Day 86: Go to the wrong side of the tracks.Posted: March 27, 2011
I’m tempted to pull the sort of thing with this phrase that I pulled with “hobby” a few weeks ago – or, rather, I was tempted to do so, until a bit of poking around in the vast soup of knowledge and nonsense that is the internet convinced me reconstructing the history of this idiom was going to require looking in actual books in a library somewhere, and I’m just not up for it tonight.
Not up for looking in books, that is: I’m just going to make this shit up as I go along.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the “tracks” are train tracks. The definite article in the idiom implies that there is only one set of tracks passing through the town – although there we’re assuming that the “wrong side” exists only where the tracks pass through some sort of community, and that the sides are neutral with respect to one another in those places that the track runs through the open countryside. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to make, but we need to be clear about it.
So. Train tracks. One set in town. I think we’ll have to assume that, especially if the town had a station, there must have been a few small spurs of track associated with the station, because practicality seems to necessitate such things. For the sake of the idiom, though, we won’t consider these separate tracks, but part of the tracks.
So. There’s one major set of train tracks running through town. How do you tell which side is the wrong side?
This is, I think, the crux of the matter. We all know that the “wrong side” is the “poor side” – the question is, as it seems to me, whether the less-than-nice side of the tracks was wrong or poor first. That is, is there something inherently undesirable about the wrong side of the tracks which means that the poor people have to live there because the bougies won’t, or is the poor side of the tracks “wrong” precisely because that’s where the poor people live?
One explanation – which I find highly dubious – is that the wrong side is wrong because it’s the side that all or most of the train exhaust ends up on, due to “prevailing winds.” It seems like, for this to be the case, the train tracks would have to run perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Right? Maybe not.
Furthermore, the immediate vicinity of the tracks on both sides are subject to air pollution and noise and hobos and stray railroad spike impalements and who knows what else – so why is it that one side is right and the other wrong, and not that both sides get “righter” the further from the tracks one gets?
This is all more or less pointless, as most places don’t just have one set of tracks anymore. Which particular set of tracks here in Sherman is the set that has a wrong and a right side? Wait, shit – if each set of tracks has a right and a wrong side, how does that work where they overlap? Can one area be really wrong, or both wrong and right and therefore neutral, or the right side of a lesser track and the wrong side of a major track and therefore wrong, but not as wrong as it could be?
Sorry, I got myself sidetracked. Wrong-tracked. Whatever.
We live only a few blocks from a set of tracks. It’s a relatively minor spur, but in the absence of an official pronouncement on the rightness or wrongness of sides of various sets of tracks, I’m going to say it’s the one. The one. And so: our house is on one side, and the Montessori pre-school Jack goes to is on the other side, and the tracks are roughly the halfway point. Either we live on the wrong side, or he goes to school on the wrong side, but either way, we visit both sides of the tracks five days a week – seven, actually, as the park, our church, and my parents are all also on the other side of the tracks from us.
So, dear Book, fuck you. I win this round.