Recently a photograph slipped from the dusty dust jacket of a book that I hadn’t opened in years. It was a sepia-toned shot of a couple strutting their stuff on the Atlantic City boardwalk on a shimmering Easter Sunday in an era of FDR, big bands and Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy. The woman, looking elegant and confident, wears a dress topped with a bow beneath a long open coat, pearls, earrings and a hat. Gloves and purse are slung over one arm, her other arm locked with that of her gentleman. That gentleman is resplendent in a suit with lapels cooler than a sea breeze. He squints slightly into the sun with an insouciant grin and a pencil-thin mustache, dark hair tousled, Vitalis fighting a losing battle with the wind. A cigarette—let’s call it an unfiltered Chesterfield–dangles from the fingers of his right hand.
The photo might have been a still from a Boardwalk Empire sequel set fifteen or twenty years after the original, a gangster and his moll headed back to their sky-hugging suite at the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, the Marlborough-Blenheim or the Traymore. The pair look like very interesting people, people that you’d like to know. They were. I knew them, rather well: Ed McGinnis and Claire Harrington McGinnis.
Mom and Dad.
Dad, although he was a former amateur boxing champ and had some friends shadier than the sand beneath the boardwalk, was no mobster. He worked as a manager at Arco, or Atlantic Richfield, as it was known then, at the big refinery in South Philadelphia. While my mom would’ve been amused, or flattered, at being mistaken for Mae Capone, she worked in the restaurant business, spent years as a housewife and mother and was later involved in child care.
Studying that photo I realized—yet again—that I was very lucky, blessed in many ways. Mom and Dad may not have been bootleggers or spies, war heroes or magnates. They were merely great parents, great teachers and great friends. Even more importantly, for a writer, both were avid readers and raconteurs, able to conjure up a story for every occasion and any need.
I’ve heard some hellacious stories from friends and non-nuclear relatives about their childhoods, sad tales of parents that were cold, distant, abusive, alcoholic, absent. Looking at pictures of those people now as children the unhappiness and stress is evident in their faces and eyes. In pictures from my own childhood I’m invariably smiling or laughing. I rolled out of bed happy and generally stayed that way. Other kids might’ve had problem parents; I had Ed and Claire. The luck of the draw. Conventional wisdom now is that we become what we are in our first five years. In my case those five were every bit as golden as the seaside light in that old photo of Mom and Dad. From the time my parents brought me home from Pennsylvania Hospital on a steamy August day I had nothing but good times, and good memories. And books. Lots of books.
There were always books, magazines and newspapers in the house, all over the house, even in the bathroom. Dad favored crime fiction and westerns: Chandler, Hammett and Jim Thompson, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.
My dad and I would read crime stories in the old Philadelphia Bulletin together, my mom gently admonishing him for exposing The Kid to that sort of thing. Mom read all kinds of books. She had more highbrow tastes, but she did like a good mystery. She would’ve liked The Blue Route, although she’d probably advise me to take out the sex scenes, cut down on the violence and not use the F word quite so much.
Mom and Dad were firm believers in the power of words, sticklers for spelling and proper English. I didn’t win those early grade spelling bees in Catholic school because I was afraid of the nuns. I was more afraid of Mom’s infamous red pen than of the nuns’ feloniously-wielded yardsticks. Mom and Dad read to me when I was small, taught me to read with the help of Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain and the Hardy Boys. I had trucks and trains and model kits but my parents preferred gifts of books. Mom would take me on weekly expeditions to Leary’s, a musty, ancient eight-story book store in center city Philadelphia and tell me to go to town. I’d gather up a stack of books and ask: “Can we afford all of these?” Mom would smile and say, “We’ll find a way.” We did, and those books piled up. I read all of them and learned something from each one.
With mom and dad there were always stories: about the neighborhood and its people. Southwest Philadelphia, where we lived when I was small, was largely a working-class neighborhood. Like most working-class neighborhoods then it was close knit and safe, populated with colorful characters. They’d take me downtown with them and share tales of the city, stories of places and people that used to be, oral CinemaScope that enabled a kid to visualize these things, to peer wide-eyed into the flickering nickelodeon of time.
Dad would regale me with tales of World War II, of Chicago where he’d lived for a time. While mom was distracted cooking dinner he’d share his encyclopedic knowledge of gangsters and mob hits, the history of Las Vegas, of the heroes and villains of the Old West. He’d take me to the refinery and explain how everything worked, introduce me to the men that he worked with, tell me about their jobs and their lives. There were always the trains. My dad loved trains, especially at night. We’d watch trains roll by from an overpass near our house, take walks through the nearby rail yards. He saw the power and the beauty of the trains, the speed, freedom and incipient danger, the mysteries of destination, passengers and freight. “Where are they going, Dad?” I’d ask. He didn’t know, I’m sure, but he’d make up stories, interesting ones. At times, he’d throw it back to me: “What do you think? You tell me.” I’d think, and I’d tell. I’d stand and deliver, sell the story.
