Railroads: A Reader Writes

In the pile of mail that strained our transom after our post on why high speed passenger rail is a madman’s dream or an idealist’s delusion here in the US, this from Andrew Alexander stood out, we print it in full:

Public Railroads Monopoly

Some of the best investments in history have been railroads. Buffet had a masterstroke in buying Burlington Northern, paying $26B. Ackman’s made billions off these types of investments and Hunter Harrison is lionized as a railroad operator. He would take railroads and get them to 40% operating margins. For some reason, every railroad network with sufficient scale in America is fabulously profitable, except for Amtrak. The only real difference is the type of load they carry and the ownership/management quality. Let’s compare Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

BSNF’s network is about 32,500 miles of network, and they have 35,000 employees. In the quarter ended 9-30-22, Burlington had $6.6B of revenues against $4.6B of expense for a 30% operating margin. So today, on a conservative multiple, BSNF’s annual $10B earnings is worth about $100B, or 4x what Buffet paid. They are a financial powerhouse. 

Amtrak, by contrast, is a financial disaster. On revenues of $3B, they have $4.8B of expenses, losing almost $2B a year. They have 21,400 miles of network and 17,100 employees. 

So, just roughly speaking, what explains this? Is it due to poor management? Was Amtrak just cursed with a poor railroad network and BNSF’s is better? Is it really better to carry freight as opposed to people? I guess you could say that since humans are much more valuable on a per tonnage basis than freight, they are a better customer for railroad, but at the same time, because it’s much more valuable on a per tonnage basis, its less expensive on a per unit basis to fly, so the railroads have to compete with airplanes and cars. That could be one explanation. 

It is also possible that a pound of coal is just a better customer because it does not care when it arrives at the power plant and does not need to be cared for and fed while enroute to be burned up. 

I don’t think that these dynamics explain the shocking disparity in productivity per employee. It is tough to compare the activity levels of freight vs passengers, but just on a high level, it seems like Amtrak has roughly the same number of employees per mile of track, but BNSF has revenue of about $800,000 per employee and Amtrak has about $175,000 of revenue per employee. BNSF’s cost per employee is about $600,000 and Amtrak’s are about $300,000. 

I think the most plausible explanation is that BNSF simply has better management. My instinct is that if competent management took over Amtrak, they would have it profitable within months. For example, the CTA in Chicago should be super profitable. There is no way that a monopoly of the commuter train lines in a city of millinos should run operating losses. If you look at Japan rail, my cursory review is that it is printing money. 

No reason for the Amtrak, or CTA, to be losing money. They should be fantastically profitable. Prove me wrong. 

We had some jovial back and forth with AA. We think it’s pretty hard to make Amtrak “fantastically profitable,” that’s just not how its built, nor should it be the goal. Is there enough rail demand in the USA to make passenger rail profitable, or is it just not our vibe? We drive. We’re not Japan, in geography, culture, or organization. In the NE Corridor rail makes sense (and is often packed). Not sure what other routes we could guarantee. Even LA to Vegas or LA to SF might not pay out: it’s cheap and fast to fly. Burbank to OAK to BART and you can be in the Mission in time for lunch.

Profit aside though, for the rail fan who feels the spiritual power of the train, power not captured on the P/L statement, a few more reliable routes might create connection, and value immeasurable.

Do write if you have fire or insight to offer: a diablog is better than a monoblog.


Railroads

What distinguishes America’s railroads from those railroads elsewhere in the world is that American railroads were constructed and owned by entrepreneurs. It was a rare American railroad that was owned by local or state government – exceptions being the Alaska Railroad, once federally owned, but now owned by the state), Amtrak (officially, the National Railroad Passenger Corp.), and Conrail (which was created out of numerous bankrupt railroads, but subsequently returned to the private sector and then divided between CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp.) …

By 1906, some 85 percent of the bonds and 50 percent of the stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange were those of railroad companies. 

Santa brought me this book, published by Simmon-Boardman of Omaha, publishers of Railway Age, MarineLog, SignBuilder Illustrated and other “B2B” publications. This one is dense with information, much of it too technical for me, but it’s healthy to read above one’s level.

