November 7, 2002
The Three Rivers pulled into Chicago a bit after 9 AM; the Empire Builder wasn’t scheduled to leave for St. Paul until after 2. I was reluctant to put my guitar into one of the lockers at Union Station—the whole point of this exercise, after all, was to get my guitar to the convention without entrusting it to shipping or storage systems of dubious security—but on the phone, Teresa reminded me that high-end museums usually have cloak rooms that will check anything. Which proved to be the case. Freed from my twenty pounds of Taylor guitar and hardshell case, I wandered around confirming my suspicion that if it’s in North America and it’s not at MOMA or the Met, it’s probably at the Art Institute of Chicago. The place was full of school tours, and the kids seemed well engaged with what they were seeing. I spent a good five minutes staring at Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” while three waves of kids came past, each time yielding a significant number who did double-takes—one suspects some of them had seen the painting’s many parodies but not the original. Around the corner, youthful cries of “Look, it’s that farmer picture” heralded, yes, “American Gothic.”
Back on Amtrak, the Empire Builder is a much nicer train, an immense affair of two-level “Superliner” cars interspersed with dining cars and glass-ceilinged observation decks. Pulling into Milwaukee around dusk, we passed what appeared to be an honest-to-gosh hobo encampment, complete with bonfire and hobo glyphs on the outdoor wall behind the men warming themselves. Here begins the upper Midwest, I thought to myself, where many older American things persist. (Probably an indefensible thesis, and yet I’ve always had that sense about the Northern Tier.)
The World Fantasy Convention itself was fine, and yes, I did get to make various kinds of music with writer/musician cronies like Charles and MaryAnn de Lint, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ellen Kushner, Lojo Russo, and others. Sometime Flash Girl Lorraine Garland has a new band which, somewhat to their distress, was booked to play at famed First Avenue on Sunday evening; due to a general sense of unreadiness for this heady venue, Lorraine arranged to commandeer a convention function room for Saturday evening, so that the band could get a bit of time playing in front of an audience, something they hadn’t actually done yet. They needn’t have worried; they were fine in front of thirty friends in the Duluth Room, and fine at First Avenue the following night. But their semi-public rehearsal did give me a chance to sit in with them on a few things, which was fun—I don’t get to jam with fiddle players every day, and Lorraine and I have similar sensibilities about how the song goes. The next evening, at an actual kinda-sorta official convention music performance thing, Charles and MaryAnn and Nina and I did a bunch of songs we’d actually kinda-sorta rehearsed, including vocals, even lead vocals, by me on a couple of them. I’m working on learning to sing, or rather, on not being neurotic about singing. Progress has ensued. Of course, working with musicians as accomplished as Charles and MaryAnn, to say nothing of Nina “True Voice of Hank Williams” Kiriki Hoffman, affords the comforting sense that if you screw up, someone else will know what to do.
I did plenty of stuff at the convention that wasn’t about music, but most of it was workaday publishing-business stuff I won’t bore you with here. I will note, though, that admirable small-press publisher Michael Walsh, of Old Earth Books, has reissued all five of the novels of the brilliant Edward Whittemore: Quinn’s Shanghai Circus and the “Jerusalem Quartet,” Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic. These aren’t genre fantasies; they’re not genre anything. They’re kind of spy novels, or secret histories, or religious fantasy, or addled vision of a different, better Middle East. There’s certainly nothing like them in all of fiction. Good on Mike for publishing them. (Now, Mike, how about making them available from your own web page? Right now they can be ordered on Amazon but not directly from you.)
The trip back was rougher. The Empire Builder to Chicago pulled out of St. Paul at 8 AM in gathering snow, and I’d had about two hours’ sleep after the immense Guy Fawkes’ party at Neil Gaiman’s home the night before. (Let me just say that a twenty-foot bonfire sporting a crucified pumpkin-headed Guy offers equal-opportunity offense to a remarkable number of sensibilities. The fireworks were good, too.) I did get to enjoy seeing some landscape by day that I’d previously passed through at night; I had no idea the Mississippi downriver from St. Paul passed through such rugged country. (As someone who spent much of his childhood in the American West, I’m always surprised when any landscape east of Denver is other than flat.) But it was a gray day and my head hurt. The layover in Chicago was shorter, and once I got onto the Lake Shore Limited heading home to New York, it seemed like the dining-car and lounge-car hours were constantly reset by sadists in order to keep me from getting any food or, even more importantly, coffee.
Still, as a final note, I will remark that, grubby though New York’s Penn Station may be, it has a far more secure system for claiming checked baggage than New York City’s airports. Which is to say, it has a system—actual humans who check your claim tickets before letting you waltz off with the bags you say are yours, which is more than is usually the case at LaGuardia or Newark, at any rate. (Good Amtrak!) Would I do it again? Maybe. The best thing about trains, to my mind, is that you get to see the back side of everything—the working America that hooks up to rail, the weird factories and power plants and canal junctions and scrappy parts of town that often don’t present themselves to Freeway America. On the other hand, America is big. I was in Train World for about 34 hours in each direction, and I’m beat. In the future, I may just bite the bullet and buy one of those several-hundred-dollar airline-proof guitar cases. But I don’t regret this experience. [11:55 AM]