Niemann mixes boomer railroading, Mexican art in new book

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Linda Niemann
William P. Diven
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Author Linda Niemann picked up Spanish living in southern California long before she went railroading in 1979 as one of the early female brakemen on the Southern Pacific.

While not fluent, her passable Spanish proved useful during encounters with freight-hopping migrants, as she described in “Boomer,” the 1990 book establishing Niemann as a bare-knuckles writer and astute inside observer of railroad work and people. As a boomer brakeman, she bounced around the SP from the Bay Area to Texas with stints in borderlands out of Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas.

During layoffs between jobs and homes, she traveled to Mexico soon dedicating herself to Spanish fluency. She fell in love with the art and culture taking buses to remote towns in pursuit of the artists whose creations she discovered in urban markets.

In addition to her railroad grip, Niemann also carried a Ph.D. in English literature awarded in 1975 by the University of California, Berkeley. After 20 years with SP, successor Union Pacific, and Amtrak, she dusted off her academic credentials to join Kennesaw State College in Georgia.

That career move, however, created a problem in writing her latest book, “Cosas: Folk Art Travels in Mexico,” newly published by the University of New Mexico Press.

“The narrator is a railroad brakeman,” she said during a February book event in Albuquerque, N.M. “Then kind of halfway through, the narrator becomes a college professor.

“That strategically is the most difficult transition I had to make trying to make that happen without calling too much attention to it.”

The transition also marks the line between independent boomer tourist and leader-chaperone for hundreds of college students that she's escorted, over time, on cross-cultural trips to Mexico.

While not a railroad book per se, her experiences add depth to “Cosas” (Spanish for “things”) as on a 2004 trip in search of a ceramics maker. She and a friend enter Mexico through Douglas, Ariz., where she had switched the Phelps-Dodges Smelter in the 1970s. It was this chapter she read during the Albuquerque book signing.

"Brown hills rose like old friends, creating for me a feeling of nostalgic peace. It was odd how safe I felt working on trains, odd because the work was so dangerous. The company that harried us also protected us — a paradox of the whole West. Alone you were coyote bait, but under the wing of a ranch, mine, railroad, or military base, you were part of something greater than yourself. Even the scalp hunters roamed in bands. Leaving the railroad, I still carried that feeling of safety with me down into Mexico, wherever I went."

Niemann stills writes occasionally about railroaders. Her 2011 piece critical of one-person crews won the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society David P. Morgan Article Award named for Trains venerated editor.
“For a long time on the railroad, I would think of myself as a professor who happened to be a railroader because I never stopped, I was always writing books,” she tells Trains News Wire. “Now I think of myself as a railroader who happens to be a professor because the railroad so informs the way I looked at the world that I’ve got to say I’m more of a railroader than a professor.”

In addition to “Boomer,” republished in paperback in 2011, her other railroad works include “Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century” (with photographer Joel Jensen), “Railroad Voices” (with photographer Lina Bertucci) and numerous articles and reminiscences published in Trains and elsewhere.

She teaches both literature and nonfiction creative writing.

“I teach seminar-style,” Niemann tells Trains News Wire. “I don’t lecture. I just get people to do a lot of reading.”

Next autumn Niemann will lead an American Studies class at the junction of railroads and American cultures and their effects on each other. The six-page syllabus lists six required books plus articles, films, audio recordings, and photography produced by railroaders, hoboes, musicians, and others closely associated with the railroad subculture.

The railroad, she writes, became the embodiment of the western push of development known as Manifest Destiny.

Some writers may be familiar to railfans: Jack London and Jack Kerouac, to pick two iconic authors. Others are less so, such as Jack Black, the hobo and burglar who wrote his autobiography in the 1920s; and Frank Chin, self-described first Chinese-American brakeman on the Southern Pacific, whose 1988 short-story collection is titled “The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co.”

While she keeps up to date on railroad issues, and has CSX Transportation virtually in her backyard, there are things she misses about railroading. The teamwork needed to get the job done, for one, and the humor, some of which had to be cleaned up for publication in Trains.

“There was such freedom of speech because you weren’t assumed to have an intelligence,” she says. “They didn’t care what you said as long as you showed up and you had all of your stuff and you went out and did it.”
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