We look at a retired New York messenger’s lifelong devotion to model railways, real stations and drawing train carriages
“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. Afterward, 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, types of cars, types of engines, stations, to the history of the PRR, the LIRR, the BMT, the IRT, 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 subway system. Violet is a painter who studied at Cooper Union and Pratt; 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.”
Unfortunate timing put Chandler in a limbo between the first seminal description of autism (published only a few years before his birth by Austrian child psychiatrist Leo Kanner) and the identification of a vast spectrum of autistic disorders in later decades—now known to be caused predominantly by genetic and neuropsychiatric deviations. Generally, children with autism have an impaired or bizarre development of language, limited social skills (including the ability for empathy), and a narrow range of interests that manifest in repetitive behaviors—though these indications vary greatly in nature and degree from one person to the next. Chandler, for example, started speaking again at five years old, like someone had hit a pause button and then pressed play, but one of his two brothers (who is at the other end of the spectrum) never uttered one word.
Little “Jimmy” (as Chandler is still called in the family) was shrewd and
mischievous, always finding ways of antagonizing those who thought he wasn’t smart. He would pull stakes out and have police running after him, lift cushions and expose people’s hidden filth, tip trays over at exactly the right time, lock people in closets, dump soil on freshly coiffed neighbors, unhinge doors and have them fall on teachers, and yell at his sisters to not come near his trains and go play with their dolls—not so much out of revenge as out of chauvinism (in his mother’s term), which was ironic given that his angelic features often got him confused for a girl.
Chandler’s childhood fluctuated everywhere in between acting “normal,” after the positive influence of a primary school teacher who didn’t stay in his life for very long, and a brief stint in the children’s ward at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where he was brutally beat by an attendant. Though always in the special “ungraded” classes, he eventually made it to high school and shortly after went to occupational training, where he qualified to be a messenger, a job in which he excelled because he knew everything anyone could ever know about the New York City subway system. He worked steadily from 1969 until a few years ago, when they closed the last company he worked for and let him go.
Today, Chandler’s agenda, though self-imposed, is quite inflexible. On weekdays he’s usually in Penn Station (his favorite place) or making rounds nearby Grand Central Station, where he visits former colleagues on the job with great enthusiasm. Saturdays he’s often visiting trolley museums and train shows as far as Pennsylvania. Sundays, after church, he’s goes to Coney Island’s Nathan’s Hotdogs and comes back home at 5pm on the dot. Getting snacks and food items to bring back for his dinner (olives, corn on the cob, beer, wine) is a very important component of these outings. “He’ll take a subway all the way to the last stop to buy a box of Corn Flakes on sale,” jokes Violet. He always eats in early Twentieth Century replicas of Pennsylvania or Long Island Railroad dishes—he even found a real vintage cup—, and his juice glass has the now defunct LIRR logo of Dashing Dan on it.
“At night, when I fall asleep,” said Chandler aboard the Franklin Avenue shuttle one day. “I dream about trains and heaven and about all those cars I’ve been running … That’s my brain later on this evening.”
Then it starts all over again.
Limping slightly, Chandler made his way between hurrying commuters—past the soft steps and echoes in Grand Central Station and the roar of construction and blasting music in Penn Station—to muse on subway maps and train schedules as if they were exquisite love poems and watch trains come and go.
“Westside Yard, track 21. Westside Yard, track 21,” spoke the intercom.
“Feel the vibrations?” said Chandler. “Hear that noise? That’s the motors! That train is going under the Hudson River!”
For Chandler, stations are in themselves destinations, not mere conduits linking the dots; he finds solace in this uncomfortable middle ground—where most people would feel alienated lingering for very long—because his obsession relates to a time when trains were still a source of generalized fascination. Furthermore, when he sees real trains arrive and depart, he’s also playing with them: visualizing them in his basement citadel and projecting them on to his drawings—like zooming in and out of different dimensions within the self-sufficient universe he’s created for himself.
The great insight of Chandler’s inadvertent master oeuvre lies, perhaps, in its compulsive drive to represent the object of desire ad infinitum and as tangibly as he possibly can in the midst of an increasingly virtual cultural landscape, hoping to redeem it from the implacable flow of time—a plight which he suspects is lost in advance: “time is going by me! I wish it would stand still… That’s not good huh? It would mess up the world that way. It has to move. If it stopped… We’re in trouble.”
This article was originally published in Raw Vision Magazine #89.