April 25th, 2014

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WHO'S A-FREIGHT OF THE BIG BAD GULF?

"[A] a new class system [for writers] has arisen. Here’s how it breaks down: Freight Class…Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves…. Coach Class…Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level…. First Class…The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper."
—Donald Maas, "The New Class System"

The porter dumped my carpetbag on the platform with a sullen, surly and humiliating carelessness, almost heaving it. Luckily there was little of value inside, and nothing really fragile, save for one briney jar swaddled in my good red union suit. I might have been more emotionally distraught and publicly mortified if I weren't inured to such treatment by a career's worth of similar disdain. As matters stood, I just sighed mildly and dug out a dime with which to tip the man for his services—although, truth be told, I could have used that dime myself, for one of the tasty-looking cheese sandwiches being hawked by roving vendors at the station. All I had in my bag for this long trip south and then across the Rockies to the fabled land of California—where I hoped to recast myself from my role as penny-dreadful author and to make my fortune writing skits for the music halls of San Francisco—were three apples, a jar of homemade pickles, and a loaf of sourdough bread.

The contumacious lackey accepted the coin into his palm, regarded it direly for a prolonged interval, then pronounced his dismissive verdict. "Just what I should have expected from a freight-rank scribbler! The coach boys always tip two bits, and the ladies and gents in first class never lay down less than a gold liberty dollar! Pshaw!"

The man had some nerve, considering I had not even solicited his services, but had them peremptorily thrust upon me. I could have explained to him that ten cents probably represented a larger proportion of my weekly earnings than the golden liberty did of the income of the high and mighty ones, but I refrained with another sigh. Instead, I picked up my bag and clambered ungracefully into my designated coach, there being no handy set of folding stairs to aid my attainment of the interior, but merely a short vertical ladder of some three rungs.

Inside I could still see my breath on this frigid, sunless January morning in the unforgiving frontier burg of Denver. Only one small wan coal stove at the end of the car served the whole crowded interior. I reckoned the management felt that our body heat would suffice, liken we were cattle. I began to regret packing my good union suit in favor of the shabbier, more threadbare one that I had thought would suffer less from the rigors of travel. Well, it was too late to change now, given the presence of women and children in the coach, so I would just have to snug my mackinaw closer about myself and hunker down.

I was just about to occupy the first empty seat my eye fell upon when I heard my name called.

"Brick! Brick Brewer, you old rascal! Come on over here."

I espied then an amiable colleague of mine, a fellow freighter named, however improbably, Swarthmore Chatmouse. I ventured to his hard bench and negotiated a place beside him.

"Well, Swarthy, heading west yourself, are you?"

"Yup, Brick, I've finally wised up and thrown over this fiction-writing delusion. What a botheration it all was! Having to rely on those little bitty publishing houses that don't do no promotion nor pay a living advance. Trying to find a jobbing printer who will set type for a pamphlet of my tales and then having to hawk it to hell and back myself— No sirree bob, those days are behind me now. I've done gone and signed up with the hard-drinking journalism boys. Got me a job on the Frisco Chronicle, covering the shipping news." Swarthy looked uncommon gloomy for a moment, then forced himself to brighten up. "Can't say the writing will be as much fun as making up tales of pirates and explorers and steam men of the prairies and what not, but it'll put groceries on the table and keep a roof over my head a lot more reliably. Now, what about you?"

I explained my plans to go to work for the theater, such as it was, expressing a similar regret at leaving behind my series of yellow-back tales about Harold Haptic, Boy Adventurer. Swarthy proclaimed his pleasure that we'd be sharing a new city still. We concluded our conversation as steam from the mighty engine christened The Muse of Commerce billowed up outside the drafty windows, and then the train began to move.

A few hours south of the city, with snow starting to fall thicker around us, we broke out our provisions. I traded one of my apples to a pretty widder woman for a leg of fried chicken, Swarthy dug out an entire bunch of celery from his capacious pockets, as well as a twist of salt, and between us we put together a nice little lunch. Afterwards, feeling sleepy, Swarthy and I huddled together for warmth like two tramps in a ditch, drifting off into the arms of Morpheus.

Oddly enough, it was the cessation of movement that woke me. Outside, although night had not yet fallen, all was a diffuse and featureless twilight in the face of the blistering blizzard raging around us.

Well, the menfolk in the coach had all we could do to reassure the women and children that everything would turn out fine, though truth be told, we hardly felt so certain of the outcome ourselves. Swarthy and I managed to distract the kids for a while by putting on one of my skits whose script I carried in my duffel. Though I believe the mothers might have been a little disapproving of the slightly racy fare, even though Swarthy toned down his lines when taking the lady parts. Then, just as folks were getting restless, the conductor, a kindly mustachioed old duffer, came in with a swirl of snow.

"Folks, I won't minimize our troubles. We are snowbound in the middle of nowhere, and there's no telling how long it will be before the storm stops and rescuers can reach us. So we've all just got to stay calm and hang tight."

A big lanky Swede spoke up. "What about the other cars? Do they have more food and heat than we do? Can't we join them?"

"The Muse of Commerce is just a three-car train, not counting the caboose. The other two cars have been hired by some writers who are going to a trade union shindig in Albuquerque. And they don't want to share, though I asked them right politely."

Worried and somewhat incensed, I spoke up. "My friend and I are also writers. Let us go talk to these men. We might even know some of them, and prevail upon them to assist us."

"Well, that's okay by me."

To cheers of support, Swarthy and I soldiered on through the snowy gap to the next car, where the coach-class writer types were ensconced.

The space was warm and cheery and well-accoutered, though not ostentatious, and occupied by about ten fellows. I could smell a nice slab of roast beef heating up on their stove. I did indeed recognize a couple of the occupants, such as Arbuthnot Moreland, author of Consequential Strangers, etc,, and Jack Rexrode, author of The Quivering Lindens, etc.. They greeted us diffidently, and we stated our case.

Rexrode, an oily, self-satisfied sort, seemed to be their spokesman. "Brick, old lad, we'd like to help you and your fellow hoi polloi, but we barely have enough provisions and elbow room for ourselves. It's not as if we're possessed of infinite resources, you know. Why, I had to save up for three months by cutting out my various salon memberships and dining out less frequently, in order to afford this trip, and I'm sure the others here can tell similar stories of hardship. Advances and sales are down for us middling grade penmen, and it's all we can do to scrape up a review in the Atlantic Monthly or Scribner's. And besides—how shall I phrase this most delicately?—I fear that the sensibilities of our two social strata would be jarring when commingled. Listen to me now: all our books put together don't sell as much as just one of those three-volume barnburners from the firsters up front. Why not go beg from them?"

Swarthy seemed ready to lay into Rexrode and his crew, but I clamped a hand over his bristly mug. I was mighty incensed too at the lack of common humanity, but realized it would do no good to argue.

"I'll take your advice on that. C'mon, Swarthy, let's mosey."

Out into the snowy gulf betwixt carriages again, and into the first-class coach.

The place was decked out fancier than any of the notorious Denver cathouses, boasting creamy flocked wallpaper and plush divans, but held only three people, two men and a woman, famous faces all. Sonatina Voyard, author of A Life of Meaning, etc.. Slayton Bluebottle, author of The Analytics of Love, etc.. And Auret Childermaas, author of Eternal Transience, etc.. There was a mouth-watering buffet—lobsters, squabs, turtle soup—laid out on a long table that would have fed an army, and innumerable champagne bottles in various states of depletion.

Before I could even open my mouth, Childermaas and Bluebottle were plying us with food, while Voyard was casting her limpid poetess cow eyes at us and solicitously brushing snow from our shoulders.

"What a rugged pair you are, to make your way to us through all this deuced inclement weather!" enthused Childermaas. "Just the kind of sturdy chaps I pictured behind your garish covers. Oh, yes, I confess to dipping into your quaint tomes whenever I desire to rest my brain from thinking and have a good chuckle or two. Popular art, I call it! Often, I confess, I lift a bit here and there for my own purposes, like a man who repurposes a shard of beach glass into a beautiful mosaic. I'm sure you don't mind. Here, have another canape before you go! Sonatina, Slayton, surely you can spare a couple of complimentary books for our comrades! Be sure to autograph them nicely. 'To Bristow and Swale, yours in literary fellowship,' that sort of thing. All right now, we'll see you again in Albuquerque, perhaps! Farewell!"

And with that, Swarthy and I found ourselves out in the snow, and we could hear the door lock behind us.

Swarthy started swearing and made as if to hurl the book he carried into the storm.

"Don't do that," I said. "They burn just as nice as logs."

We made our way back through the insouciant coach car to the freight accommodations and battened down.

Well, I hardly need to tell you of the fate of our train and its passengers, since it was a seven-days-wonder written up in newspapers across this great nation. I particularly commend to you Swarthy's prize-winning account in the Chronicle. Rescue did not come for a week, by which time all the writers in coach class had perished in a fratricidal orgy of bickering about their comparative reputations and who was gonna get to teach at Mr. John Harvard's school and who would have to settle for Princeton, until they fell to stabbing each other with their steel quill pens. Meanwhile, Voyard, Bluebottle and Childermaas had died in agony from eating spoiled oysters. But everyone in freight survived nicely, especially when we got our hands on the posthumously unused provisions in the other two cars. In fact, the atmosphere became downright festive, especially when Old Sam the conductor broke out his banjo, and Swarthy accompanied him on the mouth organ.

I became right intimate with the Widder Sheffield—Amelia—once we got some privacy up front after heaving the corpses of the three literary lions out into the snowdrifts, and we have since gone on happily to become man and wife.

My own rendering of the tragedy—The True and Gruesome Account of the Snowy Immural of the Muse of Commerce, with a Blessedly Demi-happy Ending—went on to sell over one hundred thousand copies, even though I had to bowlderize some of our more risque and irreverent doings, putting me firmly in the ranks of the first-class authors.

But even so, nowadays I never make the mistake of traveling any other way than freight.