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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere


Union Station waiting room, Chicago
: photo by Jack Delano, January 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

A guest + a host = a ghost.

Marcel Duchamp: Jeu de mot phonetique en anglais (Un invité + un hôte = un fantôme.)

Strange to turn to old ghosts, watch ourselves dissolve
In their eyes.  They were not here to help us,
Merely to drag us back against our will
Into a dim becalmed past, then forward into
Occluded presents which yet feel too bright

Union Station waiting room, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, January 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Model airplanes decorate the ceiling of the train concourses at Union Station, Chicago
: photo by Jack Delano, February 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Union Station waiting room, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, January 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


TC said...

Now someone who reads the captions might be asking, by what strange magic did an instant air force sprout up from one month to the next in the vast vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall of Chicago Union Station's main concourse?

Obviously Jack Delano made more than one visit in January / February 1943.

At the time Delano shot these pictures the station (actually the second of the city's three historical Union Stations, the third a reduction from the second following the decline in railroad traffic post-WW II) was an extremely busy place, handling the heavy traffic volume of three large railroads as well as several smaller ones. At the hub of the national railway system, this busiest of Chicago's seven major terminals was handling 300 trains and 100,000 passengers -- most of them military personnel -- every twenty-four hours.

In my fossil mind Union Station remains to this day an enormous nowhere-space crowded with foggy early memories, some of them doubtless invented, others probably real, and still quite vivid.

I was a railroading nut in my youth. For train buffs this station was a storied site. For one thing, the first diesel streamliners ran through it. These were the clipper ships of the epoch.

Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul and Pacific ("Milwaukee Road") Hiawatha diesel about to depart westward from Union Station, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, January 1943

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Denver Zephyr diesel and old Pennsylvania Railroad steam engine side-by-side: Jack Delano, January 1943

That ornate Beaux-Arts waiting room, one of the great interior public spaces in the country, was a triumph of the American Renaissance architectural style of the early XX c.

It was a cathedral of my childhood. I spent many a blissful Saturday morning idling about on the vast wooden benches, studying timetables, listening to the exotic recitals of the stops of the incoming and outgoing trains.

The dead of winter was the best season for railroad station platform-haunting. To venture beyond the gates into the huge dark trainshed was to enter another world. The ice and snow built up on the trains that had just arrived from long distance runs seemed soaked with the complex wonders of faraway places.

A climactic moment of my youth occurred when the driver of a Burlington Zephyr invited me up into the cab of the train and allowed me to stand there at his side for the run out past the switching yards to what was at that time still open country, at the brink of the vast prairie to the West.

The most interesting detail of that ride was the driver's explanation of the Dead Man's Pedal.

As he showed me, there was a pedal which the driver was meant to keep his foot pressed down on at all times. Were he to be suddenly stricken, heart attack, say, his foot would come off the pedal, and the train would stop. As this congenial driver pointed out -- a wrinkle of amusement anticipating my wide-eyed reaction -- he had strapped his foot to the pedal with a sort of improvised stirrup; so that, in the event he keeled over and fell dead, the train would hurtle on.

"Too damn much trouble leaning on that thing all the time," he explained.

Anyway... ghosts.

Dalriada said...

The title struck a chord .....?

Of course:



Uncanny, those two cops standing in that shaft of light -- "drag us back . . . Into a dim becalmed past. . ." Back to that "cathedral of [your] childhood," Dead Man's peddle and all. English translation outdoes Duchamp's French, don't you think?


light coming into sky above still black
plane of ridge, moon across from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

inside consistent with this,
relation that follows

it, approximation of motion
of planet, after that

orange circle of sun rising over ridge,
white clouds on horizon across from it

TC said...


Yes, Marcel's play is all in the English.


I had wanted to wait to see if anyone sussed that title echo.

I believe I like best the live version from New York, 1970.

(An oblique resonance, under the arching vaulted skylight of yesteryear.)

Wooden Boy said...

The Zephyrs are beautiful machines.

I've had a winter of being haunted by those old ghosts.

Occluded presents which yet feel too bright

Coming to in the present (that blind, that ruse) is always bloody disorientating.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Zephyr--as beautiful as the word!

TC said...

Many thanks friends. For your patience that is -- the dark ceiling staring winter vigils have had me riding the ghost train.

(You'll perhaps know what I mean.)

The romance of the stations was something real to me way back then, that much I do recall. Next came airplanes. But certainly I never later experienced the romance of airports.

Now and then the old fascination and fabulation reawakens. The descent into the lore beckons.

Train researches began for me c. 1948, I loved all the great magazine pictures.

My favourite railroading photographer is Richard Steinheimer. See the top photo here:

Troublin' Switch: Ben Newberry's Final Run

The text of that post is an all time classic train train song.

Ben Newberry's Final Run: Jimmie Rodgers