A possible chapter one? **draft**

It’s a picturesque nice fall day in October. Rich yellows and reds are reflecting off the Ohio River creating a sunset glare that makes it hard to see out my car windows. My name is John. I am a father, a son and a rail-yard ghost. I am starting a new career at a riverboat casino. The place called simply the boat by the locals, is a massive riverboat that does not go anywhere. Seriously, I have been hired to be a deckhand on a boat that has only one function. To render. Render what is Caesar’s has been going through my head as I walk the long hallways that lead from the hotel parking area to the almost a half mile away casino area. Ceasers was the previous name of this place. Now it is called the Horseshoe.

Last summer I decided to get a job on a steamboat as a deckhand. That almost killed me. Sixteen years before jumping ship, I was a locomotive engineer. I sat on my butt and pulled a throttle, then after a few years on the job, I was replaced by a computer. After years of manually running trains it slowly became my job to blow the horn and babysit a computer while it did what I had so painstakingly learned how to do. Demoralizing to say the least. And I could go on and on, telling railroad stories. Killing people with trains, hitting cows and dogs. Long nights, cold steel rails. All that stuff of lonesome blues Americana.

Many times this week as I walked from the training room to the bathroom, I caught myself speaking in a low tone asking, “what the hell have I got myself into?” Just today while washing my hands, I looked into the mirror and said, “Oh God, I look like my mother!”

Last night was my first shift at the boat. As I walked into the deckhand locker room, coffee was brewing. The locker room reminded me of the many 1950’s style railroad shanties that i had reported to work when I worked them cold steel rails. Old men, lockers, union stickers and newspapers. The size of this vessel is insane. The hardest part of last night was remembering where you were in belly of the whale.
And that metaphor, be it the biblical reference that it is, is epically applied. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And that rendering was happening all night into the wee early morning hours. Money. This new experience is going to be a trip somewhat liken to a trip into the hearts of darkness. “Never get outta the boat,” was the lesson from the old vietnam era movie Apocalypse Now.
Flashing lights, bells, sounds, people walking around tipsy like zombies. Regular old folks and their working class conversations in the card dealer break areas. In the belly of the whale. If I was a religious man, this whole place exists for sin. If money is at the root of all evil, then this place is certainly a lesson in “whatever floats your boat.” It is what it is.

– The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died –

That passage comes from a book by Joseph Campbell titled, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and explains perfectly what I am hoping will happen over this cold third shift winter experience. I am approaching fifty years on this planet. This job is another bullet point, another journey on a resume that is very hard to explain.
The work is mindless, repetitive and to some would be considered demoralizing. We take out the trash. What I hope to gather from this new employment is time. Time looking out over the vastness of the river south of the Falls of the Ohio. Time driving out a river road that I used to travel everyday some twenty two years ago. I am going to fantasy that the native people, whos artifacts this place is built on, will also be in the belly of the whale with me, protecting me on this moored excursion.

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The Sabbatical of the Belle

They call me old man.

My crew. Nothing has really changed

in the over 100 years our lady has

made her way around.

They call her a tramp.

The boat. They use her to make a point,

of how things used to be built to last.

They say she is haunted.

By a deckhand, who walks the lower

deck whistling a mournful tune, and

by a captain who loved to gamble.

We are not a team.

For a team is out to win something.

Competes in game-playing.

We are a crew.

Wherein We, is the only way.

There is no, Them.

They call me old man.

My crew. Of young boys of summer.

Spirited like freedom, like

fireworks. Crass, salty and no different

than any other working men –

I have experienced.

They give me shit, and I give it back –

as they carry large bags of ice up a grand

staircase. I shirk that work, as they

miss the details, skip the corners –

walk around in circles,

day dreaming of

cute girls,

success

and

money.

There is something about her –

our Southern Belle. She breathes

with the ebb and flow of the river.

As her lines tighten and slack.

One little mistake could skin

a finger, pull a body into the water.

And that is our only goal, to keep

everyone out of harms way.

The river, our river –

much like how this boat

has been at times.

Trashed, dirty and rolling free,

like the murky blood

of a forgotten country.

And I walk the decks, a reincarnate

of Floyd the whistling deckhand.

Singing railroad hobo songs,

traditional blues. Making up

words to go with the troubles

I have seen, the struggles I feel.

A continuation of a body of

working songs, left in the air

like vibrations reverberating

in time with the clicking of

this massive machine.

They call me old man.

As I honestly greet every passenger

with a southern charm –

that is not a gimmick.

The rich, who shuffle on the

boat without making eye to eye.

The children, scared by the

grandness of our lady’s strength.

The old woman, who rides for free.

The Mayor, just making an appearance.

All the people, no matter

their lot, greeted in the language

of a native son.

Welcome to the Belle,

watch your step and then

Y’all have a gooden or,

take it easy now,

Y’all come back

and see us.

The Sabbatical of the Belle.

They call me old man.

A river man now.

Who once blew

that lonesome whistle,

all the live long day.

I am a stowaway most of

the time, laughing under my

breath.

They,

my crew,

if they only knew.

Old man river.

That old man river –

he must know something.

But he don’t say nothing.

He just keeps rolling –

He keeps rolling along.

John Paul



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On Woody Guthrie’s Birthday

Oh Woody, I am thinking about you!
I have grown somewhat bitter.
I must admit!
I know you – sometimes I fancy
that I am just like you.
But maybe it is because I know too much
and have been burnt by the fire.
So, a few questions I might ask. For
I am romantically involved so as to
mention – Sarah Ogan Gunning!

Was she bitter because Aunt Molly got
to hang around all them rich folks?
Was it because Pete played for the
Rockefellers, while singing –
I don’t want, your millions mister?

Hypocrisy is a bitch!
If you point it out –
they will bury you!
How much more crap should I take
before I “die with my hammer in
my hand?”

I heard Sarah ripped your ass once –
because you did one of her songs.
She picked your little ass up and
almost ringed your neck.
Is that true?

Woody, brother, i see what you saw,
and I think I know why you wrote all
night, alone, falling asleep on your
typewriter, full ashtray …

It takes a worried man,
to sing a worried song.

I certainly am worried.

One last question:

Did you ever hear Joe Hill talking
to you? I have.He said,
Don’t mourn, Organize.
So, i organized my life.
Trying not to get bitter and
am working now as a deck
hand on a Ohio River
Steamboat built two
years after you was borned.

Brother,
I wish we could hang out!
See, I worked on the railroad.
Found a lonesome darkness
engulfing me.
I gave it all up.
Once I built a railroad ..
you know the rest.

Brother,
For your birthday –
I offer you a song.
I wrote it for Jimmie
Rodgers. I have alot
in common with him too.

When the song
gets to the part where
I sing “I think y’all knowd.”
That part is for you!

Happy Birthday.

Love,
JP “Catfish John” Wright

P.S

You wanna hear some shit?
I heard Sarah Ogan died at a
singing circle. Time came
for her to sing. She took a
deep breath, and died.

I wonder if the dress she
wore was blue?

She sure knew how to
drive that steel!


Meeting The Sun Ra Arkestra – A Chapter from The Table

Chapter 10 – The outer space employment agency. Jazz

Jazz musicians in their solos frequently quote other musicians they have learned things from. I am riffing my way back to a place in time – to a table on a roof in NYC on a hot, late summer night in 1994. If I were John Coltrane, I might put some Bird on it. If I were Miles Davis, I might quote Dizzy.

Quoting other soloists is a tradition that aficionados of Jazz recognize. If I were John Gilmore, Sun Ra’s long-time saxophone player, the sax player that John Coltrane was reported to have said was the last sax player that he took time to study. I would just play. So, I have played my way to a point. Let’s go back to NYC! Let’s get in the pocket. Take it to the head! From the top, of a roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. And so on.

After drinking cokes and hanging out on a roof in the east village, the next day came and the sun came up and I left Christopher Street and walked back to the Gershwin hostel. The Sun Ra Arkestra was going to be playing two gigs in the month of June and I was going to both shows. I was receiving my crazy check money via western union from my mother, so this was going to be publicly funded activity. The first gig was at the Bottom Line and guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. I found some interesting information at this gig.

It surprised me that Mr. Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. Before the show, Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime wingman, was sitting out in the open, so I walked up and after a brief introduction, I asked him a qwarshtion. Why is Stanley playing with y’all? Marshall simply said that he was inspired. So, that’s all it takes to be a member of the mythical Sun Ra Arkestra? Inspiration? Well … sew a button on your shirt! I liked that answer. I also found out that:

Dancing in NYC’s Bottom Line is prohibited; except at the bar, in your little space. Space is the place and I was not going to be able to contain myself, so I danced. The Sun Ra Arkestra is a jazz ensemble that dresses up in space costumes and follows a mystic bandleader. Ra had recently passed away and John Gilmore was leading up the throng. I am a serious follower of Ra. I used to call him on the phone and ask him questions. My Sufi friend with the Teepee had his home number and I would call and ask Ra one question. Sunny would go on for hours.

“Hey Sunny, what does it take to be a good musician?” And so on. He would talk for a long time. I listened as if I was receiving a personal class about jazz, vibrational healing and human history – His Story is endless … Sun Ra and his band from outer space are featured in a movie called Make a Joyful Noise. In it, Ra recites a poem while standing at the base of a replica of an Egyptian statue.

History repeats itself.
His Story repeats itself.
I do not repeat myself.
My story is endless …
What’s your story?

Once upon a time, I love New York in June and I was going to go see The Sun Ra Arkestra in the meatpacking district. I took a cab across town and was let out in outer space. Or at least that is what is seemed to me. I am from Louisville, Kentucky, and not used to seeing prostitutes leaning into car windows selling their packages. Ladies with their neatly packaged tits hanging out while their big asses are struggling to contain themselves in the tight shorts thereof.

On my way to a bar called the Cooler, I walked past real gay biker bars with Harleys, all dressed up in their finest turquoise feathers and leathers. Me being the dude that always shows up early, I walked down to the river to place my hand into some water. That was all I wanted to do. I just wanted to hide for a minute and touch the river. Take a break from NYC. New York never sleeps and I needed a break from all of it. So, I walked down the street two blocks right into another crazy story.

There was a pier at the end of the street that went out into the Hudson river. As I walked down to greet the river, I noticed a little hut over to the other side of the pier. The hut was made from old mattresses, billboard wrappings and old drift wood. As I walked the concrete pier, I didn’t pay much attention to what might be going on inside of the lean-to looking structure. My bee line was the river that was going to be my connection to a natural world that NYC was lacking.

I had been under the pier for a while smoking one of my last smokes when a skinny old black dude yelled over the side for me to get my fucking ass off his pier. I climbed up the side of the concrete wall that provided me a bit of much-needed privacy, to a conversation with a very pissed off dude.

“What the fuck are you doing on my pier?!” he exclaimed.
I said, “Sir, I am sorry, I was just wanting to touch the river.”
He said, “Do you know where the fuck you are?”
I said, “yes sir, I am in NYC, getting ready to go see the Sun Ra Arkestra up the street. I was early and I just wanted to see the river before the show.”
“The Sun Ra Arkestra? Those niggers are still around?” he said.
“Yes sir, and I am going up the street soon, you outta come up there and check out the show.”
Man says, “Motherfucker, I asked you, do you know where you are?” asking in a not so pissed off voice, so I said, “Look man, I am really sorry and I really don’t know what you mean.”

He then tells me that this was his pier and that little hut on the other side of the walkway was where business men come to fuck his transvestites. I apologized profusely and he then relented his freak out and decided to join me. While walking to the show, I mentioned that I needed to get some smokes. We walked over to a gas station and I asked for the cheapest non-filters that they had. He called the person behind the counter by his first name and told him that he has it and to give me the camel straights. After this purchase, we were on our way up the hill to see the Arkestra.

The Cooler really was a meat cooler back when the meatpacking district was packing meat. I walked in the front door with the transvestite salesman or I guess representative and he walked over to a booth and sat down with some people he seemed to know. I didn’t talk to him again the entire night. I did walk up to the bar and sat down with John Gilmore. I was early by about two hours and the Arkestra was setting up the stage.

Mr. Gilmore was just hanging out drinking a drink and I sat down and introduced myself. The Arkestra is like that. Very approachable. Our conversation was easy. I asked him about the book list that Ra assigned to his Berkeley students back in the day. I asked John if he had ever assigned the Arkestra books to read. He said yes and I asked him if he had ever heard of a book that I had been reading before I left to go to the Rant NYC beat celebration. I asked him about a book called The Power of Sound by a Sufi named Hazrat Inayat Khan. He mentioned that he had read parts of it years ago, but that he was not reading much now.

We talked for a bit, mostly about what it was like to play for Ra. I could tell that Mr. Gilmore was tired. He soon would leave the planet and Marshall Allen would take the captain’s seat of the Arkestra. I can’t really remember all we talked about. We did talk about Baba Olutunji a bit. Olatunji was the reason I had stayed behind after all the Louisville people went home after we “Ate the Beats.” Eat the Beats was the journey further, the title of what Ron Whitehead had organized. RANT eats NYC and the Beats. INSOMNIACATHON! 48 hours of nonstop poetry and music.

The Cooler and the Bottom Line show converged with Sun Ra’s 80-year birth celebration. WKCR, Columbia college radio had already played three days straight of RA on the radio. I had no idea that any of this Ra stuff was going on when I left Kentucky with my percussion ensemble to perform and then host the open stages. I was hanging around for a month because we were all supposed to meet again a month later at a place called the Omega Institute for Holistic healing. The rest of our group, PRANA, was to attend a weeklong class of African drumming by Baba. The same Babatunde Olatunji that Sun Ra knew when he moved his Arkestra to NYC in the 60’s. Baba hired Sun Ra’s musicians and they knew each other well.

Later in life – I found out that the Omega Institute was founded by a relative of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Sufi writer who I had been reading. The book that John Gilmore had once read, that I was then reading, that was given to me by the dude who turned me onto Ra. The guy who had the teepee where I had made the final decision to go to the crazy bin. Things get connected when you are dropped off by a New York taxi driver named Mohammed, in outer space, NYC.


 

Chapter 2 / Before N.Y.C

Chapter 2 – Before N.Y.C

When I posted chapter 1 on my blog, a person who I had been chatting with on Facebook showed an interest in this story. She called herself a “red diaper baby.” A red diaper baby is a kid raised by a political activist and I suspect I am one of those. She also mentioned that she thought the blogpost post showed “moral courage.” I asked her what she meant by that and she said it was courageous to be openly talking about mental health issues.

We chatted a bit and somewhere in the digital exchange, I mentioned my wife. I always mention my wife, especially if I am chatting over the internet with a woman. I also mentioned my mother, thusly the red diaper comment. My mother was my rock and moral compass. I told her that my mother was a political activist. My Facebook friend, wanted to hear more about my mom, Glenda the good witch.

My mother was the reason I ended up in the care of Central State mental hospital on a three-day self-imposed mental inquest warrant and property of the state of Kentucky. I freaked out. I yelled at her and accused her of brandishing a weapon. I left the house, I guess you could say I ran away to the loony bin by way of a teepee.

I had been living in her basement for a year, slowly slipping into a deep dark depression. I was suffering from the breakup of a two-year relationship. My life was collapsing. My girlfriend, who I had met at the food co-op where I was working several months before, cheated on me with a friend in our circle. I was also suffering heart problems.

My heart was skipping beats. Panic attacks were a daily event. Every day I walked across the park, that was my 46-acre front yard as a child, and go to the store and buy tons of junk food. I ate tons of sugar and tons of salt and then went home and slept for hours. My body was rebelling. I was getting fat and more and more in my head.

I was reading, listening to music and sleeping for hours on end. Sometimes upwards of eighteen. I was reading the Sufi books that I had been turned on to by the manager of the food co-op. I was reading Black Elk Speaks and a book with speeches from Native American Chiefs called Touch the Earth.

I was a young hippie, deadhead. The medicine man manager at the co-op, the teepee connection, had turned me onto a Sufi guru from Philadelphia named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. I was deeply getting into the Sun Ra that he had turned me on to. I was listening to Sun Ra and reading all his poetry on the CD covers and starting an impressive Sun Ra collection.

Bawa’s books are deep! The idea of killing my self was on my mind, but not that kind of killing. I was deeply thinking about who I was. My friendship with my long-haired hippie herbal Sufi manager was deep. He is a very humble person and was always saying something that I thought was something I needed to think about.

Sun Ra, well, ifin you ain’t never heard of Ra, best be firing up that Google machine. My little trip up the river of life was starting to come to a delta. All my problems seemed to be rushing in on me. Over the course of eight months I had gained one hundred pounds. Something was going to break.

One morning, after one of those long dark days and nights in the basement, I had a crazy audible hallucination. I thought I heard my mother run through the house and get her .38 and pull the trigger back. I ran up the basement steps and told her that I had had enough. Then after a short freak out. I left.

She would not let me come back. She had had enough and didn’t know what to do. I am sure she was hurt, terrified and lost as to why her little Johnny, was so sick in the head. I didn’t have a plan as to what I was going to do. I was ready for some help. Several of my friends were on the crazy check. I knew that was an option. However, I didn’t think that I was that kind of crazy, so, I phoned a friend.

The friend owned a delightful home out in the south end of Louisville, had a nice family, who were then celebrating Thanksgiving. He drove all the way across town and picked me up from the Walgreens drug store where I had called him from a payphone. I stayed in his backyard teepee overnight. He built a fire. I had a big plate of food.

We talked about me being nuts and then, after a long night rearranging all the dirt, sticks and staring at the fire burn, I knew I needed help. I was not going to get this crazy out. I got a ride downtown and somehow ended up getting ready to have the meeting with the woman who handed out gum at the co-op, who was the mother of the young woman, who set up that table on Christopher Street that you were reading about a minute ago.


 

The Cottonwood Local


The Cottonwood Local started out as a noodlin’ in the key of D on the mandolin.

