This is how you know you’re in coach on Amtrak: all the neatly closed and coordinated luggage has been properly stowed in sleeping cars. Coach is not a place of matching sets in modern colors, hard-shelled and adorned with stickers announcing far away cities that might not really exist. We are a tribe of borrowers and Goodwill shoppers, garbage bag packers and shopping bag haulers. There is no one in coach in expensive jeans, no skateboards covered in sponsor labels velcro’d to a brand name backpack. It’s men who shoved their personal possessions in a camping backpack and a bottle into a front pocket for slow sipping at each announced delay. It’s women with so many children they haven’t known a private shower or a hairstyle more complicated than a ponytail in years. It’s people who walk on in pajamas and stay that way, and confuse the courtesy of the kind chap selling coffee for friendship; a friendship that is revoked the moment his lunch break lasts a little too long and all the addicts tighten their line formation and bristle. Coffee. This is about coffee. And beer. Definitely beer. It’s people who are accused of things by other people, people who are a bit more tired at 30 than average, it’s people who Know Better Than You about so many things, if you wouldn’t only take the time to listen.
And in the midst of this is me: borrowed suitcase (check). Uncomplicated hairstyle (check). Personal weirdness to account for (check). Mounting exasperation and an inability to complete a sentence (double check).
There are very few women in coach during the journey from PDX to MSP, though two men in hunting jackets and John Deere trucker’s hats have managed to find one. She’s a Japanese tourist with an east facing seat in the observation car, and both of these men are eager to tell her everything she’s not asking about America. I’m seated behind her, barely remaining upright and thinking about disease. The American men are talking about how their parents can’t retire, early careers in dirt bike racing, and why Americans need to repeatedly renew their drivers’ licenses. The Japanese tourist mentions speaking three languages, and one of them tells this joke:
“Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks three or more languages is called multilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”
Lulz all around.
Their conversation is slow and meandering and surprisingly intimate, as each produces a phone full of images of their respective hometowns to best illustrate their explanations of everyday life. I hear her comment that she doesn’t have the same journey that a lot of Americans feel compelled to experience, the journey of identity, because she knows exactly where her parents were born and what place they started from; she knows what village they belong to, what palace resides there, and what it means when the bells toll. Both men are silent at this, out of respect for the truth and the poetic delivery, and I’m thinking about it too, and my own need to inspect my genetics and identify as American plus something else. I wonder if there will be a time in the future with a single identifiable American ethnicity, one that has nothing to do with the Civil War and dates of immigration, and if during this time Americans will be a bit more interested in story, having been freed from the prison of memorized names and dates and graves.
These meandering thoughts sustain me and them until sunset demands retirement to seats for movie watching and pseudo sleeping. There will be no sleeping.
There’s a guy who is sleeping, and every third breath he yells, “whoa!” I got the seat with the light always on. This makes me feel responsible. Somewhere the whole train turned North Dakota, which means it’s occupied by oil men who make Montana snowboarders coy about their drinking habits. Everyone is sick, or at least sick of being on the train, expressed through repeated sighs, stomach clutching, head clutching, groans. We are the unwashed masses, and the smell is real. I steal a fork from the kindly chap peddling coffee to friends that aren’t friends to finish my giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Everyone doesn’t know they’re jealous, but I’m the least sick and the most delicious. The fork makes clink noises against the glass every time it takes a dive. The light is on. Dive. They know what I’m doing. Dive. I’m responsible. Dive.
Amtrak Hellride for the stripes.