Rolling stock


This poster dates from 1915. In it, beside the artillery insigne on the boxcar belonging to Russia’s Northwest Railroad, a printed word says “Supplies,” and below that a chalk scrawl says “Due,” in the sense of a bill that has to be paid. In that picture and those words, the image illustrates the idea of a weapon being trundled through a snowy landscape toward the completion of its purpose. Like the picture on a banknote, it realizes one of the transactions which it is the business of a government to execute. Below the picture, a caption educationally adds: “War loan, 5½%. The more funds, the more munitions and supplies, the sooner the victory.”

Source: Photoshopped.

Not long after this edition rolled in its thousands out of a press, a different train delivered Lenin to the Finland Station, and then all those who had trusted that the Czar’s word was his 5½-percent bond lost their investment. Ironic interpretations followed. To the designers whose political labor brought this poster into existence, history was something toward which to roll. It was a future at the end of a line. A century later, we might read the poster differently — for instance, as an allegory of the term “wreck.” According to such an interpretation, wreckage may not be visible on the surface of the poster, but catastrophe always has been implicit in the design.


In Peconic, Long Island, New York, on March 3, 1942, a train collided with a car. At the site where I found this image of the aftermath, someone has taken care to note that the woman driving the car wasn’t injured.

However, matters of life and death aren’t the primary concerns of this page, because it is a picture history of the Long Island Rail Road. Asking us to read images as if we were not living men and women but creatures in a picture, this history deploys its picture archive only to direct our attention away from our lives and toward to a text. In turn, the text enters a strictly numeric register as it chronicles the beginning and end of the little station bearing the name “Peconic”: built, August 1876; torn down, April 1942, just a month after it was pictured with boarded-up windows across the tracks from the damaged automobile. For a moment during that interval, a train with a caboose passed down one of those tracks between the abandoned station and the wrecked car. For the duration of that time, someone in Peconic could have seen in the distance the smoke from the train’s steam engine. Both the caboose (an obsolete piece of rolling stock) and the steam engine (another obsolete piece of rolling stock) are gone now, of course. We’ll never see their like again. But the only thing in this image that can now matter to the text called history is the building’s unpicturable abstract hic jacet: 1876-1942.

Source: Photoshopped.


“Nothing beside remains,” as the traveler from an antique land reported to Shelley. But the antique land itself pleads:

Credit this photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,
(please include photographer’s name when noted).

The photographer’s name isn’t noted, so I can’t grant to his memory what is due. But as if my word were my bond, I can at least point at the anonymous text appended to a dateless image found in the archive and say:

“Look. The words printed above it say, ‘Woman and girl stand near the train wreck — Lloyd, Florida.’”

The words — either my words or the words I’m now writing about — mean almost nothing. Outside Lloyd, Florida, at some unspecified time during perhaps (to judge from the clothing) the 1940s, they are probably all but lost to the text of history. In the phrase “the train wreck,” the definite article the can’t be read now as anything but a symptom of delusion. The train wreck? What train wreck?

But in the interstices between what the text of history designates as events, it’s still possible for light to fall, and for sight and memory to account for that other, wordless event. So long as we remain near the wreck ourselves, we wordlessly know it.