Friday, April 07, 2017

Fifty years ago: Last Run of No. 190


It's really been 50 years. I was all of fifteen years old. On the evening of April 7, 1967, I boarded a Trailways bus at the Iowa City bus terminal in the old Burkley Hotel for Cedar Rapids. From there I had to find the address of the Rock Island Lines depot, which turned out to be in the downtown freight yard. I had already bought the ticket back to Iowa City. I was a little bit worried about finding the station, though, as there were no buses back home until morning. But after walking what seemed like a mile ( it wasn't) from First Avenue, I came to the little cinder-block station and found I had lots of time to spare before the train came in. There was a Des Moines Register reporter of the station who talked with me.

I was there to ride the last run of Rock Island Lines' No. 190, the last vestige of the Zephyr Rocket, a Minneapolis-St. Louis streamliner jointly operated by the Rock Island and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. The train debuted in 1941, with a sleeper and observation-lounge, as well as reclining seat coaches. By the mid-sixties it was coach-only, but the railroads kept it running until the Post Office canceled the mail contract. Without the Railway Post Office, the lightly-patronized train would become a big money-loser, and the two railroads petitioned for discontinuance in late 1966. After a series of hearings the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the petition.

So I was there on the platform as the train came in, led by a single diesel locomotive, followed by the R.P.O, the baggage car, and a single coach. I snapped a picture of the coach before boarding. I had a simple Kodak camera with a flash attachment. The big press bulbs I had bought captured the image.
On board, I met two other railfans--Don Hofsommer, who was an instructor in history at Oklahoma State, and LaVerne "Andy" Andreessen, who had earned his master's in accounting at the State College of Iowa (now University of Northern Iowa), and was engaged to be married. (Sadly, I learned that Andy, a longtime accounting professor at UNI, died in 2009 when researching this piece.) The would be operating south to Burlington, where the equipment would turn and return to Minneapolis. Don offered to pay my fare to and from Burlington, but I had to decline--the northbound train would be too late for me to make my connection at West Liberty. I talked about trains with my fellow railfans until I got to West Liberty, where I'd have a long wait for my connection--No. 9, the former Corn Belt Rocket. I didn't know it at the time, but No. 9 would be gone--technically consolidated with No. 5 between Chicago and Rock Island, and discontinued west of there. It was also a victim of the Post Office's decision to cancel the mail contracts.

The Minneapolis-St. Louis corridor, in a civilized country, would have high-speed trains traversing the route. Instead, we Midwesterners are going to have to fight to keep the few trains we have. It's still possible to go between St. Paul and St. Louis by train, but with a change of trains in Chicago. And if the Trump Administration has its way, the St. Paul-Chicago link will be gone by the end of September. Once again it's time to repeat author Peter Lyon's line from To Hell in a Day Coach: "Passengers of America Unite! You have nothing to lose but your trains!

Thursday, February 02, 2017

From The Presentation at the Temple to Groundhog Day

Here in the States, February 2 is Groundhog Day. But that celebration springs from the ancient Christian holiday of The Presentation at the Temple, or Candlemas, along with various pre-Christian festivals it supplanted. The holiday stems from the Jewish purification rite for women after childbirth, which takes place forty days after the birth of a male child, as well as the ritual of the redemption of the firstborn, which exempts the firstborn not of the Levite tribe from priestly service. The story of the purification ritual is found only in the Gospel of Luke:
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
-Luke 2:22-38 (NRSV)

The story refers obliquely to the Holy Family's poverty. Leviticus 12 states that the woman “shall bring
to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.” But, “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” Luke's audience would have been aware that the offering of two doves was an indication that Joseph and Mary could not afford a lamb.
Luke also gives us the prophetic stories of Simeon and Anna. Simeon, for whom it was prophesied that he would not die until he had seen the Annointed, responds to his encounter with the infant Jesus with poetry and prophecy. Anna, who reminds us that prophets are not always men, proclaims the Savior.
So how did the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord become Groundhog Day? The early Christian bishops were expert at co-opting local festivals, and most of them were willing to look the other way when elements of paganism showed up in the celebrations. The Presentation, forty days from Christmas, coincided with the Celitc feast of Imbolc, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and the Germanic celebration of the bear.
At Imbolc, the festival of the goddess Brigid, usually celebrated February 1, the Celts went out into the fields with torches to bless the land about to be plowed.
Lupercalia honored the Lupercus, the god of fertility and shepherds, and was celebrated February 15. Part of the festival was to purify the city. Plutarch described another aspect of the celebration:

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Thus, the festival tied in well with the Purification.
A third pagan festival, from which Groundhog Day developed, was the Germanic celebration of the bear, marking the time bears came out of hibernation to check on the weather. According to the Wikipedia page, “Candlemas,” the “festival was characterized by bear costumes or disguises, and mock rapes and abductions of young girls.” There were also torchlight processions.
So the Church's Feast of the Presentation absorbed elements of all these pagan festivals. The torches were replaced with candles, and the celebration became known as Candlemas. And the bear seems to have been replaced with a large rodent, which provides a raison d'être for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so he's predicted six more weeks of winter. I'll go with that. I'm not up to going out with at torch to seek a bear's lair.

(Image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Presentation at the Temple, 1342 (Uffizi, Florence)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Mother of Vice Presidents

I should have known. As soon as Donald Trump chose Mike Pence as a running mate, he was bound to win. You see, Mike Pence is a Hoosier. "Indiana is the mother of Vice Presidents; home of more second-class men than any other state,” quipped Thomas R. Marshall, of Columbia City, Indiana, who also served as Woodrow Wilson's vice president.

Marshall was exaggerating, but not by much. The Hoosier State has provided the nation with five vice presidents, with a sixth waiting in the wings. There was a good reason for three of them—Indiana was once a swing state. That's hard to imagine now, given that it rarely goes Democratic in national elections, but in the time between the end of Reconstruction and the First World War, when much of the Democratic Party was southern, the state was almost evenly divided between the two parties. Other swing states were Ohio and New York. Because Democrats held “the Solid South” and Republicans controlled New England and the Great Plains, a presidential candidate who carried New York and either Ohio or Indiana would win the presidency. Presidential candidates normally came from New York or Ohio, while Hoosiers were often slated for the second spot. While the first Hoosier VP, Schuyler Colfax, Ulysses S. Grant's first VP, served before the Swing State era, the next three fit the pattern: Thomas Hendricks, who served briefly under Grover Cleveland; Charles W. Fairbanks, William Howard Taft's vice president; and Marshall.

After the First World War, Indiana became solidly Republican, going Democratic only in the landslide elections of 1932, 1936, 1964, and 2008, so it seemed unlikely that the state would produce any more “second class men.” Yet it has. Vice President George H.W. Bush, was not only 64 years old when he received the Republican nomination, but Reagan conservatives suspected him of being too moderate. He needed a younger and more conservative running mate to balance the ticket. Forty-one year-old Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who had beaten the legendary Senator Birch Bayh in 1980, fit the bill.

And this year the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, had a problem with the Religious Right. Trump may be a Presbyterian, but he isn't terribly religious, as his reference to Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” demonstrates. The most prominent Evangelical conservative of the 2016 campaign was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. But Cruz had denounced Trump for insults to his wife and father and had initially refused to support the GOP nominee. Enter Indiana Governor Mike Pence, with sterling evangelical credentials.

In following posts, I'll look at Indiana's vice presidents, beginning with Schuyler “Smiler” Colfax, vice president from 1869 to 1873.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Anne Therese "Terry" Strader, R.I.P.

I'll never have another chance to beat Terry Strader at Scrabble, though even if I did, my chances would be about the same as winning the Powerball jackpot. She always won. But the prospect of beating her wasn't the reason I looked forward to those games at her dining room table in Davenport, Iowa. It was Terry's calm, reassuring voice that told me things were going to be all right, that Kathleen and I could get over the next hurdle.