It’s illuminating when studying the Civil War to make reference to a map of the railroads of the Confederacy. Here’s West Points map thereof:

New Orleans, Pensacola, and Norfolk were in Union hands by the end of 1862, with Jacksonville disputed, so that left Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah and Mobile as sea-rail hubs. But Mobile wasn’t much use once Grant had cut the rail lines in northern Mississippi, and Sherman would tear up the tracks to Savannah soon enough. You can see the importance of Wilmington in supplying the Army of Northern Virginia.

Note too all those different gauges:

In the early years of United States railroading, several different gages were in use. In 1863, however, President Lincoln designated 4 ft 8 1/2 in. as the gage for the railroad to be built to the Pacific Coast. This, then, became the standard to which all U.S. railroads conformed. Thus, the railroads south of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers that were mostly 5ft gage until 1887 changed to a standard virtually over a single weekend.

Discussions of high speed rail in the USA sometimes ignore the crucial points:

1) The UK, Japan, Germany, France all at some point nationalized their rail lines. In the US track is still owned by corps who are not in the business of passenger traffic (in fact actively fight it)

2) we use our rail much more for freight than they do in Japan/UK/France/Germany etc. Our whole economic model based it being cheap enough to ship Asia to West Coast (Long Beach) and then train to wherever. Does just the vastness of the US helps why freight rail matters so much more here? Our trains are also hauling coal and stuff

A radical agenda for a president could be nationalizing the railroads, but that would never happen: imagine taking BNSF away from Warren Buffett/Berkshire Hathaway, or UNP away from the shareholders. KC Pacific is international.

BUT the federal government did subsidize all this building through land grants, why should all the benefits be in private hands?

Canada for awhile had an interesting hybrid system: federal Canadian National and private Canadian Pacific. Opponents of socialism can point to the inefficiencies of CNI, while opponents of aggressive capitalism can point to the costs put on rural Canada once CNI was made private (all of Newfoundland’s railways were shut down!). These are losses where the full impact can’t be measured, it might really erode the core of a nation.

CNI was privatized in 1995. Today the largest single shareholder is Bill Gates.

The political problems of building high speed rail are daunting, which is too bad. The nationalizations in Japan, the UK, Germany and France took place during crucial moments of national transition (in France it took the dictatorship of Napoleon III, in Germany Bismarck played a role, Japan was going through a radical modernization, etc).

The federal government has decent power to make life difficult for railroads. They could use that to squeeze out some new high speed lines along existing track. Would be great to have LA to SF, for example. But imagine the political will and might it would take to wrench that concession out from an enormous company that’s in the business of hauling freight, not people.

Big changes in the US seem to take place only during rare periods of crisis when opportunity and power is for a moment consolidated: Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR during the Great Depression and World War II. Maybe if FDR had lived we would’ve gotten to national health care; maybe if Lincoln had lived we would’ve nationalized the rails.

The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does further describes the Amtrak situation: in 1971, Amtrak was created by Congress to take over passenger services on freight railroads that were losing money. The bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970 freed up some track along the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak acquired.

Since its creation, Amtrak has struggled financially, owing to a congressional failure to provide Amtrak with a consistent source of federal funding. Annually, since Amtrak’s first year of operation, it has had to fight for a congressional appropriation that its officials and supporters consider insufficient. This inconsistent and inadequate funding has preoccupied Amtrak officials, adversely affected operational improvements, and slowed acquisition of a modern fleet.

The book concludes, somewhat glumly:

Under present conditions it appears that, whatever their overall ecological, congestion-relief, or other social benefits, proposals for high speed rail systems in corridors of North America must first demonstrate financial feasibility founded primarily (if not wholly) on credible private-sector support. 

We have our Amtrakiest president in awhile, but time is running out on Railway Joe.


Crevasse

I looked up the Wikipedia page for Crevasse and found this photo:

The glacier Taschachferner below the Wildspitze (left, 3.768 m) in Tyrolia in Austria in April 2005. There are some zones with large open crevasses, e.g., the spot-shaped area below the middle of the image and most right. The line marks the ascent track of mountaineers on skis which intentionally avoided these dangerous areas.

Here is the source. Thanks and good cheer to my many thousands of readers, other projects have diverted me from making regular updates to this website but I appreciate you and our shared enthusiasms!


Los Angeles is beautiful

It really is. Been meaning to compose more on that theme but I get overwhelmed.


Coins

say what you will about Queen Elizabeth she looks good on a coin. I wonder if some of the turbulence in UK markets of late have to do with the fact that Steady Grandma will no longer be on the money, now it is Weird Son.

French coin picked up most likely in Tahiti

The Euro’s kind of ominous, no?


Is there a better title and cover?

I’m not aware of one.


picanha

had to search that on Wikipedia after reading this:

these days everyone’s an armchair David Plouffe but “picanha politics” seems like a winning strategy


Sinalco

Saw this old sign in Corinth, Mississippi. You can’t find a Sin Alco in the United States these days but apparently it’s still the third most popular soda in Germany.

Both Corinth and Vicksburg, Mississippi have Coca-Cola related museums, and of course Atlanta is all about Coke. It got me wondering if the spread of Coca-Cola was connected to the total devastation of the South in the wake of the Civil War. Recall that Coca-Cola was invented by John Stith Pemberton, a former Confederate officer wounded in the war who was experimenting with increasingly wild home brews in an effort to cure himself of morphine addiction. There were a lot of people around with shattered nerves looking for a tonic. There was a big demand for alternatives to alcohol:

The first successful effort to limit the sale of alcohol was an 1874 law that required anyone wanting to sell alcohol to obtain a license from a majority of the area’s registered voters plus a majority of all women over age fourteen

From the Mississippi Encyclopedia. In law if not in practice Mississippi went dry in 1908. (That’s part of why the river towns on the Arkansas side got so wild).

Strange and haunting to visit these parts of the country that were ruined by defeat in war and an occupying army. When you wonder why Jackson, MS is so messed up it’s worth remembering the city was burnt to the ground not once but twice during the war, nothing standing but a few brick chimneys. Maybe they should have their mess together by now, but it’s only a few generations ago. Irene Triplett was getting a Civil War pension two years ago.

Good slogan for a soda: “You’ll Like It”


The World’s In a Bad Situation

heard this one on King Biscuit Time. I like that the song is not just a lament but also contains a call to action.

Helena, Arkansas

Late season cotton along Highway 61.

Cherry Street in Helena. (I notice whenever I take photos that cars are ugly.)

The town was wide open. Cherry, the main street, which parallels the levee a block to the west, is reputed to have had forty or fifty white saloons in operation during the years preceding World War II, and Elm, which parallels Cherry a block further west, probably had a comparable number of black joints.

so says Robert Palmer in Deep Blues: A Musical And Cultural History from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side to the World. No longer the case.

Levon Helm was from nearby Elaine.

Cemetery scenes.

Along the levee:

Sad tales by the river:

The battlefield:

A doomed Confederate attack there on July 4, 1863 came too late to relieve Vicksburg, which fell the same day.

If you’re at the Delta Cultural Center at 12:15pm, you can listen to them broadcast King Biscuit Flour Time live.

These are well-to-do white women listening. I listen, every day when I’m doing the show, for the simple reason that there’s something there. They’re trying to tell you something, and if you think hard enough and listen hard enough, you will understand what it’s all about.

so host Sonny Payne told Robert Palmer (quoted in Deep Blues). You can listen to the show on the DCC’s Facebook Live.

One of the legendary players on King Biscuit Time was Sonny Boy Williamson.

Led Zeppelin biographer Stephen Davis writes in Hammer of the Gods, while in England Williamson set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. 

The Mississippi Delta is strange and beautiful and also sad:

You can’t out-poor the Delta,” says Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. In parts of it, he says, people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation.

quoted in the June 8th 2013 Economist

The Delta Que and Brew is the place for lunch.


Coming up at Shiloh

The sky had cleared, the clouds raveled to tatters, and at four oclock the sun broke through, silver on the bright green of grass and leaves and golden on the puddle sin the road; all down the column men quickened the step, smiling in the sudden burst of gold and silver weather.

