You’re riding on a train at sunrise. Sacramento to Bakersfield.
Nature is putting on a show.
She’s painting wispy swirls of pink and lavender. Blues from pale to dark slate. Recent rains have turned the fields into giant reflecting ponds allowing me to bear witness to our own passing. Muddy fields appear to on fire, as their mounds of compost and decay release steam, their low areas gather fog.
The scents change frequently. Their is manure and then skunk. Burnt diesel, followed by pulp mill funk as you roll past cow finishing lots, junk yards, industrial plants, and small towns–some forgotten, many abandoned by those who could afford to move on.
You are missing your instant connectivity, your Google Maps. Your ability to answer the endless questions you have about where you are, what you’m looking at, and what on earth all these aluminum-sided buildings produce.
But there is no internet on this train, just a young skinhead family, a Mac-using girl who has decided you am trustworthy enough to watch her stuff while she grabs a snack from the food cart, two Indian women who chatter and giggle endlessly, two old women from Canada who let me use their Tide-2-Go pen after you’d spilled coffee on your white teeshirt, and a business man who seems lie he knows the drill, advising the skinhead dad what the best station is for a smoke break.
Every few minutes the constant hum of recycled air and rattling tables is replaced by bellow of the train whistle. It’s so low and pleading that whistle seems like the wrong name. The sound indicates an intersection. A point when we block car traffic. You imagine the annoyed drivers, as you have been so many times. Annoyed by this unexpected stop–though not so much unexpected, but unaided. It’s Monday morning, and getting caught by the train would be the inevitable result of your careless attention to detail, your inability to get out the door on time. And then, perhaps, you might find relief in the fact that this is an Amtrak train. It will pass by fast. It’s not a treacherous freight train, with all its imported Chinese-made goodies, insuring that you will be not one, but five minutes late…
Remember to look up Stockton when you get home. Wasn’t it mentioned in Grapes of Wrath? It’s the worst city you’ve seen so far. The dilapidation is shocking, but the buildings that are visible from the train are fascinatingly rusty, their tightness suggest a previous boom…
Like all three-year-olds who are going to be in a confined space for five hours, the skinhead kid keeps whining. If he were’s sitting on the lap of his shaved-head momma (whose sweatshirt is emblazoned with the words, I REGRET NOTHING along with a silkscreened portrait of a man who looks like Stalin), you might suspect he had a bad case of head lice that lead to the close crop. But the iron cross tattooed on the back of his father’s skull along with the spider web tat on his elbow give you all of the necessary clues.
These people haven’t said a word to you or even looked your way. But their presence is making your ride uncomfortable. Your presence is probably making their ride uncomfortable, too. But you can’t do anything about being born with a sin color they choose to hate. You just wish they could have found another time to leave today, a place to be that wasn’t here. Them and their smoking breaks, beers and bloody mary’s before 7 AM. You are a snob. You are feeling disdain.
And you feel sorry for that little boy who didn’t ask to be born to those parents. Parents who will teach him to believe in things that bring pain to the world. Things that may some day send him to prison. Things that will be hard and painful to unlearn, when and if he chooses. He is just a boy, stuck on a train, wishing he could be watching another episode of Spongebob (or Hitler youth training video, or whatever skinhead parents show to their skinhead babies when they want a few minutes to themselves).
And yes, in that way you have something in common, you and the skinhead mom. You have birthed a child, whom you each love, but who will occasionally (or often) make you want to pull your hair out (regardless of length). And though one of you probably told ourselves you’d never do it, and the other probably never gave it much thought, you will both reach a point where you just want to go sit alone for a few minutes and you will plop your kid in front of a video and take that time for yourself.
It’s impossible to get a good photo, but you’re snapping away. A passing freight train. Almond groves. Fog. Sunrise. A collection of parked airplanes. Other passengers. Still-lifes of your little life on board. You know that in a few hours the novelty of this mode of travel will wear off. As with many things, you will at some point want this to be over. But for now you’re loving the freedom of a long drive with few stops an don traffic, facilitated by an invisible chauffeur. It would be better if you could crack a window, get some air, release the stench of cheap, burnt coffee. But for now, you’re putting it out of your mind.
After a few hours you learn that skinhead mom and dad are a different kind of skinhead than you’d first assumed. Skinhead dad’s elbow tattoo is actually some sort of tribal design, but you didn’t misinterpret the iron cross on his skull. A young black guy in hip, oversized urban attire picks up on the clues you’ve missed. He stops to talk to skinhead dad, saying, “Hey! You fight UFC?” To which skinhead dad affirms. And the response brings a giant smile and hellacools from the asker.
You are a snob. And you are timid. And you are embarrassed by all of the thoughts you’ve had about this family. All the judgement you’ve passed. And you know that everywhere this nonconformist couple goes there a lot of people thinking similar thoughts. But skinhead dad has just come back from the dining cart with another two beers for his lady and himself. It’s 10:30 in the morning. This is the third drink you’ve counted. You’ve gotten some things wrong, but the bleak future awaiting skinhead boy, is one thing you’ve gotten right.