The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century
Publication Year: 2010
Culled from the 20 years she spent traveling the American West as a freight brakeman and conductor, Linda Grant Niemann's Railroad Noir delves into the darker side of railroading. The 1990s were a time of crisis for workers caught in the breakup of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Niemann's tales of exhaustion, alcoholism, homelessness, and corporate blundering present a revelatory account of railroading life. Photographer Joel Jensen realizes Niemann's vision of the working West with images of cowboy bars, blue motels, and railroaders working in electrical storms, white-outs, and desert heat waves. The result is an honest, gritty, and striking collaboration.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Railroads Past and Present
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I met Joel Jensen when Mark Hemphill, the editor of Trains, put us together, seeing in both our work the same qualities. Before he sent me photographs to look at, Joel sent me a hand-written letter with questions about the story, the main characters, and the mood. The photographs he sent were perfectly in sync with the trajectory of the narrative...
1 Boomer in a Boom Town
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“You girls are going to quit the first time it really rains,” conductor Wiggins told us railroad women as we were reporting to work one night. It was 1979, one of the first years that women were hired to work as brakemen/switchmen on the Southern Pacific Railroad. About fifteen years later, I went to his retirement party. It had rained a few times since then, and, that first year, never as hard as it did in Houston, Texas...
2 Breaking-in Blues
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Actually, it wasn’t so bad breaking into the operating department on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Jimmy Carter was president, the civil rights movement had gathered a decade of steam, and some legal barriers to women’s employment had fallen due to lawsuits. Ethnic minorities had preceded us into the crafts of trainmen and engineers, forcing the all-white unions to redefine their ideas of brotherhood...
3 Blues for Ron
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I rode to work with Ron every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from Aptos, on the coast near Santa Cruz, eighty miles to Oakland, where we took the California Zephyr from her initiating station to Sparks, Nevada, where we laid over for the westbound Zephyr out of Chicago in the morning. Ron was my conductor and there were two of us brakemen, called by Amtrak “assistant conductors.”...
4 Beet Inspector
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In Salinas Valley, beet season is in the spring. Trucks move the turnip- shaped sugar beets to trackside loading centers, where they ride conveyor belts up to funneled loading chutes, filling up old rusty gondola cars that are never used except during beet season. These ancient cars have rotting wooden slats along the sides of the cars, and the beets inside soon start to ferment, filling the already humid valley night with a sour intoxication...
5 The Blue Motel
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Winter layoff, slow time on the board, I drove to Bakersfield then out to Ridgecrest, to a Bureau of Land Management mustang roundup, my new distraction from trouble in mind. In the cold white afternoon, I got restless and had to drive somewhere, outrun the blues I felt coming on. I drove and drove down Panamint Valley, tan and chocolate and white, long string of Southern Pacific grey hoppers at Trona...
6 The Big Four Bar
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The one time I found a lover who understood my work was when I met Veronica, the San Francisco police sergeant. Never mind she was drop-dead Italian gorgeous in that cop suit. She knew what work is. No whining about schedules or lack thereof, no drama-filled moments just before I caught my train. It helped, though, that I had a regular run. I deadheaded up from Santa Cruz to work the midnight train back from the city Friday...
7 Learning Spanish
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The Southern Pacific Railroad, for my whole career, was trying to dismantle itself. Over half the roster disappeared. Technology changed the craft radically. There were mileposts in this process; in 1984 we lost the caboose and one brakeman on a crew. Eight years later, the other brakeman was in jeopardy. The company wanted to run trains with just a conductor and an engineer...
8 Organized Booming
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On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas came out of the Lancandon jungle and took over the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, where I had been visiting two weeks before. I wished I could be there, instead of where I was, facing the Southern Pacific’s implementation of the region/system board. Management had decided to utilize their surplus brakemen on the airline system and have a roster of extra crew members who could be deployed anywhere for twenty days at a time...
9 The Border
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Since I had worked in El Paso before, a year in 1984, I could actually do my job when the railroad sent me there in March. And I had old friends. What had changed was that I now spoke Spanish. This to them was an event more incredible than if I had gone to the moon. “Si, hijo de la chingada,” my foreman said as an aside...