So goes the first sentence of Foote’s book. You hear about things being unraveled, but “raveled” not so much.

From Stuart Chapman’s biography of Shelby Foote:

Faulkner would tell his son-in-law that Foote wrote as if he had been there himself.

He knows what he’s talking about.

We must agree, there are parts of Foote’s novel that are very vivid and feel very real.

Winston Groom is perhaps most notable as the author of the novel Forrest Gump. Don’t sleep on his narrative histories. They are terrific: compelling, clear, human, personal, funny even sometimes. Winston Groom was in the Vietnam War. When it comes to battle he writes like he knows what he’s talking about.

Civil War battlefields can be some of the most peaceful places in America. Some days tour buses or school groups must crowd the roads, but driving and walking around Shiloh in the late afternoon, a random Wednesday some days ago, I had the place to myself. On beautiful marked roads, stopping wherever I wanted to read some information. Walking in the woods, looking at the water, or the mowed fields. I was in a nine square mile park, quiet, undisturbed. Preserved landscape.

That the landscape is spooky, haunted, a burial ground, only adds to the draw. Certain places, certain moments, you can feel the reverie. A break in the veil to the past. Is there something worrying in being drawn to that? This place was the scene, for several thousand people, of the most traumatic event in their lives. At the end of the first day, there were something like two thousand dead bodies on the ground. An even higher number of people with an arm or a leg blown off or other mangling wound. And that’s not to mention the horses. Ambrose Beirce said dead horses were everywhere. Several soldiers in their accounts remembered some pitiful moment or another involving a hurt horse.

At night, after the first day ended, thunderstorms rolled in:

Flashes of lightening showed hogs feeding on the ungathered dead.

as they put it in the PBS Civil War series (holds up, Shiloh is in episode two).

If you want to visit a place where that happened, are you a bit of a sicko?

In War of the Worlds Tom Cruise’s son says:

Dad, I need to see this!

“Seeing the elephant.” Bruce Catton, asked to explain why boys joined the armies, says we shouldn’t overlook the simple fact that they were bored.

Shiloh is the cosmic joke answer to that desire. The twisted reward to a Devil’s bargain. Oh, you want to see what a war is like? Here you go!

One of Abraham Lincoln’s great and compelling qualities was a resolve to find some meaning in these events. Suffering and horror on this scale had to be worth something. Had to be made to be worth something.

Shiloh was decisive. Grant’s army could’ve been driven into the Tennessee River, or surrounded in the swamps and forced to surrender or retreat. Grant or Sherman could’ve been killed. Albert Sidney Johnston was killed. Many considered him the best of the Confederate generals. His conduct on the first day had changed the outcome of the battle, but then he was shot, and not realizing the extent of the wound he bled to death. Johnston has the biggest monument at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Sherman was shot three times on the first day. One bullet passed through his hat. In his memoirs Grant gives much credit to the way Sherman conducted himself. Facing disaster the two of them, Grant and Sherman, managed to keep their cool.

At close to the last possible second, Union reinforcements arrived. The second day, their commander dead, the Confederates were driven away.

That would be more or less the furthest the Confederacy got in the Mississippi Valley. Some weeks after the battle, the Confederate army abandoned Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth was key: it was the crossroads where the railroad from Memphis to Charleston intersected the railroad that ran from the Ohio river to the Gulf port at Mobile, Alabama.

The crossroads at Corinth: it all connected here.

In the aftermath of Shiloh, the South was cut in half. Grant, assessing the situation years later in his Personal Memoirs:

The Confederates were now driven out of West Tennessee, and on the 6th of June, after a well-contested naval battle, the National forces took possession of Memphis and held the Mississippi river from its source to that point. The railroad from Columbus to Corinth was at once put in good condition and held by us. We had garrisons at Donelson, Clarksville and Nashville, on the Cumberland River, and held the Tennessee River from its mouth to Eastport. New Orleans and Baton Rouge had fallen into the possession of the National forces, so that now the Confederates at the west were narrowed down for all communication with Richmond to the single line of road running east from Vicksburg. To dispossess them of this, therefore, became a matter of the first importance. The possession of the Mississippi by us from Memphis to Baton Rouge was also a most important object. It would be equal to the amputation of a limb in its weakening effects upon the enemy.

