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Postmodern Village
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The Mainly Annual
EastWesterly Review/Postmodern Village
Conference 2009

Notes on the 16th Annual Postmodern Village Conference and Hobo-Hagiography
by E.W. Wilder

“The train has certain advantages.”

The back window can get a little dirty. This from a well-meaning but altogether wet-behind-the-ears Assistant Professor (of “Cultural Studies,” no less) on the planning committee for the 16th Annual PostmodernVillage conference. At my age, being stuck with committee work is a bit like the weather: occasionally unexpectedly pleasant, sometimes frightening, but, in the end, inevitable and utterly outside the control of any given individual.

This was a genuine, and no doubt heartfelt, proposal by my junior colleague on how to deal with the enormous numbers of proposals actually submitted to us by desperate municipalities. Our situation was completely unprecedented, as siting the conference is usually a tangled mess of ISDN lines, insurance riders, and, afterwards, promises never to return.

But times, you may have noticed, are bad. Very bad.

Ahhh, industry!The saddest plea was a glossy, full-color proposal from Detroit. None of us on the committee were cruel enough to tell the already beleaguered Motor City that the presence of a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand broke, drunk, destructive intellectuals was liable to further strain the taxed police and fire-fighters of the former Capital of Industrial Production and cost them money instead of providing a modest boost. Besides, none of knew if it was proper to get a rabies shot before we went in order to protect us from the wild animals that are reclaiming the town or a tetanus shot to protect us from the ever-encroaching rust of abandoned factories.

So, when the aforementioned and innocently disarmed academic floated the idea that we hold the conference on Amtrak, the other committee members pounced on the innovative and egalitarian nature of the idea, extolling its perceived Guthrie-esque proletarianism and low carbon footprint.

I failed to point out the noise and the constant motion. I failed to mention the fact that the romantic images of life on the rails are just that, and that as people versed in the figurative and trained in demystification we should know better. I failed to say these things, consumed as I was in shading the armpit of a particularly elaborate and perhaps scandalous doodle in the margins of my agenda. And so, it was decided, contacts were made, fees and tickets purchased, and the conference held on the train.

Of Class and Klassiness, a Primer

The first thing we discovered was that America's much-ignored class system was, indeed, alive and well and government-enforced on Amtrak. Rather than a Populist Dreamland, the rail system, patterned as it is on the private lines of old, maintains a plebeian and disempowered coach class, topped by several tiers of sleeper-car classes (no irony that these classes are “sleepers”). These latter all have the same access to perks and powers, but among them have vast disparities in actual accommodations.

The cost, at any rate, kept attendance down, tweaked I'm sure by the poor economy. Representatives from state colleges and universities were few and far between, with their tax-bases cracked and crumbling, and those from the private schools were there mainly in order to keep up their institutions' rankings on the Best Colleges lists. It was clear all attendees were personally and professionally stunned by cutbacks, lost in the deserts that are now their endowments.

The signs were hacked in LA's Union Station, but there was no Kelsy among us. For once, it wasn't our fault! Having said all that, the train food wasn't too bad, and the views, while appropriately industrial-wasteland, were at least as fascinating as the papers themselves.

The three medical emergencies were not our fault, I'm sure, and the complimentary local sparkling wine on the Coast Starlight did tend to go to our heads a bit. Only one of us was actually asked to leave the train, and special thanks to Klamath Falls for accepting what is our version of a released prisoner from Gitmo. I will have to say, though, that those George Eliot scholars just have no idea how to hold their liquor.

The Route

Instead of the usual three days, the 16th Annual PostmodernVillage Conference and HoboLand Expo stretched to ten, with conference-goers getting on and off the Conference Car at points convenient for or of interest to them. Beginning in Newton, Kansas (Amtrak, despite the large number of rails and massive traffic in grain, doesn't stop in Purewater) at 3:00 in the morning, a core group of 20 boarded the Southwest Chief headed for Chicago.

A layover in DC led to a walking trip for some around the Mall. Others continued to drink in the station.The Midwest, as always, was lovely, subtle, and at times tedious, but the first three paper presentations made up for most of Illinois. Chicago gave us a bit of a layover, and we lost two attendees somewhere beneath the Sears (now Willis) Tower, but we gained 15, a pattern we'd continue on the Capitol Limited, which took us all the way to DC.

As you'll read below, our papers ironically mirrored the sad trip through the Rust Belt, but the Alleghenies were stately, despite the fact that the Amtrak chicken was dry.

The kudzu that ate the SouthJoining the Crescent at DC for the trip to New Orleans were 25 more, having had a few detrain in the Capital, and the kudzu-covered route inspired many an essay into Southern Culture, some of which will no doubt appear next year. The Viewliner train did cause some confusion as to who was bunking with whom during the “breakout” sessions, but once we redirected Stan Wankey back to his own room, the consternation died down.

Birmingham, Alabama's Empire Building Also, EEEEEEE!

The number of conferees who decided just to stay in New Orleans, many of them for good, was a bit embarrassing for the organizers, not that we blame them: papers delivered over chicory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde are just delicious.

Taking the Sunset Limited from New Orleans through Texas and on to LA proved three things: 1. I'm allergic to Texas. 2. Texas is full of trash. 3. There's a whole hell of a lot of Texas out there. However, our journey there did allow us to get through the bulk of the papers, as the view became monotonously scrubby and mesquite after a while.

Sunrise near Mount ShastaThe Coast Starlight, which we picked up in LA, has already been mentioned, but it did give us an opportunity to take a few “view breaks” on our way up to Seattle. We decided to set up the conference shop in the quite agreeable Parlour Car, the last bit of the storied El Capitan. Snifters of brandy notwithstanding, much was discussed. Woody. Very woody.

In Seattle, we boarded the Empire Builder for our marathon trip back to Chicago. Papers delivered in Glacier National Park were largely ignored due to the distraction of the spectacular vistas, but we'll have those available as .pdf files to conference subscribers as soon as we get them in.

Lessons Learned

Academics are suckers for a decent view, probably because so many of us are stuffed into interior offices of storefront satellite campuses these days, and so relatively few actually experience the red-brick tree-shaded quads of ancient, better times. We love a view, that is, if we don't have to work for it, and the train was perfect for that. But despite all the window-gazing, there was some great scholarly firepower in evidence as well, enough to make any grant-providing agency proud to cough up the dough.

Papers from Train 1: Southwest Chief