Madeleine Slavick: a photographic essay



Texas takes twenty-four hours to cross by train. ‘Under The Tree Bob’ tells me there is more drinking in this state than in other southern places. Bob has been sober since 1 December 1979, when he sat under a palm tree and made that decision. He is moving to Tucson, where he says there are good AA meetings. Says only the weak can stop drinking: it is they who will ask for the help they need.

But I am happy with a drink on a Saturday night, and go to the Lone Star Saloon, for live country music, for fiddle and mandolin and slide guitar, for that pitcher of beer, for the dancing in his-n-her jeans, cowboy hats, studded belts. To hear the drawl.


Trophies, near Houston, Texas

At bayou-like lakes, we see lotus, deer, duck, egret, catfish, cormorant, bald cypress, Spanish moss hanging down like soft beards, alligators hibernating, maybe two million chattering small black birds and one huge hawk with white-tipped wings. By the time we leave the scenery, the moon is fat, above farmland, prison, refinery.

In the morning, students pledge to two flags: USA and Texas. A ten-minute walk from school is fast-food Mexican, Chinese, fried chicken, and Fountain Firearms, a shop with military weapons and cowboy guns. There are manicures next door, and in the parking lot, a man tries to sell perfume out of the back seat of a car. I see no pedestrians all day.

Many of the new homes in Texas, and across the South, and maybe across the USA., are in large, look-alike communities. Gated, fenced, with names like Grand Mission, Waterview, Bella Terra. I am staying in one of these homes and open all the windows to the warm and the wind and say to myself, this could be tornado land.

We hear a story of a boy who has never seen a mountain. East Texas can be flat as flat, and the car a center. Train lines have been proposed between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, but have been fought by car and gasoline conglomerates. Whataburger has been serving since 1950s, and Sonic serves burgers on roller skates, direct to your car in the parking lot.


                                  Preservation Hall Jazz Club, New Orleans


In this city, there are three-hundred-year-old trees and the older Mississippi River, neither Creole, Black, Cajun, White. 

We read a Black newspaper, read about policemen burning a Black man just after Hurricane Katrina. They laughed as they burned. A city with much poverty and crime, with or without a hurricane, and in the few days we are here, there is a murder. And one late night, we see a man run off with another person’s wallet.

Music and food and booze and church and sport and sex. They seem to heal some of the people some of the time.

We meet a clarinetist who was mentored by some of the jazz greats, all Black. He says he is one of the very few Whites to have had this privilege, and during Jim Crow time.


 Mural in Ward 9, New Orleans

We meet a man who has been a driver for fifty-one years. I like the way he talks, slow, a little extra time between his thoughts, and I could listen all day. He says that out by The Lakes, it’s been hard to put life back together. ‘The Lord. He takes the time He needs.’ He says he likes Dixieland music best, that he’s been with it for a while now. Fingers tap the steering wheel.

We meet a vocalist who dances with shoulders, hips, fingers, as she sings: her whole body in the sound. Muscle-toned and white-haired, she slaps her right thigh in beat, and does a quiet, slippery hand-wave clap. The hostess who guides us to front seats says she herself is a student of the vocalist, wants to sing as joyfully. We drink a beer called Lazy Magnolia and I think just maybe I could stay in this city and change into someone like her too. Music can make us brave.



But I leave. Travel coach class. Live for forty-six hours in my seat, observation car, snack car. Two times I pay so that I can also sit in the dining car, with its long low windows. I choose the last shift, so I can stay for a long time, reading, writing, thinking, feeling, humming.


 New Iberia Train Station, Louisiana


Over one meal, a man who works with the train company tells me a story. A couple is traveling home, from Seattle to Chicago. The man dies in his sleep, and the woman keeps him dead, under blankets, for two days before she notifies anyone. Not wanting to inconvenience, she says, or wanting to grieve alone, or using the service of the transportation of a corpse. These are her rights.


 Near Antonio, Texas

I listen to a different language on the train. ‘You hear what I’m saying… Whatcha saying, girl, that don’t make no sense… Don’t you mess around with me, boy, I got you figured out…’ There is guts and directness, empowerment and assertion. The man a few seats away talks like this non-stop with his wife and family. I find this language so alive, so certain, but I leave for a while and find, make, different sounds.