By May 1862, something like this was the situation:

Once Vicksburg fell (not easy, Winston Groom has a whole book about it) it was all over but the crying. Of which there’d be plenty, there are places in the former Confederacy where they’re still crying.

The ground at Shiloh can be confusing. Almost every part of the battlefield was in the hands of different armies at different times. The Shiloh church for instance was the headquarters of the Union’s Sherman and the Confederate Beauregard at different points.

The church at the park today is a reproduction. The original was damaged, bloodstained, torn apart for souvenirs. You’ll notice all the pictures of the church are taken at the same angles. This is because no one wants to spoil the 1862 time travel aspect of their photos by including the modern Methodist church that sits just out of frame.

From the church’s Facebook page.

Everyone who was at the battle of Shiloh found it weird:

Everything looked weird and unnatural

recalled John Cockerill years later. He was sixteen at the time.

Actions took the grotesque form of a nightmare

remembered another veteran. Groom tells us:

At least two soldiers’ accounts report a lone woman walking across the battlefield in the midst of heavy fighting

In one forested part of the battlefield there are old Indian mounds. There were used as vantage points by Forrest’s cavalry, among others. At the time they were widely believed to be burial mounds, thus participants could believe they were fighting on an abandoned Indian burial ground.

It occurred to me that the closest thing to a battle I’ve been at is a huge concert festival. Ridiculous comparison but go with us. Take away the maiming and the killing: there were over 100,000 people at Shiloh. How many times in US history prior had there been a gathering of that size? Ever? I’m not aware of any Revolutionary battle that was close to that size. There were revival meetings, some even in the same area, but they never exceeded 10,000 or so.

Pittsburg Landing, where Union reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell disembarked late on the first day of the battle, ensuring Grant’s salvation, is stop 22 on the driving tour. The National Park Service must have good reasons for that. But if you want to follow the battle as a narrative, take Pittsburg Landing as the starting place.

Follow the journey of Ebenzer Hannaford. Hannaford was in the Sixth Ohio. On Sunday April 6, they woke up near Savannah, Tennessee, broke camp, and marched ten miles. Late in the afternoon, maybe around five PM or so, an hour before sundown, he and his comrades boarded a steamboat and were ferried across the river. As they got close, they saw probably five thousand Union soldiers who’d taken themselves out of the battle and were huddled by the river, warning the guys coming over that they were doomed:

The same scene was witnessed by Ambrose Bierce, coming the same way as Hannaford:

Along the sheltered strip of beach between the river bank and the water was a confused mass of humanity—several thousands of men. They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. All the camp-following tribes were there; all the cowards; a few officers. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions.

A detail stuck out to Hannaford, when he wrote an account two years after the event, published as “Coming Up at Shiloh” in The Continental Review :

The antic drummer boy sticks in the mind. Shelby Foote may write like he was there, but in the end it’s pretend. Hannaford was there, and what he remembered was a boy pounding away on his drum, “to what purpose we could none of us divine.”

Travel tip: if you are visiting Shiloh, I recommend approaching via Corinth, MS. The Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center, built in 2004, is a stunning building and the film, exhibits and National Park staff there do a great job putting everything in context. They told me their site is designed to be a starting point on a journey to Shiloh. There’s a tantalizing library there for the serious buff:

The NPS guy in Corinth had so much integrity he would not recommend a lunch restaurant due to “favoritism,” but he allowed that The Rib Shack in Corinth was very popular. I recommend The Rib Shack in Corinth.


Chaucer/Beyoncé

from this NYT article about a new revelation in Chaucer studies.


Rail listeners

Trains of cars were heard coming in and going out of Corinth constantly. Some of the men who had been engaged in various capacities on railroads before the war claimed that they could tell, by putting their ears to the rail, not only which way the trains were moving but which trains were loaded and which were empty. They said loaded trains had been going out for several days and empty ones coming in. Subsequent events proved the correctness of their judgment.

