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July 3, 2007

The King of the Frogs

Today is Wednesday and I’m walking down the railroad tracks for a BBQ sandwich with coleslaw and pickles and rib sauce and sweet tea. This is what we always do on Wednesdays. Usually, I take my camera with me so that I can shoot the graffiti on the trains that roll by at odd, unpredictable intervals.

Today, I don’t have my camera. No real reason except that I just forgot it and I figured, probably nothing would come by anyway.

I’m nearly at the BBQ store when I hear the train’s horn. Sometimes I'm sure that I can hear them at the crossing down in Normandy. Sometimes I’m wrong but sometimes the train does come and now the horn comes again much clearer, and I can tell that it’s off key.

I hate it when their horns are broken like that. You’d think they’d fix them but his horn is off key and he’s blowing it now cause he’s approaching the crossing and it’s that engineer that they fined for driving through town too fast and now he always comes through way too slow and blows the horn way too loud for way too long. He’s been getting his revenge for years now.

The train graffiti artists, if they can be called that, prefer certain cars. An idiot with a single can of spray paint may assault any car he sees, but these are the inexperienced hacks. The more experienced artists look for certain cars. They want large flat surfaces. The ribs on the coal cars and the indentations on the shipping containers make them less desirable. Many artists will settle for a boxcar, but they would prefer to find an autocar or a refrigerated car. The autocar is the particular type of train car used for hauling automobiles. It's better than a box car.

But the Crème de la Crème is the refrigerated car. The flat, white smooth sides of the refrigerated car are a pristine painting surface. A steel, white canvas for the post-modern urban artists. And when you see those cars, you know there's a good chance that you're going to see the work of a truly talented individual.

And, of course, that’s what comes by me now is an entire train of refrigerated cars. I have no idea what’s in them and don’t really care. That’s none of my concern. I just want to see what’s painted on the sides.

Sometimes, the trains come racing past so fast that I have a hard time shooting the graffiti at all. But, as luck would have it, this one is south-bound, going up the hill, toward the Cumberland Tunnel, and he’s loaded down and barely moving.

The first few cars don’t have anything on them and I’m praying that there won’t be anything on any of the cars because I have nightmares that a true masterpiece will roll by and I won’t have my camera with me. Or, the camera’s batteries will fail. Or it won’t focus. And then, I’ll be tormented forever, knowing that I failed to capture a single image of the best graffiti that ever rolled through this town. The way Napoleon immediately knew at Waterloo that, despite all of his brilliant victories, he'd be remembered in perpetuity for his singular, spectacular defeat.

And now, my own private Waterloo comes rolling toward me. The entire side of the car is painted, from top to bottom, end to end. A true masterpiece slowly comes into focus as the refrigerated car approaches.

It's a painting of a dog and a small girl standing before a forest. The detail on the painting is unbelievable, and at first I think it was done in oil or acrylics, in the manner of the outdoor artists of Jackson Square in New Orleans. But as the car comes closer, I see that it’s done in spray paint.

Not the typical three or four color murals you see on the trains normally. This artist must have used dozens of different colors and a step ladder and a commercial sprayer. As it comes closer, I’m struck by the amazing detail captured in this image.

This train car is, by far, the most impressive graffiti I’ve ever seen. A pièce de résistance. The uninitiated might have thought it created by a commercial printer, but I know better. I see where the artist taped over the train’s arcane warnings and identification numbers and peeled them off after he completed his painting so the railyard flunkees wouldn’t mar his work.

As the train gets closer, I observe the little girl wearing a pink dress, pulling firmly on the dog’s collar with her left hand, dragging him into the darkness of the forest.

The dog’s head is turned, and he clearly doesn’t want to go into the woods, but why, I don’t know. Maybe he’s been afraid of the woods all his life, or maybe he’s seen something in there he doesn’t like. May he’s just afraid of the unknown. I’m not sure what the artist intended here.

The dog is old and gaunt. His coat must have been black as a pup, but now his muzzle, throat, and paws are worn and grey. A single, enormous tick rides on his back, like a pack on a burrow. The tick must have been there his whole life, drawing down his strength.

The mongrel stands shivering, shoulders squared, tail tucked between his legs, unable, or unwilling to proceed. Almost surreal, like something Dali might have envisioned in his warped mind.

He's standing there, quivering, just before me. Why is she leading him into the woods? Why don't they just go home?

And then, as the car passes, I see the knife. Her right hand conceals a large hunting knife from the dog. Suddenly I realize that she's taking the dog into the woods to kill him. The dog, of course, has known this all along. Why on Earth is she going to kill the most faithful companion she could ever hope for?

I don’t know what the artist’s intent was in creating the work. That anyone would suffer themselves so greatly to create it reminds me of the Fable of Arachne. And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s a scene depicting one of those timeless Aesop’s Fables that mom used to read to me when I went to sleep at night, but probably it was very near to the back of the book, and I fell asleep before we got there. Maybe it was after the “Ant and the Grasshopper? and the “King of the Frogs?.

The train passes and carries away with it the cold, inimical scene on the side of the refrigerated car. Eventually, the off-key train horn fades and, in its wake, I am left with no pictures. Only questions. The camera collects pictures and the brain collects questions.

Why would someone spend so much time painting a train, when they would almost certainly never be recognized for their work? Of all days, why didn’t I bring my camera with me on this day? And why are the BBQ sandwiches only a dollar and a half on Wednesdays?

Posted by Rob Kiser on July 3, 2007 at 7:53 PM

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