The Story Behind “Hugging the Rail” by Louis Wittig

LW HeadshotToday’s post written by Louis Wittig. We published his nonfiction piece “Hugging the Rail” in our Fall 2014 issue. 

As soon as I realized the train I was on had hit someone, I knew that I had to write about it, and that if I didn’t write about it I would have failed at something big. What exactly I would write about I had no idea.

The day after the incident, when the Post article came out, I knew that the title of whatever I wrote would be “Hugging The Rail.” This was in 2004. I didn’t know anything else about what the story would be. Back then, in the weeks and months following the end of JJ’s life, I was confident that if I kept pushing myself (and kept being a bit pushy with others) that I would eventually figure out what that story was. The characters were there. The plot was there. The conflicting memories, the revealing details, the sadness and yearning were there. It was all there. But every time I put those parts together they didn’t fit.

Everything I learned about JJ’s death and his life had this ineludible literary gravity to it. I felt like I was an archaeologist who had dug himself to where he could see the outline of a tomb—a tomb with a secret king in it—and all I had to do was brush off the dirt. I thought I could tell the world why JJ killed himself; that it would make sense and that it would be important for you to know.

None of that turned out to be true.

I was incredibly energized by doing the sleuthing. Every time I wrote a letter to someone who knew JJ or filed an information request, the Law & Order theme song picked up in my head at the exact note it had left off on when I was last working on the piece. I was constantly surprised that JJ’s friends and family talked to me. I said I was a writer, but no one ever asked me what publication I was writing for or why I was interested. I’d always thought you needed a clear defensible reason to bother people, but I just said I had been on the train and that was enough.

I hit a wall pretty quickly. JJ died on Christmas Eve 2004, and I ran out of people to talk to and ways to research JJ’s life early in April or May of 2005. In March or late February, when I spoke with JJ’s niece Angie, she said that the super of JJ’s building might still have some of his stuff—lamps and encyclopedias maybe. We walked over to JJ’s building. The super wasn’t it, but I said I’d come back. I was very excited that I could actually see JJ’s stuff. I thought that once I saw his drapes, I would understand everything. A few days later I became embarrassed by how bizarre a thought that was and never followed up with the super.

That summer of 2005 I tried to assemble what I knew in a dozen ways, figuring that if the story hadn’t emerged in the talking and the researching, then it must come out in the telling. Not so. I assembled the facts every way I could. I outlined furiously, as if my outlines were mathematical proofs on a chalkboard. But at the end of every outline, all I had was a guy who jumped in front of a train for no coherent reason. I wrote tens of thousand of words and realized that all I was saying was that JJ was upset.

I gave up on writing the story that summer. I tried and failed again in the summer of 2006, and then again in the fall of 2007. I thought about JJ every Christmas.

Around Thanksgiving of 2013, I panicked. It hit me that it had been years since I’d seen the yellow, shredded up folder were I kept all my JJ notes and evidence. I tore through my apartment and excavated my parents’ basement. Nothing. On some level I thought that the universe was operating on a use-it-or-lose-it policy, and that I had lost JJ. I hadn’t: The yellow folder turned up on a bookshelf that I look at every day, the first place I should have looked.

But I was shaken up by the experience and out of fear of the abyss I wrote as much as I could as fast as I could. I appreciate you taking the time to read it.

About the Author

Louis Wittig works in the advertising industry in New York. He feels that if he leads with that fact, rather than the fact that he tries at writing, you will judge his work on a curve. Like you’ll think “this is good for some guy.” He would appreciate your thinking that. His short fiction and humor has appeared online at Punchnel’s, and Gravel.

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