Manu Chao writes train songs But they don’t roll with Johnny Cash’s smoke-belching boom-chicka-boom. Chao’s trains are electric, they glide beep-beep, beep-a-dink, down the Bay of Biscay from Biarritz to San Sebastian Amid a babble of French, Castilian and English.
It suits well our own light rail Especially the last song – “Infinita Tristeza” On his last record – Proxima Estacion: Esperanza
A man boards the train with me at Dryden Sits across the aisle, next to a woman I can’t see His hand is bandaged; the blood soaks through. “A goddamn dawg bit me last night,” he explains. “He was in my territory.”
All night he had waited in Ben Taub But the doctor never came So he had left, and found some cold beer Before the sun had gotten too warm.
He turns to the woman seated next to him. “What you doin’ today, sista? You going my way? Where your man at?” Proxima Estaction, Esperanza, intones a lady in my headphones. Proxima Estaction, Hermann Hospital, intones a lady on the train’s speaker.
Our silver car glides north through vast canyons of sorrow With names like Methodist, Texas Children’s and St Luke’s A man on the platform clutches an infant, wrapped in blankets, tubes protruding from its tiny nose.
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza Proxima Estacion: Rice University
Our car coasts from deep shadows into the sunlight On the lawn outside of Palmer Episcopal’s burnished Spanish grandeur A dozen broken men lounge in the St Augustine Waiting for breakfast, waiting for meaning, waiting on time.
Amid these columned, marching old live oaks, And those frozen music fountains and the Cancer Survivors Plaza and the statue of Old Sam Houston pointing the way to his glorious nation-building massacre, you can convince yourself you are in Madrid, or maybe Buenos Aires or Montevideo, if you squint. Did you hear what Bob Hope said about Houston?
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza Proxima estacion: Wheeler
Hard by the highway once-homeless Nam vets now get three piping hots And a very plush cot at an old motel One of them gets on the train He’s missing most of his teeth, and he waves his cane To the north and asks me, “Is downtown that-away?” Outside the Mexican Consulate The long lines are already forming.
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza Proxima Estacion: Ensemble/HCC
An old black man passes the shuttered Main Street Cafe Tacking his shopping cart trawler Through the Grand Banks of empty beer cans That swarm Midtown’s asphalt tributaries every morning. His steel mesh net is only a tenth full But he knows it will be overtopped With a cart-limit catch by day’s end
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza Proxima Estacion: McGowen
Nearby, a knot of junkies And still-trembling drunks Are on the mend They lounge outside a clinic, Blinking, walking on the unsteady legs of week-old ponies Feeding their ravenous souls with smoke and hot black coffee
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza Proxima Estacion: Downtown Transit Center
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Two bus stations from different worlds Face off across McGowen At one, people are dressed in their best Buying tickets to places like Nuevo Laredo, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Matehuala. At the other, people buy tickets for places like Lafayette, Longview, New Orleans and Detroit Amid razzing and jeers, a squad car eases off the sidewalk there, hauling off a kid with cornrows and saggy pants.
Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, the lady says. Proxima Estacion: Bell
I get off the train before it arrives. And it hits me just like that: So does everybody else.