a row of accident free work according to the posted sign. We've already lost rows of historic rowhouses, covered over in kudzu and probably housing major rat populations.

I miss them already.

But, it's not going to stop me from enjoying the chase. I'll just have to keep my eyes out for little pockets of history, and I guess I'll just have to start carrying my camera with me.

Along with a lot of change to mush on the tracks...

No comments: