Riding the Rails

Ani DiFranco’s guitar is played like a hard-rid horse, taped-up fingers clawing at its midsection, fret hand yanking away from its neck with each defiant twang. You almost feel sorry for the instrument. But you never feel sorry for her. Not with that smile, that joyous swagger, that self-assured survivalism she’s had since birth. DiFranco is the rockstar in its purest form, Mick and Keith come back as one, with whispers of Joplin in one verse and warcries of Slick in another. “Everyone….is a fucken Napoleon,” she sings, but there’s that little chuckle in the middle there, as if the realization of it is as funny as the failings it speaks to. But Ani DiFranco, the quintessential cynic, is happy, after all these years, happy to be in love, happy to be a mother, ecstatic to live in a country that elected Barack Obama. “Thank you, America, for being more than I expected,” she sings in a song written on election day.

Anyway, my bride of 30 years and I set out early last Monday in a blinding snowstorm to see the Ani DiFranco concert at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE., 300 miles from our house. It was really just an excuse to take a trip on leisurely old Amtrak and stay a couple days in a city we never heard of. Ordinarily, up to about five or six years ago, a trip like this would have been done by car. Except now we hate the car. Well, I do anyway. This has nothing to do with global warming or reducing my (must I say it?) carbon footprint. I just hate the car.Annemarie doesn’t have that much trouble with it, except for the times I’m in the car with her. Oh, boy. Here are two facts you should know about me: From age 17 to about age 40 I was a hellion on wheels. I could drive anything and did, was often employed in some sort of driving capacity, could easily back the biggest truck you wanna name into the ass-narrowest loading dock you could point to and was the cabbie you’d wanna flag down if your flight was taking off in 10 minutes and you were 15 minutes from Logan. I also drove every mile of every vacation we ever went on, there and back. Then something happened. I’m not sure when exactly, but the objects moving around me seemed to increase in speed, while I stayed my middle-aged paranoid self. Faster and faster came the bicycles darting out and the drunkards running lights and the rotaries with six ways to merge until now I feel like George Jetson in the middle of an asteroid field, death and danger around every bend and crossway. And the TRAFFIC JAMS, one after another, no end in sight, no end in sight, suicide hotline on speed dial, no end in sight. I do not breathe during traffic jams. I barely breathe when the traffic’s moving. Now toss in some subtleties like trying to find your hotel in a city you’ve never driven in and you’re now hollering at your bride of 30 years, in that insipidly high squeaky voice you drag out for only such occasions, all because of the idiotic directions she got off the Internet.

So, no, taking the car on a romantic getaway will surely defeat the purpose of the romantic getaway, thereby assuring that the diaphragm stays put in the suitcase with the silky negligee. The airport? Worse. One long shoe-removing, luggage-losing hassle and rental car mess—and there you are back in some little shitbox again yelling at each other. So why don’t you let HER drive and you ride gun, Bob, you may well ask. Good idea. Annemarie is an excellent driver. Problem is me—I don’t ride gun well. The anxiety I already have shoots to 164 over 23 and I get carsick like I’m 12 years old. Peter Pan bus, you say? Not possible. By the time we pass Hartford I’ll have already heaved on the floor, the seat and the shoes of the guy sitting next to me. That leaves the train. The train has its faults, the main one being price—they’ll raise their fares 50 bucks in the course of a day—but the train don’t get all wigged out over weather and it has a bar and a dining car and the seats are nice and the view is remarkable. You see the ass end of every town between Springfield, MA and Wilmington, DE. Backyards and body shops and abandoned mills and warehouses. You also see incredible graffiti all along the retaining walls and buildings, not all of it scrota and mammary, much of it pointedly and expertly rendered. Funny though, the artwork that you might associate with a given town as you pass it by on the train—a squirting dick, for instance—is artwork that has probably never been seen by 90% of its inhabitants, it being on the ass end of town and everything, and facing out. But it’s as representative of that town as the steeple in the distance. And just as much fun to look at. I mean, spray paint has its place, don’t get me wrong. I don’t wanna see it on my house, or on the steps of City Hall, or on the Robert Frost statue or on that steeple just mentioned. But in alleys or underpasses or ass ends of town? Honey, I’m home.

Anyway, the snow is coming down steadily the entire trip. Very romantic. For some reason, I don’t get sick on trains, unless you count subways, otherwise I’d be just as much a dink now as then. Here, all I am is cool. We commandeer the seats across from us and create our own little pad as we laugh and kiss and read and rub each other’s pulled muscles and gaze out at the storm. If we weren’t already hitched this’d be a helluva date.

“Don’t we look comfy?” my bride asks the conductor as he punches our tix.

“You look like you in love,” he grins.

“Do you think you could find us some curtains to hang right about here?” I ask.

“That’s disgusting,” he feigns, and moves on down the aisle.

The reason we are interested in Ani DiFranco is because we saw her play Northampton’s LookPark last summer and were blown to pieces and sawed in half. Up to then, we had merely been aware of Ani Difranco, heard her on college radio, saw reviews in the paper, knew she was political, fearless, knew she was cool. What we did not know was that she was great. Great in a once-in-a generation way. Or at least that’s what it seemed like on a balmy night under the stars at Look’s Pines Theater, with us way in the back up against the hedges, too far to see her face, but plenty close enough get pulled in by that voice, that irrepressible body movement, and a plugged-in acoustic guitar getting bludgeoned from both ends.

So we are rolling through a major snowstorm through the ass end of America to see a singer we barely know in a town we’ve never set foot in. Ah, love. Wilmington is also home to the DelawareArt Museum, which exhibits paintings done by Iraqi artist Thamer Dawood, who I wrote about in a Gazette story. A visit there is planned for Tuesday morning. Our quest for the entire three days is to never enter an automobile. Of course, we did arrive at the Springfield Amtrak station by car, one driven by my brother, in fact, one he then had to drive back to our house in a foot of snow at five o’clock in the morning. So, to accomplish our car-less vacation, we essentially had to enlist someone else with a car to drive through hell first. Irony is often a pesky dish.