Back in the fall of '72 I met a lovely young woman at the University of Iowa's Currier Hall cafeteria and I was smitten. Kathleen Crews and I were married in August of '73, in the Rose Garden of Vander Veer Park in Davenport. We were deeply in love, but that doesn't always fix everything. Things didn't always go smoothly.

But beginning in August, 1975, we had a support system. In the summer of that year we happened upon Terry Chouteau on the St. Ambrose College campus, who warmly invited us to her wedding to George Strader, a young man she had rescued from the school's pre-seminary program. And perhaps because of his near-brush with the celibate, priestly life, Terry and George were champions of the institution of marriage. And that included ours.

Their wedding Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose campus was a wonderful affair, with children from the Bethany Home in Moline, where both Terry and George worked, playing roles in the ceremony.

And as the years went on, our visits to the Straders were magical. There was “The Flame,” a winter gathering at what was then Terry's grandmother's house on Newberry Street, where a dozen or so of us sat around the fireplace on the rear sleeping porch, talking and munching on snacks. The highlight of the night was her brother Tom Chouteau's telling of “Nate the Snake,” an interminably long tale with a groaner punchline, but at their gathering, it just added to the magic.

More often it was just a visit, first at their walk-up apartment on West Third, then at their little house on West Fourth, and later at the Newberry Street house that became their home. We'd feast on Harris Pizza and then settle down to a friendly game of Scrabble, which Terry would inevitably win. But it was her soft, even-toned voice that provided us the magic, the unstated message that our marriage was more important than the stresses that sometimes went with it. And when we decided to have children, they supported us in every way they could, including becoming godparents to all three of our children.

Terry and George had five children, and they were all born by Caesarean section. She once joked that the doctors should just install a zipper across her mid-section. Of course, they were way ahead of us in the grandchild department.

Kathleen and I were both looking forward to the time I could retire. We'd move to Davenport and see a lot more of the Straders. Maybe they'd even have a Flame, with the iconic retelling of Nate the Snake. But then, sometime in 2014, Kathleen got the news that Terry had been diagnosed with Stage Four ovarian cancer. It's one of those cancers that's rarely detected early and has a pitifully small survival rate. But her daughter, Jennifer Rakovsky, who had overcome her own battle with cancer, got her into New York's Sloan Kettering Medical Center. And we got our hopes up. Way up. Terry can do magic—surely the magic will rebound on her.

And for a while it seemed to be working. The rounds of chemotherapy had not only kept her alive, but she recovered to the point where she was looking healthy. Last August Terry and George they had a 40th wedding anniversary celebration at St. Mary's Parish House. The magic returned. Terry looked radiant as she and George were showered with love from friends and family. And it was a time for friends and family to reconnect with each other, as well. One magical moment came when Kathleen and her friend Dixie Baker Lewis linked arms and sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
Shortly after the celebration, Terry and George went back to New York, where she was to receive some kind of experimental treatment. We didn't hear anything for quite some time. Then in November she came down with a high fever. After the fever finally broke we learned that she would be evaluated—she'd either go into rehabilitation therapy or hospice care. And a few days later we learned she was going into rehab. Once again, our hopes were up.

Flash forward to Saturday, January 9. I'm on the phone with Kathleen, who's in Davenport to move her mother from an independent living apartment to nursing home care. She's under quite a bit of stress. So I'm in front of the computer with Facebook open, and I see the line, “Terry is back home on Newberry Street!” That exclamation point must mean good news. I was excited enough to read the line to Kathleen. But longer Facebook posts have that “See More” link you have to click on, and when I did, I found the it was anything but good news. Terry and George had been transported from New York to Davenport by private ambulance, where she would receive hospice care. I wasn't ready for it. Neither was Kathleen. The only good news was that she would die in her beloved home surrounded by friends and family. The end came only a few hours after I read the message.