Mom would tell me tales of her childhood, like something out of Dickens. She and her family came to America from Ireland via Ellis Island. She lost both of her parents by the time she was ten, she and her brothers raised by her grandmother in the heart of the city. I loved the stories she told about reading to her grandmother by the fireplace, reading the captions of silent films in the darkened theaters of Jazz Age Philadelphia. Grandmother pleaded poor eyesight though my mom suspected that her Gram, born in the rural Ireland of the 18th Century, couldn’t read very well if at all. True to her nature Mom, a bright child and voracious reader, was never embarrassed by that fact, never looked down on her grandmother or anyone else.
I was always a kid that had a flair—a genetic gift, no doubt–for talking my way out of trouble. If my parents appreciated stories, well, I’d give them some good ones. Unlike most parents Ed and Claire were more apt to judge you by the quality of your defense argument rather than your actual guilt. If you could tell a good story, Mom would usually forgive your trespasses. You might even get an appreciative chuckle, or a homemade pie, out of the deal.
If we ever said, in the manner of kids, especially in those less gentle and less politically correct times and environs, anything negative about people, Mom wasn’t one to lecture. She used stories from her own childhood to make her point. Stories about the kindly Jewish shop owners that were soft touches for hard luck stories, that supplied groceries to those that couldn’t afford them, about the hard-working church-going black families that lived nearby, the nice gay couple down the street that cooked dinners for the family.
Mom was ahead of her time, spinning tales of a multicultural world in which people were all ‘in it together’ and ‘just trying to get by’. Being an immigrant, I don’t think she ever bought into the prejudices of many native-born Americans of her generation. If there were villains, they tended to be rich and condescending, or cruel. Unlike so many, too many, I was never a hater, a fact that I attribute to my parents. They taught us to be more concerned with WHO people are, rather than WHAT they are.
I was a precocious kid, very comfortable around adults, forever asking them questions and willing, even eager, to listen to their stories. Mom and Dad might not have appreciated the profane language and bawdy tales told by my uncles, but they didn’t interfere. They just smiled and rolled their eyes. I learned that everyone has a story, that people appreciate someone who will listen and care. I had an innate curiosity that my parents encouraged rather than stifled. A lot of people are afraid—to do things, try things, ask questions, take chances, rock the boat. I never was, thanks to my parents. They might occasionally wince at the antics of a kid that always had an overabundance of chutzpah that sometimes bordered on the inappropriate or the reckless. They never suppressed that natural swagger, though.
They might not have taught me how to write, though they were my earliest readers and editors, and fans. But Mom and Dad taught me things essential to a writer—about persistence and hard work, about maintaining a sense of humor and a sense of equilibrium even when things aren’t so funny or so wonderful. About finding the things in life that you’re passionate about and converting those passions into ambition, and action.
They taught me to focus, imparting the reality that ideas alone are worth little if you’re unable to execute them. They tolerated my quirks. I was a good kid and a good student, but I did have my quirks; a suitcase full of them. Some parents might have scheduled a visit with the child psychologist, but my mom and dad never did. They just rolled with it. In most respects I was a normal, happy kid. I just had a vivid imagination that in that house was encouraged, not stifled. Ed and Claire, god bless them, appreciated kids that were quirky and entertaining rather than predictable and dull.
Night Train Express, while in part about a man’s twenty-five year long obsession with events that occurred on railroad tracks in his hometown, isn’t really a story about trains per se. It’s about the mysteries, drama, power and beauty of trains at night. About the night itself and its denizens, about the beacon of light that vanquishes the darkness and illuminates things on the tracks and beyond. It’s a mindset and a fascination inculcated by those walks with my dad, by the old noir B-movies we’d watch together. Trains are an unstoppable force; they just keep rolling on. Just keep on rolling, and don’t let anything or anyone discourage you or derail your dreams and ambitions. I learned that from watching trains with my dad as a kid, if I learned anything.
Not long before she died my mom sent me a birthday card that ended with a line that brought tears to my eyes: “I couldn’t have wished for a better son.” Maybe. I know I couldn’t have wished for a better mom, or dad. Older now, and mellower, I appreciate the foundation, and the luck of the draw. I was, and am, blessed. I miss my mom and dad, but their legacy lives on in each book, story and blog post. I couldn’t have done it without them. It’s too late for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards; both my parents have passed. But it’s never too late to say thank you. I suppose in some ways this is my version of a Hallmark card. Maybe I’m paying it back and paying it forward at the same time.
People have asked me about the title Night Train Express. Does it refer to a particular train? The cheap, potent and delightful fortified wine? Is it metaphor for fast times in the night? Not really. It’s about something else entirely.
When I was little, my parents often had a difficult time getting me to go to sleep. I always preferred night to day. I was a night owl in Popeye pj’s, afraid I’d miss something. They’d put me to bed. I’d play along with that fiction, and then I’d sneak halfway down the steps, hang out, watch and listen. One Sunday night, I ran all the way into the living room, roared out of the darkness like a pint-sized locomotive. I joined the family, watching Bonanza together.
I jumped, giggling, into my father’s arms. He laughed and hugged me and said, “Here he is: our night train express.” Mom rolled her eyes but she rubbed my head and procured one of the homemade chocolate fudge sundaes that my sisters were devouring. We settled in for the familiar theme song and the burning map of Nevada, watched the drama unfold there on the Ponderosa, watched the story play out, safe at home in our own little Ponderosa, in a house filled with love, laughter and books.
And that’s what it’s all about, really: the luck of the draw, and the Night Train Express…