First published: Spring 2016
“I have so much imagination”, said James Chandler, slouching to turn the power dial on a rusty Throttlepack train controller. “I have trains going to Chicago, Pennsylvania, Altoona, Boston...”. A line of coupled model freight trains began to move along the little railway; the sound of its tiny machinery competed with an old radio spitting out broken bluegrass country songs. As Chandler stood back up, a light bulb perched from the bleak cement ceiling spread its glare from behind his balding head like an asymmetrical halo.
Now retired from his job as a messenger, 68-year-old Chandler spends most mornings playing with model trains in the weathered cellar of the house where he was born. The sprawling track layout he has assembled over many years surrounds a threadbare industrial landscape of manufacturing shops, water towers, a church, gas stations, pine trees of various degrees of verisimilitude, soap ad banners, tiny Coca- Cola trucks, replicas of Kentucky Fried Chicken and K-Mart buildings, trolleys, a colorful array of vintage cars and buses, and only a few non-proportional plastic human toys and figurines placed gratuitously or fallen amid barrels and pebbles.
Chandler’s lifelong fixation with railroad imagery and paraphernalia is most aggressively expressed in a swelling mass of ballpoint pen drawings, made with a ruler on scratch paper, that he’s been sketching consistently since he was a teenager. Each drawing represents a schematic, two-dimensional side view of an individual train car with its specificities according to model, use and company. Chandler’s reference materials are photocopied images from the Pennsylvania Railroad Heavyweight Passenger Equipment Plan and Photo Book, historical photos in The Keystone magazines, and model train cars themselves. When he finishes a drawing, Chandler cuts it from the page and often pins it with other drawings to play out imagined scenarios: “Pennsy” trains running on the Long Island Railroad, or rail car roadside diners with tiny Cadillacs parked in front. Afterwards, he stores them in boxes, piles them up in drawers, sticks them in books, or leaves them scattered between tools, motor parts and model train shells.
Chandler’s daily life is structured around the railroad system; his psyche attuned to its patterns and always engaged in a detailed, lengthy, and somewhat erratic catalogue of facts covering everything from mechanics, designs, horsepower, renovations, infrastructure, materials, routes, stations, types of cars and engines, to the history of the PRR (Pennsylvania Railroad), the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road), the BMT (Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation), the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) and all the things that used to be but no longer are. He wood-pecks his sentences and often jumps from one to the next without finishing them. There’s no more time than a minute to talk about himself as a separate entity from the subject of trains (which is inexhaustible because it’s cyclical, perpetually looping in Chandler’s mind) much less to deal with fickle human relationships.
“I should have a PhD in abnormal psychology raising this family”, said Chandler’s mother Violet, sitting on a rocking chair in the living of the house in Prospect Heights that has belonged to the family since 1926. Chandler’s parents were born in Brooklyn during the Depression to immigrants from Barbados. The late James Randolph Chandler was a sailor in the merchant marine during World War II and then worked for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) subway system. Violet is a painter who studied at Cooper Union and Pratt colleges in New York; her realistic oil and pastel portraits of beautiful black children formally clad (variations of which appeared in holiday cards for years) are all over her walls.
Chandler, the eldest of seven children, appears – according to his family – to have a form of high functioning autism that was never properly diagnosed. He started speaking when he was a toddler, but then stopped abruptly and didn’t say another word for several years. “So, when a child don’t talk... What’s the first thing you’re going to think?”, said Violet. “That they’re retarded, right? That’s the label they put on him, and I used to get so mad. I didn’t know what the problem was, but I knew he wasn’t a dumb kid, he was just mentally unbalanced... they also called it childhood schizophrenia, but it was really autism.”
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #89