Night Freight
1974, Oil on linen

Freight trains coming and going through a small town at night at fixed intervals have a music of their own. Wails and sirens, the rhythm of steel wheels guided out of darkness by the engine’s bright cyclopean eye. Whether by seeing them or just hearing them, trains have always expressed for me a deep mysteriousness, a portent, a message without words. My father, of blessed memory, would take our family in the car to “watch the no. 5 train go by”. He never spoke about this, but even from our house at night, he would stand transfixed until the train had passed. Travel by train was the best way to travel long distances, which he did frequently to order the clothing we sold from the “store”. And other times, he walked far down the tracks to send telegrams.

This was the nightlife of my brother and I throughout our childhood- large nights lit by single street lamps. Out of the dark night into the blinding light, the night freight would emerge. Its wheels are screaming, its horns are blowing, and its bell is ringing. Trainmen standing around the engine, are transfixed in the brightness of its blinding cyclopean eye. Farther back and faintly visible, the head of the engineer looks down from his window. The rims of train wheels are highlighted below in the night light. Hundreds of times we have seen this show from childhood on, but it never fails to draw us to attention.

I noticed men running to jump on the train and others running to get off. In these years we were still in the tail end of the Great Depression. When the freight train began to move, at just a certain speed, men would appear, darting out of the shadows of buildings and run toward the moving train, their arms reaching up to grab the ladders on the end of the boxcars. Laying hold, they climbed quickly up and disappeared into whatever boxcar door was open, or stood hidden between the cars and their shadows. Their faces were always in the shadow of their hats and I noticed, too, that so often the color of their coats was close to the deep, dead brown color of a boxcar.”