10 On the Road Again
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In April, after El Paso, the railroad sent me to work in LA, ironically, my former home. I had left it in 1964 for college, but I only got as far as the University of California, Riverside, about ten miles from the huge West Colton yard that was invisible to me then. In 1967, I transferred up to UC Santa Cruz for my senior year and really never left, marrying a professor and commuting up to graduate school in Berkeley. The LA I left was full of childhood tragedies...
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11 A Starry Night
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A starry night, no coastal fog, called for the Mission Bay, on duty under the bayshore road, I have a letter from Danute, one of the free Canadians, disciple of the goddess Kali, who sleeps with men to enlighten them. La Llorona, vampire at the crossroads, she calls me her little pumpkin flower. I read the words by the overhead in my truck, zip up my Carhartt coat, step into the Mexican night...
12 Train to the Underworld
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I had read many stories about journeys to the underworld. Aeneas, Dante, the hero twins in the Popul Vuh, Amos Tutuola in the Bush of Ghosts, Carlos Castaneda with his guide Don Juan—all journey to the spirit world to return enlightened and changed. The ability to do so was a basic shamanic job description. Authors claimed this ability also...
13 Back to Work
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While I was in Mexico, writer Carol Karasik told me about a shaman named John in Santa Fe who was helping a friend of hers who had cancer. While I probably wouldn’t have listened to this tip in the States, being in Mexico made me more receptive to folk wisdom. I think it was the weight that old collective beliefs had there. And so, before I returned to work, I went to Santa Fe and looked up John...
14 The Hospital Yard
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I thought of San Jose as the hospital yard because everyone seemed to have something grave the matter with them, as I did. We were all cripples or those rare saints who preferred time with their families to a big paycheck. My foreman that day was Jessie Cervantes, who was 64 years old and limped. When he saw me he looked disappointed because he figured he would have to do a lot more work than he wanted to...
15 The Hopper at Granite Rock
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The industry track at Granite Rock was a little pastoral interlude on the district job. Not that the tracks and switches were in good condition, or the adjacent junkyard pull was not treacherous. The granite dust on summer days made you reach for your bandana or a dust mask for your face, if you had to be out in the fine powder the engine kicked up. The tracks leading in ran along Coyote Creek, which kept its natural shape...
16 The Lawrence Switcher
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In the twenty years that I’d worked for the railroad, I had rarely held a regular job. I was a boomer, never a home guard. This was partly circumstance and partly inclination—in the years after I hired out in 1979, Southern Pacific eliminated three out of five jobs on a crew, so I followed the work and returned home to Watsonville Junction where I could hold the extra board for beet season in the spring and fall. Being the baby on extra boards all over the Southwest gave me certain skills...
17 The Lord of the Night
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When I hired out as a brakeman in Watsonville Junction, California, the Southern Pacific railroad was up for grabs. In 1984, they told us we were going to merge with the Santa Fe, and engines were even painted with combined logos. Conductors in the know showed up with Santa Fe ball caps and uttered statements like “Once John Santa Fe takes over, this kind of crap will cease.” Whichever road perceived itself as weaker saw the takeover as Sherman’s march to the sea...
18 Midnight Train to Georgia
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My last day on the railroad, a photographer from the Santa Cruz Sentinel showed up to take pictures. My year’s leave of absence was a safety net so that if I couldn’t stand the academic life, I could always return. My friend Donna agreed to drive with me across the country, while my earthly possessions remained in storage in Santa Cruz. Since she is an art historian and had given me a life-sized poster of John Wayne
19 The Spiritual Beauty of the Rails
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Joshua Slocum, the captain and boat builder who sailed alone around the world, writes about the “spiritual beauty” of being at the mercy of the ocean. Slocum built a perfectly balanced sloop that would hold its course with no one at the helm. He knew how to navigate, using only a dollar alarm clock, and made every one of his landfalls. He even renounced killing fish, not wanting to harm another creature, eating only the flying fish that brained themselves on his mast...
20 Old Head, New Hire
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When I think about the deskilling of the craft, the normalizing of high turnover of workers, the attack on unions and job protection funds, and the blame-the-worker safety programs, I think about the bonds of craft and human satisfaction in life that railroad work used to represent. Surely this way of life is worth fighting for, both in railroading and other walks of life. I would hope it will be there for my successors...
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Page Count: 168
Illustrations: 23 color illus., 17 b&w illus., 1 map
Publication Year: 2010
Series Title: Railroads Past and Present