This morning while hurtling across western Pennsylvania I enjoyed my final Amtrak breakfast. I sat next to a uniformed Amtrak police officer en route to a meeting at our final stop on the Capitol Limited, Washington, DC. From there I’ll take a two-hour ride to Philadelphia on the Amtrak Acela Express and be home in time for dinner.
Across from us sat two elderly women from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The officer had spent 26 years on the Chicago police force before retiring into a much less stressful “second career” working for Amtrak.
After a few minutes of instinctively probing their names, destinations, life stories, I sprung it on them that I’m a resident writer and a playwright. At that, the officer sat up and went on at length about his son, now 18, who’s been acting and working at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre for several years. As one father watching another, I could see his pride in his eyes and hear the underlying boastfulness — his change of energy when he spoke of his boy. He went on to tell me that his son also recently placed highly in a rigorous August Wilson monologue contest in Chicago.
My jaw dropped. I told him this was the third time in as many days that August Wilson had come up. I consider myself a studied fan of his work, and I’m sometimes fortunate to even teach his work to my college students. Wilson first popped up on this trip when I met trucker Mark, whose unique family history stretched from Africa to Europe to New Orleans to Seattle, through World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He and his brother are working on a screenplay about a particularly moving family vacation experience from their childhoods. I joked that his family sounds like something from an August Wilson play, and surprisingly he wasn’t familiar with him. I made him promise to read The Piano Lesson and to look up Wilson’s life and family history because he’d surely become a fan.
The second Wilson encounter occurred a day later when I met retired micro-brewers Don and Wendy, fellow Chicago theatre lovers who were excited to be seeing Wilson’s Two Trains Running soon at the Goodman Theatre as the centerpiece of its citywide August Wilson Celebration.
After this third mention during the final morning of my coast-to-coast ride, I started thinking about the obvious Wilson connections to my overall experience — Pittsburgh, criss-crossing tracks as metaphor for scattering people, the Great Migration, post-Civil War Pullman porter jobs as both opportunity and brick wall, and with its workers centered chiefly in Chicago, John Brown’s Raid and Storer College in Harpers Ferry which I wrote about my first day, August Wilson’s “20th century cycle” of plays presented in their entirety at the Kennedy Center in DC where I was headed to this very morning, his fascination with ghosts and hauntings as metaphors and for fractured histories and excuses for families to briefly unite, like those metaphors and excuses which permeated my trip.
Was August Wilson trying to tell me something, urging me perhaps to see beyond the steel and wheels to a deeper cultural, almost spiritual phenomenon trains symbolize in US history? Why not look his works?, I thought.
Trains serve as a powerful metaphor in Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson in particular; the latter is also full of fiery railroad spirits (“the ghosts of the Yellow Dog!” aka the Yazoo Delta Railway) not unlike Harpers Ferry’s Screaming Jenny whom I looked for on the first day of my trip. Perhaps railroad cook Doaker, the de facto family patriarch in The Piano Lesson, gives us a clue about my encounters with Wilson on my round trip across the country:
“Now, I’ll tell you something about the railroad. What I done learned after twenty-seven years. See, you got North. You got West. You look over here you got South. Over there you got East. Now, you can start from anywhere. Don’t care where you at. You got to go one of them four ways. And whichever way you decide to go they got a railroad that will take you there. Now, that’s something simple. You think anybody would be able to understand that. But you’d be surprised how many people trying to go North get on a train going West. They think the train’s supposed to go where they going rather than where it’s going. Now, why people going? Their sister’s sick. They leaving before they kill somebody . . . and they sitting across from somebody who’s leaving to keep from getting killed. They leaving cause they can’t get satisfied. They going to meet someone. I wish I had a dollar for every time that someone wasn’t at the station to meet him. I done seen that a lot. In between the time they sent the telegram and the time the person get there…they done forgot all about them. They got so many trains out there they have a hard time keeping them from running into each other. Got trains going every whichaway. Got people on all of them. Somebody going where somebody just left. If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world. Now what I done learned after twenty-se7en years of railroading is this . . . if the train stays on the track . . . it’s going to get where it’s going. It might not be where you going. If it ain’t, then all you got to do is sit and wait cause the train’s coming back to get you. The train don’t never stop. It’ll come back every time.”
Railroad as metaphor for life and death. Thank you, Mr. Wilson. Next stop, home.