I meet a security guru of the computer world in the snack car with a stiff knee, a replacement knee, of metal. Out of kindness, he calls me his daughter. I meet a woman from Florida who wants to talk with me and her sister, suddenly a sort of family. A guide tells us about the land, in English and Spanish. The javelina is the only wild pig in the country. The Chihuahua is the largest desert in North America. Livestock are fed the ‘blind’ kind of nopal, the prickly pear cactus with minute spines. The road runner runs about twenty miles per hour.

The passenger beside me says this is her first train trip and that she is scared. She stays under her Pittsburgh Steelers jacket-blanket and only leaves her seat once during the long train ride. She is missing several teeth and slurs some of her words so we cannot always be clear in our conversations. She grew up in East L.A, and as we come into that part of the town, she looks out the window and says she knows each street. Graffiti is on almost every vertical surface, and one long wall reads: H-U-R-T-S.

‘Someone from Rehab will pick me up,’ she says, and when we arrive, we walk to Alameda Street, where she waits, holding a small piece of paper with a name and telephone number.


 Downtown Los Angeles


Cold morning, grey, many people homeless. We see one man being handcuffed. He is shaking at the curb.

I stay in a home near Universal Studios. Fifty-inch TV, security system that beeps as you walk down the front path, a telephone that identifies the caller and says the name aloud.

Outside, bougainvillea, jacaranda, palm, lemon, smog. The river on the other side of trees may be a freeway.

                                                                                                 Lookout near Hollywood sign, Los Angeles

Many of the buildings on the main streets are stucco, with bars on the windows: do not enter, do not jump out. The green crosses at shop fronts mean: here is marijuana for your healing.

Then I stay in a Chinese part of town. That large television again, the telephone that screens, the home alarm system, and in the family room, a table ready for mah jong and many framed photographs, including of a wedding.

A social worker tells me the state is going bankrupt. She has lost her eight-hour-a-month job; the community agency had no budget. She used to take the Blue Line to work, and along the way, a man would pop out his glass eye, ask for coins, then pop it back in.

It has been 23 years since I lived in the U.S.A., in Los Angeles, the city where I began as a writer, where so many people come and try themselves. About 21 boxes had been stored in a garage for this time. The books, LPs, memories, intact, with the super-dryness of this semi-desert city.


                                             Office table, Los Angeles


Maybe poetry is one of the best places in this country. The yearning. The clarity and courage and optimism, particularizing.

Otherwise, when I return to the country of my birth, I see loneliness. I see the sense of entitlement. I see the automobile, the home, and the other self-enclosed, purchased, spaces. Protected.

The train is a place where, for a while, this loneliness seems less. Space shared, trusted. Public.

Later, on the plane, a Marine, 21, sits on my left, a widow of a Marine on my right. They know a different language. Bulldog is mascot. Motto is Sempre Fidelis. C.O.P. protects the rifle from dust. She says his shoes are also dustless and ‘Dress Blue Charlies’ the most elegant uniform.

Shrapnel from a landmine was never removed from her husband. One eye sightless, one ear silent, he would wake shouting for years. I tell her I have campaigned against landmines, against violence, against misgovernment, but she seems to believe. Sempre Fidelis, Always Faithful, she seems to be thinking. The 21-year-old boot camp graduate says, ‘Yes, M’am’ to everything I say.


 Found graffiti, Monterey Park, Los Angeles


Madeleine Marie Slavick is a writer and photographer. Her books include Fifty Stories Fifty Images (prose and photography from Hong Kong, 2012), Something Beautiful Might Happen (poetry published in Tokyo, 2010), China Voices (a study of farmers, women, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, elderly and youth; with Oxfam, 2010), delicate access (a bilingual edition of poetry with Chinese translations, 2004) and Round – Poems and Photographs of Asia (1997). She has held exhibitions of her photography in Egypt, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United States. She is based in New Zealand, where she maintains a daily blog: