In his reminiscence-paean to the great days of American railroading (page 106), Mark Kram is up to his old, engaging literary tricks. He has perceived correctly that much of the romance of the railroads springs from the offbeat people—in this case, sports figures—who rode the trains of the era, and he has focused his piece on them. In short, Kram has been out character hunting again.
Whether on his regular boxing beat or some assignment far afield, such as his profile of ballet star Edward Villella (SI, Sept. 27), Kram has always loved the unusual. Disdaining the public glare in which most sports bask, he seeks out the shadows, where illumination filters through his own intense personal involvement and the refractive effects of his irony. He is ever alert to the oddities that obsess some men, and indeed has made these obsessions a key element in his style.
"I've always been lured by the off side of life," says Kram, "especially by peripheral people who spend their time in lonesome hunts even they can't explain. I like poking in corners."
As a consequence of this poking, the palindromic Kram inhabits a world peopled by every sort of character and rascal, including one man in Baltimore, Kram's home town, who called himself James IV and lived in an apartment decorated at every turn with hangmen's nooses. Another favorite from Kram's days as a Baltimore Sun columnist was Quackenbush, a compulsively prolific letter-to-the-editor writer of great style—"Proustian with an Appalachian flavor"—and of even greater length. One of his more memorable works was a 50-page tract lamenting the replacement of milk bottles with cardboard cartons. Although Kram's subjects often lend themselves to darkly evocative prose, he has demonstrated that the offbeat can be upbeat, too, as in his story about the even-natured Ernie Banks, who "stands out by virtue of his very conformity."
Kram cites a perfectly plausible reason for his devotion to trains. Back in 1969, on a flight from London, his jet was turned back, and a hasty exit via evacuation chute was effected by him and his fellow passengers at Heathrow Airport. Never wildly enthusiastic about flying, anyhow, Kram decided to stick with trains (or boats, when oceans had to be coped with) for his travel needs. He does not drive, and professes to be past the age when he could learn. His resolution faltered recently on a trip back from Europe when his sailing plans fell through; tranquilized beyond caring, Kram allowed himself to be put aboard a 707 for the trip home. He still prefers trains.
One machine he nevertheless continues to use is the typewriter, and he hopes before long to tap out a story on the self-styled king of half-court basketball, a fellow who supports his passion for pickup games at the YMCA by writing confession stories. Kram met him in a sauna, an encounter vaguely reminiscent of his passing acquaintance with somebody called Centerfielder, a sage in a frayed New York Yankee cap whose words of wisdom found their way into one of Kram's boxing stories. Typically, the encounter seems more significant than the character.
"I met Centerfielder in a hotel lobby across from the old Madison Square Garden," says Kram. "We were both reaching for the same discarded newspaper."