That’s U. S. Grant, in his memoirs, talking about skillful rail listeners outside Corinth Mississippi, 1862.


The Mind of Napoleon

[Conversation, 1805] There is only one thing to do in this world, and that is to keep acquiring more and more money and power. All the rest is chimerical.

[Conversation, December 3, 1804, the day after his coronation] I come too late, nothing great remains to be done… Yes, I admit that I have had a fine career, I have gone far. But what a difference with antiquity! Look at Alexander: when he had conquered Asia and presented himself to the nations as the son of Jupiter, the whole Orient believed him, except for Olympias, who knew better, and except for Aristotle and a few Athenian pedants. Well, if I declared myself the sone of the Eternal Father… every fishwife would hoot when she saw me pass by. The masses are too enlightened these days: nothing great can be done anymore.

[Conversation, 1816] General rule: No social revolution without terror

[Incident, Saint Helena, 1815, related by Las Cases] Several slaves carrying heavy crates crossed our path. Mrs. Balcombe told them angrily to make room, when the Emperor intervened saying “Respect for the burden, Madam!”

[Reminiscence of Chaptal] Once among many times, Josephine was to take the waters at Aachen. The First Consul had me called and said “Josephine is leaving tomorrow for her water cure. I mist dictate her itinerary and outline her conduct. Write.” And he dictated twenty-one large sheets of paper.

[Letter, 1810] Poland exists only in the imagination of those who want to use it as a pretext for spinning dreams.

[Dictation, Saint Helena] A battle is a dramatic action which has its beginning, its middle, and its end. The battle order of the opposing armies and their preliminary maneuvers until they come to grips form the exposition. The countermaneuvers of the army which has been attacked constitute the dramatic complication. They lead in turn to new measures and bring about the crisis, and from this results the outcome of denouement.

[1808, letter] You say you have four hundred thousand men under arms, which is more than your monarchy ever had. You want to double their number: we shall follow your example. Soon even the women will have to be conscripted. When things come to this point, when all the springs are thus strained, war becomes desirable in order to bring about a release. Thus, in the physical world, at the approach of a storm, nature is in a state of tension, so painful that the outbreak of the storm is desirable because it relaxes the exacerbated nerves and restores heaven and earth to peaceful serenity. An acute but short pain is preferable to prolonged suffering.

[Note, August 27, 1808] In war, moral factors account for three quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one quarter.

[Conversation, 1800s] Military science consists in first calculating all the possibilities accurately and then making an almost mathematically exact allowance for accident. It is on this point that one must make no mistake; a decimal more or less may alter everything.

[Conversation, 1813] When an enemy army is in flight, you must either build a golden bridge for it or stop it with a wall of steel

Napoleon speaks of how Wellington devastated Spain during his retreat to Portugal:

In all of Europe, only Wellington and I are capable of carrying out such measures. But there is a difference between him and myself: in France… I would be criticized, whereas England will praise him.

There are a couple of interesting pages in this book where Napoleon explains all the reasons why he should have won the battle of Waterloo. Shoulda woulda coulda. More on Napoleon, his mind. Got this book after the recommendation of Scott Locklin‘s website.

Note to devoted readers: the pace of dispatches on this site will likely be diminished in the future as I’ve been directed by the System to write and produce ten episodes of a TV show.


Grave

My in-laws took us on a special trip to see this grave, one county away.


Shantyboat life

After the devastating Panic of 1893, thousands of abruptly unemployed and now homeless industrial workers, in river towns from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, found that they could cobble together a livable house on top of an abandoned commercial barge down on the waterfront, or build a shantyboat from scratch from the broad selection of cast-off timbers and driftwood lining virtually every mile of riverbank. Each year, hundreds of shanytboat families imply cast off from Memphis or Cincinnati and spent the warm months drifting down river, camping on remote islands, planting gardens or harvesting wild berries… During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration estimated that as many as fifty thousand Americans lived on shantyboats.

