Think of the best bittersweet taste you’ve ever had in your mouth. Was it chewy, with flakes of golden crust, flavored with butter and a hint of cinnamon and brown sugar? Did the fruit have crunchy seeds and round bubbles of flavor that reminded you of warm afternoons in a garden with sunlight dancing through the willow tree next to your swing? Did it take you time traveling to when people were always gracious and told you stories of faraway places and exciting adventures?
My grandmother would give us travel-size containers of cobbler for our train trips back to Washington, D.C. from a little hamlet named Prince in West Virginia. She lived in Beckley in a house the Baptist church gave her after her husband, the minister died. I remember the address, 212 Church Street, as seeming so appropriate. My grandmother was very strict, quoted her husband and the Bible a lot, and even though I was her oldest grandchild (and standing right in front of her), she’d call out the names of each of her other grandchildren before she got to my name when she wanted me to do something or was angry at me for some transgression.
“Go get me some switches.”
For punishment we’d have to go out and collect willow branches for her to use for spankings. If we came back with what she thought were insufficient branches she’d find a stronger one and increase our whacks.
But she’d make the best homemade food from scratch. Her kitchen always smelled great. Especially when she’d bake. Bread, pies, cakes, cobblers, especially the blackberry cobblers.
For the ride back on the train she’d scoop the blackberry ambrosia into half pint-sized containers with lids. If mom let us get to them early enough, they’d still be warm, like grandma’s kitchen.
Prince was just a train station, at least in my memory. I don’t remember seeing anything else of the place, maybe some scattered houses or cabins on the way in or on the drive in my uncle’s cars over the hills to Beckley. On one trip I remember a car with a trailer in front of us having a time of it staying in the center of the lane, swaying back and forth. The trailer seemed to want to go one way instead of where the car was going. Our family was like that. My sister and I were children of divorce and custody battles. Mom and dad were trains going in opposite directions.
But people on the trains we took were going in the same direction. Even though all of us started in different places and saw the world passing by so differently. When we first started our trips south from Philadelphia, we were handed over to the railroad’s special service for minors traveling without adults. It seemed strange, our father didn’t know these people, neither did our mother in Washington on the north bound leg. But they both seemed trusting about it and most of those trips went rather well and quickly, even back then.
DC to Prince was an overnight trip. And people on night trains are…different.
They actually want to listen to young people’s questions. They like telling kids who they are, where they live, and what they do.
Emmett Till was lynched in August, 1955. My family’s elders seemed to go out of their way to make sure I understood how America treated Black boys. If I saw a hundred pictures of his battered body that would have been an undercount.
We moved into a new neighborhood that summer. It was an old, established, mostly Irish and Italian one. It had been an area of mills on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Most of the uniforms the Union Army wore during the Civil War were made there.
Grace Kelly, Princess Grace, grew up in East Falls. When I got to eighth grade at St. Bridget’s elementary school, I had the same nun she had when she was 13. Sister Helen Marie. We called her Bulldog. I wasn’t the quietest kid in class. According to her, my full name was Charles, you bold, brazen article…
I might have been called nigger once or twice before we moved into the public housing projects in East Falls. But after that summer, it seemed that was a part of my name as well. Seems I’d broken some sort of boundary by attending St. Bridget’s. All the other Black kids from the projects went to public school. I went to ‘the white school’.
The friends I made in those days are still in my life. Racist fires forge strong bonds. Those fires also taught me how to figure out people real quick. Street smarts are the best smarts when you’re ‘the only one’ at a very early age.
We moved after our summer trip south that year. Train travel in the south became a different experience after that year.
Beckley was a segregated town. Everything I experienced there was black. Being in Washington in the 1950s was also very divided. I remember standing on a traffic island in DC waiting for the light to change and asking my mother, “Where are all the white people?”
“West of the park, son, west of the park.”
I didn’t catch the full meaning of that expression until I was almost twenty and visiting her while on a trip from college.
The neighbors and others we interacted with in Beckley were stereotypically ‘down home friendly’. I can’t remember anyone in particular, but I do remember the only things I missed about being there were my friends and family I was close to ‘back home’. I learned how to separate out people back home because there was no ‘west of the park’. Some white folks were ok, or seemed to be, others I’d grow to avoid. Or, when necessary, fight.
My two West Virginia uncles spent time with my sister and me. My Uncle Jack spent a ton of his time teaching me how to get along with folks, how to ride on his motorcycle, how to do boy shit, country style. I loved him. I didn’t like country style…
The only separation on the train was if you had a sleeper compartment or if you only had a seat. At least in my mind there weren’t any separations. None that I noticed. Even after ’55.
I liked having a place to sleep, I loved talking to the strangers in the dining car or just randomly squatting by someone in a coach car and finding out who they were. Being little grants kids a sort of puppy immunity. Adults, for the most part, are nice to them.
After the summer of ’55 my trips to south took on a different tone. I was nine when I got the ‘west of the park’ response. I was ten when Central High School in Little Rock was integrated.
The older I got, the more it seemed my Catholic school classmates divided themselves into those who actually practiced Christian brotherhood and those who called me names.
So train trips took on a different character. Philly to DC was easy. It was time to catch up with my sister and to be on the lookout for scenes we appreciated along the way. Guideposts to visit our mother.
DC to Prince became sociological studies.
Who can we trust? Who’s a good person? Who doesn’t like us because we’re not white?
My favorite place on the night train became the vestibule between cars, especially when the large window was open and all I could hear was the train’s wheels on the tracks, the whistle, and the chugging engine. I still talked to people, but my best memories were talking to the conductors who always seemed to understand that I was just there for the night wind and the sounds of the trains. They always let me be.
Up until some years ago I’d take the train from DC to New York City. I’d go for two reasons, I love the city, and for poetry and spoken word.
I started performing years ago, after a poet called me out after I had shown her my first piece. I’d met her two years before at a writer’s workshop in San Francisco. The executive director had encouraged me to attend. He’d noted that my letters to friends after my asthma attack were more like memoir entries. So I took a memoir class. I met many incredible writers, incredible people, that session.
The following year, I enrolled in a class that featured various forms of telling our stories, and my end product was a spoken word piece. I read it at the workshop. I came home and filed it.
I kept in touch with several of the writers I’d met over both sessions. One in particular fascinated me with both her content and delivery. Her newsletter said she was coming to DC that winter to feature at an open mike. I met her there, and we caught up. I proudly showed her my piece that I’d dug up out my filing cabinet. She said it was good.
The host noticed how friendly we were and asked me to introduce her and she said, “And do that AFTER you do your piece!”
Long story short, it was a hit, and applause is a drug that’s hard to kick. I kept writing and spitting my words to anyone who would listen.
Years later, I went back to California for another workshop and met a writer from New York who invited me to perform there. New York applause is highly addictive, so the train trips became my vehicle to the Big Apple.
Going north I always rode the quiet car, going over what pieces I’d read or perform. Poetry I read, spoken word I perform, becoming the person behind the voice of the character I’m portraying. I discovered that I did some really good rewriting on those trips north. Undergirding those re-writes was the rhythmic click-clack of the train.
I’d gotten back in touch with the child-like wonder about life and the people in it. Good, bad, happy, sad, thoughtful, playful, filled with a range of emotions that I’d been closing down in both myself and indiscriminately in others.
Sometimes I imagined the stories of those strangers in the quiet car, pretending I was eight again and sitting next to them listening to their stories on the night train. Sometimes new pieces were written right there on the train north.
I’m in lockdown now with this coronavirus. My life is narrowed to my house and yard and occasional walks around the neighborhood. And entirely too much time in front of screens (but God bless PBS! My wife and daughter call it nerd tv time!).
Our son is in central Pennsylvania and he calls every day, usually when he’s on his afternoon walk after his stint of remote working for the consulting firm where he’s employed.
The other day he called from the middle of a rail bridge. Ever since he was little, he’s loved trains. He sends me pictures of them from near his place and his office. His favorite childhood cartoon was Thomas the Tank Engine.
I guess it’s in his blood.
Left to Right: My grandmother, Esther King; my cousin Jack; my sister, Cynthia; my mother, Esther King Cuyjet; me; unknown woman; my Aunt Ellen; barely visible is my Uncle Philip King