Terry's gone, at least in body, but we still have the magical spirit she passed on. She spent forty years teaching all of us her brand of magic. I pray that we've learned well.




Saturday, October 17, 2015

Confessions of a Closet Conservative--my review of Sam Tanenhaus's "The death of Conservatism."


The Death of ConservatismThe Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More than once I've been accused of being a conservative. That seemed strange, given that I marched against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, cast my first presidential ballot for George McGovern, and proudly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I was briefly a member of both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Friends of SNCC. But a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus at a used book store, and realized I was guilty as charged. And that I was still a liberal.

I probably wouldn't have bought the book if it hadn't been for the author's name. I went to high school with his older brother Michael, who's now a psycholinguist at the University of Rochester, and I was curious to read something by Sam, whom I'd seen but never met. The book came out in 2009, to wide acclaim, though some critics have suggested that the reviews might not have been so positive had Tanenhaus not been the New York Times book review editor at the time.

More recently it's been dismissed as false prophecy because of the Tea Party victory in the 2010 elections. But after a rereading, I'm convinced that while Tanenhaus was premature in declaring the death of what he calls “movement conservatism,” his analysis holds up.

“What we call conservatism today,” Tanenhaus writes, “would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who in the late eighteenth century set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the 'organic' unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.”

In his most well-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke, writes Tanenhaus, “warned against the destablilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind. The Jacobins—in particular Robespierre, who proclaimed a 'despotism of liberty'—and more moderate figures, too, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions of what Burke called 'civil society.”

Burke sympathized with the American revolutionists, says Tanenhaus, because they, “unlike the French rebels, didn't seek to destroy the English government; on the contrary, they regarded themselves as faithful adherents of English law and justly accused England of having violated its own political and legal traditions by unlawfully imposing measures like the Stamp Act without allowing the colonists to make their dissenting case in Parliament.”

American conservatism since World War II, says Tanenhaus, has been a debate between “realists who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions” and “revanchists* committed to a counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America's pre-New Deal ancien régime, the return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of premodern 'family values.'”

Tanenhaus gives us a brief but very readable history of modern American conservatism from the New Deal era to the 2008 election. Conservatives railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but, “[t]he complication was that Rooseveltism worked.” After FDR's successor, Harry S Truman, was elected in his own right, the Republican Party faced a choice in 1952 between the revanchist faction represented by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and the realists, who persuaded General Dwight D. Eisenhower to seek the nomination.

We learn about the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his intellectual defender, William F. Buckley, along with several thinkers of the postwar conservatism, including James Burnham, a former Trotskyite who had soured on Marxism after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, and Buckley's brother-in-law and classmate L. Brent Bozell. Whittaker Chambers, another ex-Communist (and the subject of a Tanenhaus biography) is portrayed as a moderating figure in the movement, who “embraced a genuinely classical conservatism.”

Tanenhaus reminds us of the young conservatives who formed the Young Americans for Freedom, who worked tirelessly for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but whose memory has been eclipsed by the rise of left-wing groups such as Students for a Democratic Society. Goldwater's landslide defeat, writes Tanenhaus, ushered in conservatism's “greatest phase, a decade-long period, from 1965 to 1975, during which the familiar dynamic between orthodoxy and consensus underwent a remarkable reversal. The liberal sun, even as it steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchanted and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition—blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left—shaped a new consensus.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, had more to do with the rise of conservatism than the counterculture. Political thinkers such as Kevin Phillips, whose 1968 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was a blueprint for Nixon's 1968 victory. While Nixon made the Party of Lincoln acceptable in the Deep South, Democrats could not recover from the debacle in Chicago, and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy's refusal to make anything more than a reluctant endorsement of their nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Still, the election was a close one.

