Lincoln Street

May 17, 2013

Every man’s memory is his private literature. —Aldous Huxley

When you live far from your childhood home you see few reminders of your early years but when you do it’s revealing and sometimes startling. Just one word can ignite a firestorm of memories for you, the memoirist.

One word, and memory’s mystifying chemistry swirls the past and present into that amalgam of moments called life. Years fly by in an experience that can best be called time travel.

For me the word is Lincoln.

The Vista has many signs, most meaningless. A few stones’ throw from the statehouse, however, stands a historical marker. It explains how Lincoln Street got its name and does something more. It ferries me across the river of time.

It’s a warm spring day. USC students jog by as businessmen talk on cells. Though I’m standing at the corner of Gervais and Lincoln, I close my eyes and see my fifth-grade teacher Helen Turner leaning against her desk in Lincolnton, Georgia. It’s 1961 all over again. She wears black-framed glasses, a white blouse, and a red skirt. She’s reading a letter from a fellow fifth-grade class in Illinois. She laughs and snorts and crosses and re-crosses her lean, arresting legs. These northern students, she says, can’t believe a county in the Deep South took its name from Abraham Lincoln.

We laughed at these Yankee kids daring to think a county in Georgia would name itself after Honest Abe, whose general, Sherman, had charred Georgia and South Carolina’s heart and soul. The very idea.

The sign at Gervais and Lincoln explains that Lincoln Street—just as my home does— takes its name from Benjamin Lincoln, Revolutionary War hero. I know the story. When a Southerner comes from a county named Lincoln he better know the details.

Well damn. It turns out Benjamin Lincoln was related to Honest Abe. President Lincoln descended from Samuel Lincoln. Benjamin Lincoln descended from Thomas Lincoln. Samuel and Thomas were brothers.

General Benjamin Lincoln was 33 years old when Lincoln County became Georgia’s twenty-fourth county. Counties in Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Vermont, and Maine took on Benjamin Lincoln’s name as well. Columbia and Savannah named streets after him. Thank God for that. We boys from Lincoln didn’t bear this burden alone.

This glorious commemoration for Benjamin Lincoln who was a bit of a bureaucrat surprises me. He lost most battles he participated in. His claim to fame is receiving General Cornwallis’s sword of surrender at Yorktown at the Revolutionary War’s end.

All this General Lincoln business aside, Lincoln Street is my favorite street in Columbia. It’s bricked and that gives it a quaint cobblestone-like appearance. It feels a bit like Charleston. The Blue Marlin reinforces that impression. The restaurant sits where the old Seaboard Air Line Passenger Depot sat, once upon a time a train station/restaurant. That old diner—a scene out of the 1940s—looked like an Edward Hopper painting. Please pay when served two signs over the counter insisted. Tells you a lot.

I’m fond of Lincoln Street because it reminds me of home and because it gives me other memories. For several years running in the 1990s I would go to the Blue Marlin on my birthday, always alone. I’d order shrimp and grits. Just down the front door steps was where I boarded the Silver Star. That had been a ways back, 1984, a happier time.

Having lost confidence in my Audi, I made my way to Lincoln Street one night and walked into the old train station to buy tickets to Florida. Late one evening, morning to be truthful, a fun-loving blonde, Linda, and I boarded Amtrak’s Silver Star at 12:15. We were going to Deland. More to the point we were going to her sister’s wedding.

We took our seats. Nightriders, we were excited but unsure what to expect. A few other travelers—nomads comes to mind—joined us. An assemblage of rolling steel we pulled out of Lincoln Street and crept through town. We eased past an out-of-place building where the word ADLUH glowed red, a place where men mill flour and cornmeal, occasionally giving away free biscuits city mornings. An inexorable pressure built, and soon city lights were no more.

We hurdled through darkened countryside swaying side to side in a rhythmic clacking that would be our accompaniment all night. Approaching crossings the train would sing its forlorn song: two long blasts, a short blast, and a final long blast. Percussive clacking and airy weeping goes the night train anthem: how mournful in the dead of night, how lonely to those in blackened countryside lying in beds. Perhaps a few envy the travelers piercing their night. To what magical places do they go?

Easy to romanticize strangers. Easy, too, to envy that mythical venue Somewhere Else.

All the night clacking conveyed me back into another time to Steve Goodman’s song of regret, The City of New Orleans.* Arlo Guthrie transformed Goodman’s lament into a 1972 hit. A train sounds its dirge-like notes with good cause. It’s a goner.

Darkness, doleful horns, riding with sad strangers … altogether it’s a requiem, for night riding upon steel wheels induces measured sadness. Whenever I hear a train in the dead of night I think of Lincoln Street and I get the blues. Passenger trains as we’ve known them have long been on the way out in the U.S. and when you ride one you’re riding out of—not into—history. Goodman, a clairvoyant of sorts, knew this long ago. He captured the abandoned beauty and loneliness of train travel. In the Lowcountry Arlo sang to me.