When I would get off of my train, I would spend time sitting on the front porch of the Holiday Inn in Nashville playing my mandolin. Mostly people watching. I lived at the Holiday Inn in Donelson, Nashville, TN for 14 years. This was what we railroaders called the Away From Home Terminal.

One day when I was pickin’ …

A Locomotive Engineer friend of mine suggested we needed a song about a local job that we had on the CSX Mainline called the J765-J768. I already had the fiddle tune going when he made this suggestion and we sat there joking about all the crazy stuff about the job. My friend suggested the Cottonwood name because the two trainmen working the job at the time were Josh Cotton and Joe Woods, thusly, Cottonwood.

There were a host of Locomotive Engineers working the job, but mostly the ones holding the position were old heads. The job was a good one and it always went high on the seniority roster. A local is a job that does not work the entire length of the railroad. It does industry work and then either goes home, or in the case of the Cottonwood, stays overnight in a town like Bowling Green and works its way home the next day. Usually with a day off. My favorite Engineer, A.T Robb was one of the many characters who held the throttle on the local.

Artie, Atrimous Robb, RT, that’s me … had many nicknames. The reason he “tied it down in Shepheardsburg from the Main Line Friendly Local”, was because he retired and lived on some property out in Shepherdsville. He called the job the MLFL, Main Line Friendly Local and it stuck. On the engine, we called it the Main Line “Fuckin’ Local.

Mr. Robb called the railroad signal in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, Sheep Herds Burg. Why? Know body knows. We didn’t know why he would bring jugs to get what was left in the tank cars when we would pick up the empties from the Jim Beam Distillery. He said the white/clear alcohol was good with sugar and Kool-Aid, but it made his tractor run hot.

This song is somewhat a native language

that only exists in a time and place called the railroad.

In Kentucky.

It is a Kentucky folk song in a sense, that the people that are being mentioned have a place in the folk history of the people involved, now, especially, that the stories are folk tales and memory, it has slipped into history.

“Too bad Pauline’s ain’t around no more …” is bringing up Kentucky History about Bowling Green, Kentucky that is a deep legend. Not to mention history some folks do not want to talk about and would rather forget.

Pauline’s was a whore house. A bordello. A house of il’ repute. She closed her doors in the early 1970’s and moved away.. Get to talking about Pauline’s to almost any man from the region over the age of 70 and you will see a twinkle in their eye as thoughts of that place come bubbling into their blood. We had a railroad van driver out of Bowling Green who used to work for Pauline. He hated George McCubbins and the feeling was mutual. George was an Engineer on the local and either ya liked him, or ya hated him. He was the boss of the job or at least that is what he thought.

“You know, we know you got a lot of work to do,” came from another Engineer who worked the local from time to time. G.W. Haynes. Gross Weight. He was a very big man and sometimes not very nice. He came with loads of nicknames and his reputation preceded him. The song lyric means the local job will clear the mainline when trains need to get through. The working nature of the local meant that the mainline would be blocked when the local was out pulling or placing cars from the industries that it worked. Crews on the local would try and be in the clear for the “Big Boy’s.” Some just wanted to get their work done and get to the other side of the road or get the day over with and didn’t really care if mainline trains would have to wait for them to clear up … “get in the hole.”
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“Memphis Junction,” is the name of the railyard in Bowling Green, Kentucky where the job ended its southbound work. Back in the day, the L&N had a mainline that went all the way to Memphis, TN. Toby Asher was the mainline trainmaster who worked in Bowling Green at this yard. The “only regular job” lyric comes from the job having regular start times. Having a regular start time is the perk of a local job and this job would get pulled off from time to time thusly the jab of it being the only regular job he could find.

Toby was a strange guy. He was the boss. Somewhat spookily he would be somewhere on the mainline, at all times, day and night. He is the kind of boss the railroad generally doesn’t like. He knows how to railroad. And that term railroad means many things. He lived and breathed railroading. His father was a Switchman and he grew up admiring his father’s work buddies. He loved the railroad and had respect for his “men.” Love is not an easy word to define on the railroad. Respect for craft is something the railroad seemingly has totally forgotten about.

This song is a fragment of time and place that has mostly slipped into folk history. It was an honor to work the section of rail known as the L&N, Louisville to Nashville, Main Stem. The L&N railroad at one time was the largest railroad in the eastern part of the United States. This song comes from the namesake of that railroad. The L&N, Kentucky, known today as the CSX Railroad.

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Pauline Tabor

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Me and Van Driver Jimmy. Pauline’s cab driver back in the day.

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A.T. Robb

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