A version of this lifestyle on the river in Knoxville described in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

Rinker Buck manages to get his shantyboat from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania on the Ohio River all the way to New Orleans. He’s warned that he’s going to die, but in fact he has a mostly peaceful cruise. One problem he notes is that long stretches of the Mississippi are fuel deserts: there are no marinas or places to gas up your boat. He attributes this to a combination of factors, including a decline in recreational boating post the 2008 recession, and the record flooding of 2011.

He’s warned that the Coast Guard will remove his boat if he gets caught on a sandbar and has to leave it for awhile, but after some experience he scoffs at that. No one is bothering to clean up the river or remove obstacles to navigation, gas cans float by, it’s full of trash, old refrigerators, sunken cars, etc.

The Ohio and the Mississippi are nothing but Superfund sites with water running through them.

Really good chapter about Natchez, MS and the new national park project there to commemorate the Forks In the Road slave market. Bleak!

I’m giving this book away if anyone wants it!


Existential problem

On Meet The Press this week, Chuck and the gang were talking about the Ron DeSantis stunt of sending Venezuelan refugees to Martha’s Vineyard. Chuck pointed out that they were in kind of a bind. This was an obvious stunt, and the point of it was to get people like Chuck Todd to talk about it, instead of say Lindsay Graham’s very unpopular plan for a federal abortion ban. And yet, Chuck said, here we are talking about it. It was as if there were no option: Chuck knew it was a distraction, said it was a distraction, and yet there he was talking about it, lamenting that it was a distraction.

How do we escape this trap? Most people seem to have no problem: they are just not distracted by distractions. They don’t expend energy on this stuff. But that does not appear to be an option for Chuck Todd. One move might be for him (CT) to be a serious enough and strong enough figure to just say (or not say, but show) we’re not paying attention to this. But maybe such a figure could not host Meet The Press. And I shouldn’t be too hard on CT, that’s tough to do. I wouldn’t watch MTP if I didn’t have some affection for Chuck Todd.

Maybe I should just stop watching Meet The Press. But I do find it compelling television: even this absurd dilemma proved thought-provoking. I could conclude that the harm I do by feeding the MtP machine with my attention is worse than the gain from pleasurable feelings of studying its drama and contortions. I’m not there yet. As for the distraction, here I am talking about it.


Love of The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“There’s a writer for you,” he said. “Knows everything at and at the same time he knows nothing.”

This is a strange book. It opens in “flyover country”: literally. We’re on a transcontinental airplane trip. Very different from current day air travel: there are sleeping compartments, the passengers all chat, the stewardess offers them pharmaceuticals. (Are we on a Douglas Sleeper Transport?).

A theme of this book is the ability to see the whole picture, as if from on high, so maybe the plane flight makes sense as a metaphor. Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr, the tycoon of the title, is up with the pilots:

Obviously Stahr had put the pilots right up on the throne with him and let them rule with him for a while. Years later I travelled with one of those same pilots and he told me one thing Stahr had sad.

He was looking down at the mountains.

“Suppose you were a railroad man,” he said. “You have to send a train through there somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and not one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide – on what basis? You can’t test the best way – except by doing it. So you do it.”

The pilot thought he had missed something.

“How do you mean?”

“You choose some way for no reason at all – because that mountain’s pink or the blueprint is a better blue. You see?”

Fitzgerald based Stahr on Irving Thalberg, a boy wonder who ran production at MGM. In Genius of the System, there are some quotes from transcripts of story meetings with Thalberg, and he really does sound like this.

The plane we open on is forced to land in Tennessee. Our narrator, Cecila Brady, is taken to see Andrew Jackson’s house, The Hermitage. What of this? Or just a detail that felt real? Is Fitzgerald suggesting something of the movie obsession with American myth? Did he have in mind how the mansion on the Culver studios lot was modeled on Mount Vernon?

It’s said Jack Warner’s second wife redesigned the house to look more like Monticello.

Fitzgerald never finished this book. He died while writing it, after eating a Hershey bar. The day before he’d been wrestling with the scene where Stahr and the Communist get in a fistfight. Sheilah Graham says he told her:

Baby, this book will be good. It might even make enough money for us both to leave Hollywood.

He left Hollywood the next day.