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans, changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee. Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning, through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea. And all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream and the steel rails still ain’t heard the news. The conductor sings his song again. The passengers will please refrain, this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor. The rhythm of the rails is all I felt rocking through the Lowcountry. Upright passengers swung like pendulums. Those sleeping rolled about but not for long.

We stopped in Savannah and upheaval was on the way. A drunken woman boarded the train. She had an unruly head of hair and rowdy temperament. She looked like a burnt-out go-go girl who long ago went-went one time too many. She was a business lady. She went from man to man crying out, My name is Mandy, and I have sweet candy.

She said she sang at a local bar in Savannah, this gypsy chanteuse. The conductor put her off at the next stop. And then all grew quiet but for the clacking of the wheels. Unlike trains in Italy and Spain clacking is what you hear. Always. Sleep was impossible and besides we weren’t in a sleeper car.

Our car—nowhere as poetic as a magic carpet of steel rolled on—a rail-hugging bus carrying drifters and a Georgia boy with no trust in his car. There was nothing to do but sit in the dark and gaze at a blur of ghostly trees and fields punctuated by yellow lights. Occasional pale water shone silver as the Silver Star crossed rivers and swamps and the tips of estuaries. Perhaps alligators watched as we hurtled by, our diesel breath rattling palmetto fronds and streaming Spanish moss back like an old woman drying her hair.

We slowed then came to a dead stop. I pressed my face against the window to see a lamp gyrating shafts of light. Swirling phantoms filled the night. Suddenly the Silver Star lurched from side to side. Just feet away the Silver Meteor roared by bound for the Big Apple. Sitting on a side rail the Meteor’s shockwave battered us.

We resumed our journey, a non-eventful ride from that point on.

Once upon a time riding the rails flourished. Before airliners took off, before cars and Eisenhower’s interstate system dominated travel, train was the way to go. Opulence comes to mind. Elegant dining and well-appointed coaches coddled the affluent. We, however, had nothing to eat as we sped toward the land of gators, oranges, manatees, and murderers but it mattered little. I dreamed of streamliners and famous trains with names like Hiawatha, Ferdinand Magellan, Zephyr, and Chief. I envied the past.

Linda’s journey and mine ended in the Deland depot around 7:30 in the morning. It was there that déjà vu took hold. Behind the depot and across a large field sat old noble locomotives along with a few rusting passenger coaches. A handsome locomotive, tan and dignified sat out front at a 45-degree angle to a jumbled cluster of retired colleagues. A station attendant explained to me that some fellow was collecting them. He was providing a resting place for some of the 1930’s great luxury trains. These grand old trains I imagined had taken luminaries around these United States. Now they rested in a graveyard of sorts and I thought of Goodman’s song again.
We went to the wedding and my chief memory is hearing the bride’s father describe the night he found an alligator on his front walkway. We rode the train back to Columbia a trip I have no memory of whatsoever, but I know we got off the train at Lincoln Street, the inspiration for me the memoirist.
All these memories and more come to me when I see the Lincoln Street historical marker. It’s here that I sometimes work on my laptop in the corner Starbucks, my office away from home. Here I’ve made book deals over café lattes. Here, too, Sherman’s troops took over South Carolina’s capital. Just down the street is the Confederate printing plant that Sherman torched. Heaps of memories mound up here, tatters and snips from classes from elementary and high school and later times.

Lincoln Street. It sounds a bit like a television series, and in a way it is. Every time I go downtown to Lincoln Street a series of scenes play in my mind. And wild characters too.

We all have Lincoln Streets. You see a special place, and your brain’s chemistry uncovers memories buried deep in dust and pulls them to the surface, an archaeological dig of sorts. We think we forget, but we don’t. All we need is a spark. Something as simple as a sign will do.

Many years later on an October afternoon I was driving south on I-95 below Savannah. Headed to the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, I glimpsed a distant trestle over golden marsh. Was that the trestle I once rode across? My name is Mandy and I have sweet candy. What happened to the unruly woman from Savannah? Dead I’d bet. And Linda? We went our separate ways in 1987. Still friends. And all the people who rode the grand old trains in the Deland graveyard? Long dead. And Helen Turner, she of the legs that turned young boys’ heads. Dead. And the glory days of streamliners and Zephyrs. Dead. And the couple we sent off honeymooning? Divorced. Steve Goodman? Dead. And the alligator? Surely he’s dead too.
But none really aren’t gone. For me they live on in a place in the Vista called Lincoln Street and all it takes to summon them up is one word. Just one word. Lincoln.

* The City of New Orleans lyrics ©1970, 1971 EMI U Catalogue, Inc and Turnpike Tom Music ASCAP)

Sign up here to receive MidlandsLife weekly email magazine.