Dark End of the Street

It was November 1999, in New Orleans. I had been on the road for almost a month, traveling on my own aboard Amtrak trains. I had a rail pass that allowed me to get on and off wherever I pleased. That freedom was great, but I became terribly lonely. Part of the deal was I had to make at least two stops in Canada. So, I went from New York City to Rochester to Niagara Falls and then up to Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, and Toronto. All the while reading crazy shit like Pauline Reage's Story of O or Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy, meeting beautiful people, falling in love with perfect strangers a hundred times a day, discovering wonderful new places and then leaving almost as soon as some hint of a connection was made.

It was difficult, but also great. I wrote a lot and took tons of pictures. From Toronto, I made my way to Chicago, and that's when I pretty much fell apart. The terrible winds and loneliness broke me. I spent three nights in some sort of hostel slash homeless shelter slash psychiatric ward with no heat or hot water. I hated Chicago. It was so cold, so cold. I had to get out of there and I had to get to somewhere warm. I got on a train headed for New Orleans because I had been there before, and I knew the city and its warmth would heal me. It was an 18-hour trip.

I remember stopping in Memphis and watching the sun rise, all purple and orange and gold. I've always kind of regretted not getting off in Memphis—visit Graceland, say hello to the King—but I had my heart set on getting back to New Orleans. It was midday when we stopped in Tchula, Mississippi. It wasn't a planned stop. Do you know the town? Of course you do; I can hear it in your music. Dudes like Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor played in Tchula juke joints back in the day.

Our train went at a crawl right through the heart of the town, no more than 100 feet from people's front yards. I mean, not that they even had front yards. For all I know, Tchula doesn't even have paved roads. Just red dirt. People sat out on porches made of stacks of wood blocks, watching the train go by, wearing nothing but their underwear and the hats on their heads.

After awhile, the train just came to a dead stop and a crowd of people started to form around us. When I asked the conductor what was wrong, she told me that a car had crossed the tracks and was hit by the train. It happens all the time, she said. People do it on purpose to collect insurance, or just to die. I remember the women with their babies in their arms, fighting to get a better view of the accident. That was some shit. I remember thinking then that I knew nothing about life, I had no idea what it was like to struggle, to want. I looked it up later. In 2000, the population of Tchula was just over 2,300 and the median household income was something like $12,000. Over 50% of the population was under the poverty line. Crazy.

Anyhow, finally, I made it to New Orleans. I thought it would magically cure me, take away my sadness. And it did to a degree—it was warm, at least—but I was still lonely. And then I met this girl named Michelle. I don't know, I can't really remember how we met. Maybe we were staying at the same hostel or maybe we met at a bar. We only spent a couple of days together, but during that time, we were inseparable. She had short brown hair, brown eyes, and wore a brown bomber and a blue and green checked ivy cap. Every ten minutes, we'd have to stop so she could take a picture of something. We rode the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, drank coffee at Caf Du Mond, visited the cemeteries, stuffed our faces with Po' Boys and Muffulettas, got wasted on cheap beers at the Dixie Tavern and then again at Lafitte's while listening to Johnny Gordon play the piano. When we ran out of money, we'd steal tips from the bar and buy more beers.

She was only 19 years old, but she seemed to know so much about everything. Especially music. We sat in one bar for hours and hours, just playing songs on the jukebox. She knew them all. "Dark End of the Street," "Fortunate Son," "Ye Auld Triangle," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," "It Ain't Fair." She just kept putting money in the jukebox, singing and dancing in the yellow light.

When I asked her to recommend some of her favorite singers, she mentioned that she'd been deep into the French pop scene and rattled off names like Francoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, Jane Birken, and Brigitte Bardot. And then she started talking about you. Yeah, she was absolutely in love with you. She said your voice was "like a rainy day in heaven." At the time, she felt very much inspired by your album, Moon Pix, saying it "kept her alive." She wrote your name down in my notebook and circled it and drew a bunch of funny pictures of cats.

A day later, Michelle left for the west coast. That was it. No, we never spoke again. Funny thing, though: About two weeks later, I received an e-mail from her aunt. The subject was something like, "Need help finding Michelle." Something like that. Apparently, she had run away from home. I guess her aunt had found an address book. I didn't respond. I felt pretty sure that Michelle had gone off for good reasons, and I figured she'd be able to take care of herself. But, yeah, I thank her for introducing me to your music. She was right about your voice.

Ariel Bitran's picture

Right on. good piece. I feel inspired to not study for this final and get on a train. I'll see you in a year.

Stephen Mejias's picture

I made this trip after I graduated with highest honors, Ariel.

Al Marcy's picture

There are over six billion stories on the naked planet. This is about average ;)

nunh's picture

Nice piece - I'm from (and currently live in) New Orleans - you've got a nice writing style!