August 10, 2005


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She said something about Josh, who was asleep on my shoulder. Such a sweet boy. Those eyes. I thanked her, asked if she had kids. A daughter, she said, eighteen. Was it hard, her daughter leaving home? Yes. When she looked at her did she still see the three year old the daughter used to be? Yes again.

I think about that a lot, I said, how one day I’ll look at Josh and wonder what happened to the little guy who called me Dadda and fell asleep on my shoulder. She could get choked up over this, she said. Our eyes retreated into our own thoughts.

We were on a train, the Coastal Starlight between Southern California and Seattle. It was running late, which is something I’ll get to in a minute. Dusk was turning into night and we still were hours away from where we were supposed to be already. There was a sense of suspended reality, and a shared weariness that became a kind of intimacy.

What did she do? I might not like it, she said. Then she told me — law enforcement, LAPD. She was not large, but there was a wary edge,. I could see it. Was a cop ever off duty, I asked. Could she ever truly drop her guard? Did she ever kill? When she left the house in the morning was it in her mind that she might not come back? I’d always wondered about those things, but never had a chance to ask.

Somehow she veered off into illegal immigrants and Hispanic politicians. Here it comes, I thought, the LA cop from Ventura County. Mark Furman from the OJ case. But we had established a bond over our kids, and I was willing to cut more slack than I might have otherwise. The fact is, I’m vexed on topics like this myself. It really isn’t fair to taxpayers to drain the coffers on people who snuck across the border. My wife, a recent immigrant herself, feels that way. People should go by the rules. But then how do you turn away a kid from a clinic or a school, just because their parents don’t have papers?

It’s a quandary. I realized the reason I get my back up when I hear the anti-immigrant rants from the Southern California Right is that I don’t trust those people and their agenda, not that I don’t have concerns myself. But with this women I could listen and look for common ground. It wouldn’t have happened if we were driving down the freeway in our separate cars instead of riding together on the train.

A lot has been written about trains as an answer to America’s energy sinkhole, and to congestion on the highways. It’s true, mainly, but there’s something else that’s equally important — that is, the way public transportation, and trains in particular, provide social glue, a place where lives can intersect in unplanned and often serendipitous ways. You sit with other people in a relaxed setting for hours on end. Naturally you start talking. When there’s an observation car, which is a kind of common room, you practically can’t help it.

Even if you don’t talk you listen. Next to me two women were chatting, an age gap of maybe 50 years between them. The younger one said she wanted to be a writer. The older one pulled a notebook from her handbag and read some poetry she had written. It was more Lake Wobegone than Sewanee Review. But in how many settings in America today would a young and old person talk like that? If more politicians traveled on trains they wouldn’t have such need of focus groups and polls. They could listen for themselves.

They also might have time to think. Like most commons trains are multifunctional. Where the market specializes, commons serve many purposes at once. While they encourage conviviality, they also are a sanctuary. You can put aside the phone and email and simply be alone with your thoughts. (If Amtrak woke up and established “quiet cars” on all its trains this would be more possible still.)

Thomas Carlyle, the British writer, once said that a traveler should not even read, but rather “sit still and label his thoughts.” I have a hunch that the vapidity of public debate today is connected in part to the way our leaders travel. The men who drafted the U.S. Constitution had long coach rides to Philadelphia in which to label and organize their thoughts. For long days and even weeks they had nothing to do but converse and reflect. The quality of the Constitutional debates was one result.

It doesn’t take much reading of the Congressional Record today to realize the trajectory since then has not been upward. As travel has speeded and become more hectic; and as more modes of instant “communication” occupy our minds, the content of those minds has become thinner gruel. I doubt that the Federalist Papers could have been written by people who scurried about with Blackberries and cell phones.

Need it be said that trains also provide a chance to see this beautiful country of ours? Josh was entranced by the passing scene outside the window — the sawmills like the ones in his Richard Scarry books, the heavy equipment and construction sites, the woodlands in which most of the trees had been cut. “Did the Once-ler do that?” he asked, (referring, as most parents know, to the character in the Dr. Seuss fable The Lorax, who turned a verdant landscape into a wasteland in his pursuit of gain. Yes, I said, or someone like him.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s the problem,. The Bush people want to kill Amtrak, and maybe one reason is that they don’t want us to see what their Once-ler pals are doing to our country. Maybe they don’t want Americans talking across the ideological divides that they work so hard to maintain. They’d rather have us in the isolation of our cars, stewing in our angers and our sores rubbed raw by Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk.

The much-discussed polarity in American politics is related to the disappearance of commons in which Americans can talk with people with whom they do not already agree. Trains are a last refuge in which a writer from Northern California can talk with a cop from L.A. and find something to agree on. They are a place where dogmatics can yield to humanity. We need more of them not less

The Coastal Starlight was five hours late and I gather that’s not unusual. The train is on time only about half the time, and the main reason is that it doesn’t own the tracks it runs on. Those belong to the Union Pacific railroad, which requires Amtrak trains to pull onto a siding and sit while its freight trains pass. (Those trains can be very long.)

Stuff moves while people wait. There is something emblematic in that. But actually it’s worse. The tracks sit on land that by and large the railroads got for free. Congress gave it to them, which means that we taxpayers gave it to them, along with large sections on either side. The reason for the grants was so that the railroads could serve us taxpayers with rail service, including passenger service.

So now we get shunted aside on land we ourselves gave the railroads so that we could move. The Bush Administration wants to kill Amtrak so we can’t move by rail at all. The railroads then will be off the hook entirely. They’ll have the land we gave them, and we’ll have nothing except the freight, for which we pay market rates. (That includes farmers and businesses by the way.)

The reason Congress had to establish Amtrak was because so many railroads had reneged on their obligation to provide passenger service. We taxpayers then had to fund what already had funded abundantly through generous bestowals from the commons. (The grants often included timber and mineral rights by the way.)

So here’s a proposal. If the Bush administration wants to get the burden off passenger service off the taxpayers’ back, why doesn’t it put it back where it ought to be — on the recipients of the grants? Why doesn’t it establish a levy on land grant railroads to accomplish what the grants originally were supposed to do?