Writer interviews her way around America
In early October of 2016, most Americans were waking each morning to revelations emanating from the presidential campaign. Tobi Elkin ’86 woke up in her “roomette” to the sight of cornfields whizzing by. Amtrak had chosen Elkin as a writer in residence, a program started in 2013 that invited writers to ride the rails and pursue creative projects of their choice. Elkin had applied on a whim, and she was pleasantly surprised to be accepted, one of 23 out of more than 20,000 applicants. “My professional experience and training as a journalist and reporter—it all came together in a really elegant way on that residency,” Elkin says.
Elkin’s journalism career goes back at least to her time as co-editor of Goucher’s student paper, The Quindecim. A political science major, she went on to work at the League of Women Voters in DC before getting a master’s in political science at UMass Amherst.
She moved home briefly to Pennsylvania and got a job as a freelancer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Elkin really cut her teeth as a journalist with The Associated Press, working in Charleston, WV, where in 1991 she interviewed the oldest living woman at the time, Ettie Mae Greene. (Greene died the following year at 114.) Elkin then moved on to the AP bureau in Albany, NY, as a general reporter, covering everything from extreme weather and sports to family tragedies and economic development.
After a stint working at a trade publisher in Philadelphia, Elkin moved to New York City, and over the last 15 years or so has covered the business of digital marketing, media, and advertising, and related trends. Today, she’s the content director for Impact Radius, a technology firm.
Although digital marketing has become something of a journalistic niche for Elkin, her interests are wide-ranging. She has profiled Patricia Field, the legendary stylist and fashion icon, and covered the Tribeca Film Festival. In late 2015, she was looking for a new outlet for her creativity.
Then the Amtrak residency chugged along. Elkin would ride trains across America for more than two weeks on five different routes, from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana, to Seattle, Los Angeles, and many places in between, before heading back to Chicago and then Penn Station in New York.
Almost immediately, she was taken with the train people she met. And they are “train people.” Many of the people Elkin interviewed travel on trains almost exclusively. It’s a way of life, a way to see parts of the country invisible from the roads and skies. And it’s a way to meet interesting people.
“It was right before the election,” says Elkin, “and I really wanted to explore the concept of a sense of place, and see the different types of communities in America. There’s a lot of complexity in this country, and I wanted to explore it.”
Elkin filmed her interviews, expecting only to use snippets to accompany her writing but after returning to New York, she decided to make a short film inspired by her experience. (She also blogged about her experience for Amtrak.) She describes “Train People” as a meditative, visual poem. The six-minute short, available on Vimeo, was screened at a dozen film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. It was a grand jury nominee in the London Independent Film Awards and won the bronze in the documentary short category for the International Independent Film Awards this year.
“I was looking for things that unite us and I was looking for our common sensibilities, really, as humans.” And she found it. The film is a reminder that America and its people are endlessly varied.
Is Elkin one of the train people now?