Nixon's presidency ended in resignation and disgrace, dividing conservatives, but, as Tanenbaum writes, “Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections. The single defeat, in 1976, was remarkably narrow, given the circumstances: an unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who barely survived a challenge in the primaries—by Reagan, the Right's new tribune...”

And when Reagan finally came to power, movement conservatives had a problem, or, as Garry Wills had written earlier in The Confessions of a Conservative (1979): “The right wing is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve.” Reagan, while declaring government “the problem,” failed to rein in the growth of government, as did his designated successor, George H. W. Bush, which brought about what Tanenhaus calls conservatism's “most decadent phase.” Tanenhaus compares Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated the GOP's 1994 “Contract with America” triumph, with the French Revolution's Danton.

The contract's “reforms”—term limits, purging of moderates from committee chairmanships—would have “mystified” classical conservatives who saw institutional traditions as Congress's great strength writes Tanenhaus. “Meanwhile , Gingrich, and the House's Robespierre, Tom DeLay, tried to delegitimize a popular president, Bill Clinton, and assembled a shadow government of lobbyists who gained increasing influence over the legislative business of Congress.”

Tanenhaus cites a 1995 article “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” by Michael Lind in Dissent: “In 1984, the leading conservative spokesman in the media was George Will; by 1994, it was Rush Limbaugh. The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the eighties were foreign policy and economics; by the early nineties thy had become dirty pictures and eviant sex.” Tanenhaus goes on to say, “They not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement above their civic responsibilities.”

George W. Bush, writes Tanenhaus, “so often labeled a traitor to movement principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors—including Reagan.” Deregulation, the $1.3 million tax cut, the plan to partially privatize Social Security, faith-based initiatives, the “war on terror,” and the mission to “democratize” Iraq were all in line with movement conservatism. And by 2008 we were in the midst of the Great Recession.

The Death of Conservatism was published in 2009, after the Obama landslide of 2008, but before the Tea Party resurgences of 2010 and 2014. And as a prognosticator, he was off by at least a few years. Movement conservatism is alive and well, but it seems headed toward another disaster—a government shutdown, or perhaps a default on the national debt. At this writing, all of the Republican presidential candidates, including the so-called “moderates” such as Ohio governor John Kasich, are clearly in the revanchist camp. And the frontrunner is none other than Donald Trump, whose politics seem a parody of right-wing extremism.

“Most of us," concludes Tanenhaus, "are liberal and conservative: we cling to the past in some ways, push forward into the future in others, and seek to reconcile our most cherished notions and beliefs—'prejudices' in Burke's term, 'animal faith' in [George] Santayana's—with the demands of unanticipated events... There remains in our politics a place for authentic conservatism—a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.”

The Death of Conservatism is short—only 123 pages, including the bibliography. It lacks footnotes and an index, which would have been helpful. But those are minor points. It's a valuable resource for anyone—liberal, conservative, or both—to understand the nuances of American postwar conservatism. And perhaps because it failed to predict the rise of Tea Party revanchism, you can buy a used copy for a penny on Amazon. Or, I should say, a penny plus the $3.99 shipping and handling charge.



*Revanchism, from the French revanche (revenge), refers specifically to the French movement in the 1870s and '80s to regain Alsace and Lorraine, which were lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War; and generally to any right-wing movement which aspires to regain something lost or perceived to be lost.







View all my reviews

Friday, July 24, 2015

West Madison Street Revisited


In December of 1966 I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore who had just joined the University High School (Iowa City) chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society. And thanks to a family trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit the SDS national headquarters. We were staying with family friends in Elgin, so I took the Milwaukee Road commuter line to Union Station. I should have simply taken the West Madison bus, but I wanted to ride the L, so I walked up to Clinton and Lake and boarded the Lake Street L. I wasn't familiar with the “A” and “B” stops, so I just got on the first train headed west.. It happened to be a “B” train, so it went right by the Ashland stop, which would have put me within a few blocks of the SDS headquarters. I got off at California Avenue, much farther west than I needed to be, and in the heart of the West Side ghetto. I walked south to Madison Street, where I paid another 45 cents to board an eastbound Madison Street bus.