Like John Fante’s Ask The Dust, Love of the Last Tycoon involves the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.

When he heard about the thousands dead at Long Beach he was still haunted by the abortive suicide at dawn

Wikipedia tells us only about 128 people actually died in the quake. Maybe a misperception at the time is accurate. Or who knows?

An evocation of a studio backlot:

Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland – not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French châteaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway by night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire.

Stahr makes a decision:

The oracle had spoken. There was nothing to question or argue. Stahr must be right always, not most of the time, but always – or the structure would melt down like gradual butter.

Here’s Malibu, 1933:

Past Malibu with its gaudy shacks and fishing barges they came into the range of human kind again, the cars stacked and piled along the road, the beaches like ant hills without a pattern, save for the dark drowned heads that sprinkled in the sea.

Would there were still fishing barges there.

The perspective of Love of the Last Tycoon is kind of odd, it’s narrated by Cecilia Brady, but she’s often describing, maybe imagining, scenes she was not present for.

This is Cecilia taking up the story. I think it would be most interesting to follow my own movements at this point, as this is a time in my life that I am ashamed of. What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.

(does it?)

In Gatsby too there’s a sort of observer/narrator.

The English novelist Boxley doesn’t get it with writing for the movies. Stahr tries to help him:

“If you were in a chemist’s,” conceded Stahr, and you were getting a prescription for some member of your family who was very sick -“

“- Very ill?” queried Boxley.

“Very ill. Then whatever caught your attention through the window, whatever distracted you and held you would probably be material for pictures.”

“A murder outside the window, you mean.”

“There you go,” said Stahr smiling. “It might be a spider working on the pane.”

“Of course – I see.”

“I’m afraid you don’t, Mr. Boxley. You see it for your medium but not for ours. You keep the spiders for yourself and you try to pin the murders on us.”

Stahr tries to press the point:

Our condition is that we have to take people’s own favorite folklore and dress it up and give back to them. Anything beyond that is sugar. So won’t you give us some sugar, Mr. Boxley?

More geography, LA 1933:

They rode through Griffith Park and out past the dark studios of Burbank, past the airports and along the way to Pasadena past the neon signs of roadside caberets… they passed over the suicide bridge with the high new wire.

Stahr on writers:

“I never thought,” he said, ” – that I had more brains than a writer has. But I always thought his brains belonged to me – because I knew how to use them. Like the Romans – I’ve heard that they never invented things but they knew what do with them. Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt – since I was a boy.”


Cheers for TV

Kurt Vonnegut and Nicholson Baker embraced good television. Vonnegut said he’d rather have written “Cheers” than any of his books. In Baker’s novel “The Anthologist” (2009), the poet-narrator comments, tongue only partially in cheek, that “any random episode of ‘Friends’ is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than 99 percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published.”

from Dwight Garner’s review of David Milch’s book in the NYT. Also enjoyed this part:

Entertainingly, Milch spends money the way you think you might like to spend money, if you had it: He impulsively pays people’s hospital bills, college tuitions and funeral expenses; he’s an absurd tipper; if he likes a pair of Prada loafers he’ll get wardrobe to find out the shoe size of everyone in his crew and buy them a pair, too. He’ll spring for a hundred Egg McMuffins, because they’re delicious, and hand them out.

OK well one of those things costs thousands of dollars and one costs exactly $279.


Ashurbanipal

In this relief, created around 645 BCE or so, excavated two thousand four hundredsome years later in 1853 or so in what’s now Iraq, brought to The British Museum, we see the ruler Ashurbanipal lounging and listening to tunes while to the left the decapitated head of Teumman, king of Elam, hangs from a tree.

Ashurbanipal was a rough guy. Also at The British Museum you can find this relief of his dudes flaying and torturing captured Elamites:

And at the Vatican Museum they’ve got one of bodies floating in the river flowing his arrival somewhere:

But Ashurbanipal did create a magnificent library, which (of course) they’ve hauled off to The British Museum as well.

In the library was a tablet that told some of the story of Gilgamesh, including an account of a great flood. It’s said that when George Smith was translated this tablet, and realized what he’d found, he started shouting and taking his clothes off.