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PC: [Fwd: (erielack) Fwd: NYTimes.com Article: A Whistle-Stop World]

Kind of neat essay
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A Whistle-Stop World
April 11, 2002

A 13-YEAR-OLD lives inside Richard Roman, 32. And the
13-year old employs him. Mr. Roman, a sandy-haired soccer
jock, jumped into the cab of his blue Ford F-550 recently,
a pickup truck the size of a locomotive, and drove to the
top of the cliffs of Dover, N.J., to show off the view from
his new house. 

Dover, an 18th-century town, population 18,000, sat nested
between the hills like a toy train set: hospital, school,
factory. A train pulled into the train station. 

Mr. Roman's company, East Coast Enterprises, builds
toy-train and model railroading layouts for hobbyists and
collectors. He started designing and constructing layouts
professionally when he was 13. 

"At night, when the lights come on, I see this," said Mr.
Roman, psyched, standing by his idling truck, his house
behind him. He swept his gaze over Dover, now an O-gauge
panorama. "I see my railroads. This is the ideal
functioning town that time forgot about for a while." 

Today, everyday, the news is good. In Mr. Roman's machine
shop, mounted on plywood, small-town America, with its
small-town values, is alive and well. 

Mr. Roman builds it: an emblematic vision of a simpler time
and a purer place that Americans started to recapture in
popular culture as it started to slip their grasp. 

On Main Street, the windows are clean, not shattered.
Workmen wash them, day in and day out. Mailmen face dogs,
not anthrax. Children swing toward skies without planes.
The nation travels by train, and the trains are on time.
The universe is ordered. Life is accountable. 

What goes around comes around quickly when the world is 12
by 24 feet. There is no suburban sprawl. There isn't the

More than nostalgia for trains or toys, what lives on in
Mr. Roman's towns is nostalgia for a way of life. 

"It's a perfect, peaceful place, it's safe," said Mandy
Patinkin, the performer, of the town Mr. Roman created for
Mr. Patinkin's layout, which is modeled on Creed, Colo., a
mountain town where Bat Masterson was once the marshal. Mr.
Patinkin, 49, got his first toy train as an 8-year-old. 

"They want Pleasantville," Mr. Roman said. It is a
hometown, dear to remember, that might never have existed. 

Mr. Roman, who studied engineering, is not an architect,
an urban planner or a developer, but he designs and creates
three to four towns, with landscapes, every year. He
employs a three-man crew; several freelance kit builders
and painters; his wife, Dione; and his father, Geza. He
knows, technically, that an O-gauge train like Lionel will
climb only a 2 percent grade with ease on a track. He also
knows, conceptually, what makes a town viable. 

"It's a packaging issue, just like my railroads," he said.
"The type of housing that would be next to the railroad,
zoning and industry, nice neighborhoods where the trains
wouldn't be allowed." On Mr. Roman's larger layouts, there
is a wrong side of the tracks, with working-class hotels
and union halls. "And the features of a town," he said.
"Firemen fighting fires, a cop writing somebody a ticket."
A town is its people. Mr. Roman buys them - pewter nuns,
brides and bridegrooms, sailors and painted "painted
ladies" - from suppliers like Arttista Accessories in

Part Robert Moses, part Robinson Crusoe, part Freud, Mr.
Roman, with a Hewlett-Packard laptop; RR-Track, a
hobbyist's software; and his hands, must realize working
municipalities from the uncharted childhood islands in the
minds of grown men. Mr. Roman's clients include policemen
and criminal defense attorneys, eye surgeons and
electricians. Layouts range from 75 to 2,000 square feet.
They average $100 to $200 a square foot, depending on the
"intensity of detail," Mr. Roman said. 

Toy-train and model railroad hobbyists number no more than
350,000, spending an estimated $400 million annually,
according to the Kalmbach Publishing Company, which
publishes magazines like Classic Toy Trains and Model
Railroader. But they are a powerful, imaginative lobby for
a version of American life that hasn't existed since the
late 1950's and early 60's, when the national railroads'
steam engines were retired, the interstate highways were
built, air travel became common and the great golden age of
locomotion and riding the rails rolled to a stop. 

Things were different then, a perception that will never
dim in the celluloid-window-lighted towns of O- and
HO-gauge trains. 

Mr. Roman said that in the wake of the events of September,
he expected his fanciful business to stumble. In fact,
clients put a rush on orders. Suppliers, like track makers
and switch makers, reported shortages. Lionel, the
102-year-old toy-train manufacturer that was acquired in
1995 by an investment group that includes Neil Young, the
rock singer, reported a 40 percent increase in sales in the
last six months. 