Chicago was one of America's most segregated cities, and the neighborhood around Madison and California was a solidly black and poor one. Strangely enough, I don't remember any stares from riders on that Chicago Transit Authority bus, even though I must have been the only white person on board. I vaguely remember a couple of blocks where most of the residents looked poor and Asian—perhaps a northerly extension of Chinatown. But I got off the bus at or near Ashland and found my way to the second floor of a nondescript building on the north side of the street.

My visit to SDS headquarters was anticlimactic to say the least. Carl Oglesby wasn't there, nor was anyone whose name I knew. There was a a harried-looking young woman, busy at her typewriter, who had no time to talk. I looked around the lobby of this, the headquarters of the most prominent radical student organization, which could have been mistaken for a dentist's waiting room, took a few pamphlets, and went back downstairs to catch the West Madison bus back to the Loop.

In those days, West Madison was Skid Row. A few blocks east of Ashland most people on the street were white. Most looked middle-aged or older. The street was lined with taverns, cheap restaurants, and Single Room Occupancy hotels, all of which catered to people down on their luck. The Starr Hotel, which I passed but don't specifically remember, was infamous because just a few months earlier, Richard Speck, who had murdered eight student nurses, was found there. Nearly fifty years later, memory has become a blur, mixed with later scenes of Chicago streets, and appears to me as a sort of Ashcan School image, with ghostlike figures in drab overcoats standing on the sidewalk or walking in and out of the taverns and flophouses.

I got off the bus at Canal Street, near the majestic North Western Station, and walked the two blocks south to Union Station and the commuter train to Elgin.

Recently, while on a layover between the Lake Shore Limited from Elkhart and the California Zephyr to Galesburg, Illinois, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to wander west from Union Station. I walked west on Jackson until I came to a small one-block park. It made sense to head north, and after walking a couple of blocks on Adams, I turned north toward Madison.

It was, as I expected, no longer Skid Row. The transition from downscale to upscale had begun in the early 1980s with the opening of Presidential Towers, which was built on the site of the Starr Hotel. The taverns and flophouses were gone, replaced by condominiums, trendy restaurants, day spas, dog grooming salons and boutiques. Instead of middle-aged men down on their luck, there were beautiful young men and women, their skin tanned, oiled, and glowing. I imagine that many of those Skid Row denizens of 1966 bore tattoos that were mementos of service in the Pacific. In 2015 I noticed a young woman sporting an artistically designed armband tattoo that probably set her back a few thousand dollars. It was certainly more tasteful than the “Death Before Dishonor” inks of the World War II era, but surely less genuine.

There was one holdout from the Skid Row days—the shuttered Phil's Tavern, which appeared to be on the way towards demolition or renovation. In any case, this single reminder of the street's past would soon be gone or turned into another upscale establishment. Pete Anderson, of the blog, Pete Lit,researched the name and location of Phil's Tavern, and found nothing except for a Google Street View image from May, 2014, showing the building with a shingled awning obscuring the sign. That probably accounts for the sign's easy readability. “Based on the drab exterior and the tiny size of the building,” Anderson writes, “it's probably safe to say that Phil's used to be a nondescript, hole-in-the-wall dive, perhaps dating back to the era when this stretch of Madison was the city's skid row.”

Closer to Ashland the neighborhood had become less trendy, but was still no slum. The block where the SDS headquarters had been was now greenspace. But there was one other interesting holdover: the Palace Grill and Sandwich Shop near the corner of Madison and Ogden Avenue. The building appeared to be new, but its owners had preserved the weathered neon sign proclaiming the place had been around since 1938. It had adapted to the changing neighborhood, offering sandwiches on ciabatta bread and a complete line of official Chicago Blackhawks merchandise.West of Ashland I could see the gigantic United Center, where the Blackhawks and Bulls played, looming ahead. It was time to head back to Union Station.

