“Oh America” – observation from a train

We live in two Americas.

That sentiment is not new or news, but it is often said from a distance, from a perch on high that allows a certain amount of “I see it but I’m not of it and I would never think of myself as better than (or less than)” etc. etc.

And yet…

That is such a cop out. We live in two Americas.

For some of us…

  • “We” get on planes
  • “We” drive our cars, some times long distances, but without the worry that the car won’t make it there or that we’ll have trouble affording the gas
  • “We” take trains… but only certain trains, at certain times, and it’s a choice – it is always a choice

I’m using transportation as the looking glass because it was the act of taking an off-peak regional train to a non-major city center that completed my education in what real privilege is, but I could use any frame: education, culture, art, sport, hobbies, etc. to make the point, too, so don’t think any of us have any excuses.

We don’t. Whatever “we” to which you ascribe.

Continuing on with this “we” so “we” have a way of interacting with the world. And if there is a we, then there is a “they”:

  • “They” don’t get on planes; they don’t even think about it
  • “They” must take trains (or buses) to go a long distance, because cost and access to private transportation may be prohibitive
  • “They” are at the mercy of these schedules and their time is not their own, in that, they don’t control it the way “we” control ours

I can already hear the outrage chorus in response to the above. That’s fine: be outraged, be angry, and when you’re done, tell me I’m wrong. Heck, I would love to be wrong, and yet…

I’ve been taking Amtrak for years and this weekend was the first time I didn’t take it between NYC and D.C., not between Monday to Friday during prime business hours, and it also happens to be one of the less than an actual handful of times I’ve not been on the Acela.

I don’t kid myself: I refer to the LGA Marine Terminal shuttles to D.C., Boston, and Chicago as puddle jumpers. Those flights are nothing to me: not from a cost standpoint but also from what it says about how I interact with the world. My time is my own; my schedule matters; I do traverse great distances in a single bound (not stopping every other station, every 20-30 minutes and being forced to show ticket).

We live in two Americas. In a global context, most of us live in two different worlds, and I have no idea how to change that reality.

The battle over Amtrak, whether to keep subsidizing it and how to make it better and should they close a station that doesn’t get much traffic… it is more than just a battle over budget and political pork.

It’s a battle for hope, for access, and for a way of life.

Stepping down those stairs and getting ready to board the train, I was confronted with people that I’d never seen before, and I know this was just a snippet, a window, but an enlightening one.

I’d never been asked before boarding “where’s your destination.” On my previous train journeys, I’d never seen this broad a cross section of people. I’d never had a train announcement that was: “New crew and everyone must show their tickets, regardless of where you boarded” – loud and repeated to wake up passengers snoozing with jackets placed backwards over their bodies and luggage of all sorts and kinds.

“We” sit in our cities, with our foam lattes, Lululemon backpacks, and “woke” t-shirts, our IG-filtered lives and “BELIEVE” self-care quotes, and most of us have no idea. (Some of us do, it’s why we fight so hard to not be lumped in there, but, don’t worry, your insecurity is strongly projected, you pretentious ass)

And now, so what? I’ve been ‘woken up’, and what to do about it, right?

Nothing. Something? I don’t know. Part of me, and I suppose I should be ashamed (but I don’t know if I am, I haven’t reckoned with it yet) thinks, next time, just get in my car and drive to visit my friends.

I won’t. I’m not that sort of coward.

But, I don’t see myself forever staying in a city. Because, the truth is, sometimes (often) I get tired of the talking of cities, I get tired of the self-congratulatory attitudes (insecure one, I see you), the thinkpieces, the champagne privilege-talk downs, all of the noise and chattering and nonsense – I long for a quieter pace, for my time to matter less, for my life to be smaller and more contained.

I long for a train ride to nowhere special and in no rush. But, that’s a choice for me, and one I shouldn’t take for granted.

So maybe that’s the lesson today: don’t take it for granted. It is not through any special merit I was fortunate enough to have the right combination of things to come together to make choice like this possible — and there is no guarantee it continues forever.

I live in two Americas and I won’t let myself ever forget that truth.

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