"Guys wanted their trains," said Mr. Roman, who has no
clients that are women. "They can go into their train rooms
and close the door, and the world is under control." It is
now predominantly an adult's hobby, a fact the industry is
recognizing and catering to with reissues and collectibles,
and events like the Train Collectors Association meet in
York, Penn., on April 19 and 20. 

The most popular era recreated in hobbyists' layouts is the
1950's, the era during which the romance of the railroads
disappeared like a mighty cloud of steam into the air, and
with it the familiar landscape of America. 

Ray and Charles Eames, the designers, made a homage to
trains using toys in 1957. "Toccata for Toy Trains" is a
14-minute film of a trip through town and country with
music by Elmer Bernstein, inspired by the filmmaker Billy
Wilder's gift of a toy locomotive to Charles Eames. 

"Railroads built the towns, as they moved inland from the
coasts," said Thomas H. Garver, the author of "The Last
Steam Railroad in America," a book of photographs by O.
Winston Link, who documented the last days of the Norfolk &
Western Railway in the 1950's, as it sped - a
60-mile-an-hour fire-breathing steel cortege - through the
small mining towns of West Virginia. Mr. Garver will be the
curator of a museum dedicated to Link's work, which will be
housed in the train station in Roanoke, Va., designed by
Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer who streamlined the
Pennsylvania Railroad's steam engines in the 1930's into
cosmopolitan rocket ships. 

"If you look at those towns now, they're shells," Mr.
Garver said, explaining the lure of reclaiming their memory
with a model railroad. Mr. Roman uses Link's photographs as
source material in setting his scenes. 

For the small-town residents, many of whom moved to cities
in the 1950's, the railroad was a way in and a way out, a
whistle wailing through at night like the siren of a wider
world, inviting adventure. "The steam whistle is a beautiful 
sound," Mr. Garver said.

There is a noir quality, too, to the railroad's transient
presence in a town, like the arrival of a stranger, which
has not escaped hobbyists. What layout builders like Mr.
Roman call the icons of American life in miniature,
available through the mom and pop businesses that produce
them, like Downtown Deco in Montana - the milk-loading
platforms, the grain elevators, the Grecian temple banks,
the men in suits kissing their wives and walking to work -
also include the typical small town's secrets: detective
agencies, pawn shops and hobos sleeping, with newspapers
over their faces, under a tree. They weren't yet the
homeless. Boxcars were their homes. 

"They forget polio and bomb shelters," said Tony Koester, a
model railroader in Newton, N.J., speaking of fellow
hobbyists. Mr. Koester, 59, is part of a growing movement
of model railroaders who, working as preservationists and
historians, are creating accurately scaled, extensively
researched layouts that are time- and place-specific. 

"I remember sitting on the roof as a Cub Scout, looking for
Russian bombers," he said. "And I lost a friend to polio."
Mr. Koester's layout reproduces the fall of 1954, in
scenery, and the St. Louis run of the New York, Chicago &
St. Louis Railway, called the Nickel Plate Road. 

"I grew up in a little town in west Indiana called Cayuga,"
he said. "My dad ran the brickyard. We left in 1958." 

The Nickel Plate Road came through town, still with steam.
"They hiss and snort and puff," said Mr. Koester, as if he
were a boy describing a dragon. "That's the only thing
that's going to be on my tombstone: `Model Railroader.' " 

Several weeks ago, Mr. Roman visited Joanne and Wayne
Weiner in Randolph, N.J. Mr. Weiner is a client. 

Mr. Weiner led Mr. Roman down carpeted steps into the
basement of his suburban home. It got louder as they went
down. Mr. Weiner had been careful to start running his
trains before Mr. Roman arrived. They were racing and
revolving and taking the straightaways, through the
blinking crossings and over the trestled bridges - boys
swimming in the river below - of his town, no one else's,
alive with activity. For anyone who was a boy in the 1950's
or 60's, the loud, metallic sound is like time rushing back
into a can. 

"Classic," Mr. Roman said, looking up from the next step

Mandy Patinkin recalled showing his 88-year-old uncle his
layout, which is at his house in upstate New York. "We grew
up on the South Side of Chicago," Mr. Patinkin said. "We
were in the scrap metal business, which is the junk
business - the Peoples Iron and Metal Company." 

Mr. Patinkin had Mr. Roman represent it on the layout. "My
uncle Harold, the last trip he made was to my son's bar
mitzvah, three years ago," Mr. Patinkin said. "We carried
him up the steps to see the layout. He parked himself in
front of the Peoples Iron and Metal Company. 

"And he just sat there and wept."


 Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Gary R. Kazin
DL&W Milepost R35.7
Rockaway, New Jersey


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