It's easy to ridicule the Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies (the term has been around since the early 1980s, if not before). Still, I have to remind myself that they have chosen to live in the city. They're living in lofts, condominiums, and apartments, and not in McMansions built out in the exurbs, where farmers recently were growing corn and soybeans.

The West Side has more than its share of slums, but this stretch of West Madison was no longer one of them. It's hard to feel nostalgia for Skid Row. But the place did serve a purpose. The down-and-out are still with us, and the SRO hotels, which gave them a relatively safe place to stay, are mostly gone. They're completely gone from the old Skid Row.

In the world of 1966 there was still a profit to be made from the down-and-out, and while the owners of the SROs weren't always admirable men, they did provide a service that today's entrepreneurs don't. And cash-strapped social service agencies aren't in a position to fill the gap. Nor are charity-run shelters such as the Pacific Garden Mission. So yes, one can mourn the loss of Skid Row, if only because it made life a little more bearable for the poorest among us.

Photo Credits: Pete Anderson (Phil's Tavern)
                        Associated Press (Starr Hotel)
                        www.chicagofoodplanet.com (Palace Grill)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe

Jay Gould's daughter said, 'Before I die,
There are two more roads that I'd like to ride.'
Jay Gould said, 'Daughter, what can they be?'
'The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.'”
-Anonymous
 
I was reminded of the old hobo ballad because I've never ridden over Southern Pacific rails. I've been on the Santa Fe many times, beginning with a Cub Scout trip from Albuquerque to Lamy sometime in the early 1960s, and then a longer trip to California in 1965. And there were several visits to family in New Mexico in the 1980s and '90s. But the storied Southern Pacific has eluded me until this year.
 
Amtrak has a Service Award Trip program which allows long-term employees to take a “free” trip after ten years of service and every five years thereafter. I've never taken the offer because it isn't completely free: Internal Revenue Service rules require Amtrak to collect taxes on 80 per cent of the tickets' value—usually 30 to 40 per cent. But this will be my last chance to take such a trip. I started work on February 21, 1984, and the service award trip needs to be taken within one year of the anniversary. I turned 63 in November, and don't expect to be working in 2019. So this is my last chance.
 
Last summer Kathleen and I found out we'd be grandparents for the first time around the middle of January. Our daughter and son-in-law live near Portland, and they wanted Kathleen to stay with them for the first month. It was a great opportunity to use my Service Award Trip. Beginning next Monday (barring unforeseen circumstances, we'll head west on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, then south on the City of New Orleans to its namesake. After a night in the Crescent City, we'll ride west on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, where we'll switch over to the Coast Starlight, spend one night in San Francisco, and then head north to Portland on the Starlight. (Sadly for us, the Southern Pacific's successor, Union Pacific, is replacing ties between Eugene and Portland, so the last three hours will be on a bus.)
 
Not only will this be my last chance to take the Service Award trip, it may be my last chance to ride the Sunset Limited. It's been around since 1894, and is the oldest continually-operating name train in the country. And it was and is central in the fight both to kill off and to save the American passenger train.
 
In the 1960s, after most American railroads had given up on passenger service, their strategies for dealing with the issue varied tremendously. A few road, such as the Santa Fe, maintained excellent service consistently, even when they were trying to discontinue money-losing trains. But some, led by the Southern Pacific, downgraded service to drive away passengers on at least a few of the trains they wanted to eliminate. And it really wanted to get rid of the Sunset Limited. By 1968 the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset was a coach-only train, with a the only food service from the road's infamous Automat Buffet.
 
When Amtrak took over the route on May 1, 1971, regular sleeping, dining, and lounge car service was restored. And it survived the major Amtrak cuts of 1979 and 1997. But in the last few years, it's been the target of conservative politicians who use it as an example in their crusade to eliminate Amtrak. It doesn't have the ridership of other long-distance trains, mainly because of there are no same-day connections on the New Orleans end, along with the elimination of the New Orleans-Orlando segment after Hurricane Katrina and the bypass of Phoenix in 1996. And like 1979 and 1997, 2015 is a year with a Democratic president and Republican ascendancy in Congress. At this writing, it's unclear whether the Obama Administration will follow the example of the Carter and Clinton Administrations and agree to major Amtrak cuts. Unlike the the two previous Democratic administrations, Obama's has been consistently pro-Amtrak. But whether that will be enough to prevent another mass train removal is up in the air at this time. Personally, I believe the Sunset route to be a key one in the national transportation system.
 
While Kathleen will stay in Portland for about a month, I'll need to get back to work. My plan is to fiddle-faddle my way from Portland to Los Angeles, taking the Starlight to Sacramento and then using a bus-train bus connection that should get me to Los Angeles Union Station in time for No. 4, the Southwest Chief. It's another train with an uncertain future. Just as the Union Pacific downgraded its, line through Phoenix, leaving the Sunset to stop at Maricopa, a little town some 30 miles south of Arizona's capital, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe plans to downgrade the storied Raton Pass route through Albuquerque, Lamy (the stop for Santa Fe), Las Vegas (older than the one in Nevada), and Raton, New Mexico; Trinidad, La Junta, and Lamar in Colorado; and across Kansas through Garden City, Dodge City, and Hutchinson. At Newton, Kansas, the line joins up with the BNSF's main freight route for the run into Chicago.
 
BNSF is willing to maintain the line to passenger train standards if the states along the route agree to pay the cost. So far, Kansas and Colorado have committed to support the route. It's up to New Mexico. Should the Land of Enchantment fail to support the route, the Southwest Chief could be gone. The alternative would be to route the train on the main freight line through Wichita and Amarillo. It has the advantage of adding these stations to the Amtrak network, but the disadvantage of bypassing some of the West's most beautiful scenery.
In fact, it's the route that inspired “America the Beautiful.” In the summer of 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, then a professor at Wellesley College, made a trip from there to Colorado Springs, where she had taken a temporary teaching position. At Chicago she stopped over to visit the World's Columbian Exhibition, nicknamed the “White City,” which she changed to the more poetic “alabaster.” From Chicago she took the Santa Fe through La Junta. West of Kansas City she heard a fellow passenger complain about the endless wheatfields, but for her they were the beautiful “amber waves of grain.” And as the train rolled west across the plains toward La Junta, gaining altitude all the time, she saw the Rocky Mountains, which really do look purple in the distance.
 
Bates missed going over the Raton Pass, where passengers can see deer and bear from the train, the grasslands between Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico, broken by the rock formation that really does look like a Conestoga wagon, as you pass by Wagon Mound. Here pronghorns are common, their white rumps easily visible as they run away from the train.
 
Las Vegas, a notorious wild-west town in the 1880s, is home to La Castañeda, a former Harvey House that's now being redeveloped. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders came there for their reunions. And in the first movie version of Red Dawn, the inn served as the Soviet headquarters.
 
At Glorieta Pass there's more mountain scenery. It's where in 1862, Colorado Volunteers, with the help of a local guide, took a hidden path around the Confederate lines, destroyed the Rebels' supply train, and put an end to the plan to extend the Confederacy to the Pacific. From Glorieta the train heads through Apache Canyon and then heads down the Rio Grande Valley into Albuquerque, with the majestic Sandia Mountains seemingly changing with every mile.
 
The Raton Pass route is truly a national treasure, and I home and pray that New Mexico joins Kansas and Colorado to keep the Chief running over the line.
 
The upcoming trip has given me inspiration for a writing project—to examine the past, present and future of long-distance passenger trains, with special emphasis on the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.
But right now, I'm just looking forward to a great American rail journey.
 
 
Image: The Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited. probably in the 1950s.