Strangers on a Train

No, I’m not having my husband killed

Patricia Highsmith was really onto something though.  You can have quite an adventure in a train car.

The TV version is: I met a marine who taught me the proper way to do a push-up and gave me a charging brick for my poor dead phone so that I could call my kids.  There’s even a video!

(insert video here)

But as always, the long form novel version is so much better.

I needed to get out of the house so I got on a train headed west, destined to meet up with a train headed south, so I could go down to Louisiana and see some friends.  I’ve always wanted to take a cross-country train trip in a sleeper car, and it was one of those “if not now, when?” moments so I went.

The first couple of days were delightfully uneventful, other than a bunch of freight train related delays that had us running three hours behind schedule first thing Sunday morning.  

I had remembered to pack charging cables for all my devices, but no bricks to plug with which to plug them into the wall socket.  By midnight Friday, my phone was dead.  I put the ipad on airplane mode except for a couple of Saturday calls to the kids, but by Sunday morning it was also in the red.

Normally on a train I would have noise cancelling headphones on.  But with no devices from which to stream a signal, there was no point.  And so I was sitting quietly with the door to my roomette open when the guys down the hall started having a push-up battle.

I had heard one of the guys off and on over the first two days, and I think I sat behind them in the dining car at one point.  I recognized his voice, the older guy, and I knew he was 60-ish and retired military.  I thought he was traveling alone with his service dog, until they started in on the push-ups.

The car was pretty empty on that leg of the journey.  There were lots of passengers elsewhere on the train, but in that little sleeper it was just me, the military guy(s), and the car attendant.  They weren’t bothering anyone, is my point.  There was no one to bother but me, and I was amused by the whole thing.

At one point the car attendant walked through and they tried to get him to do a push-up.  I was feeling restless and thinking how I never could figure out where exactly to put my hands when trying to do a push-up, so I decided to pop into the hall and ask the old military men to show me how.

The old guy had his back to me when I stepped out, and all I could see was his plaid shirt when I said, “teach me how to do a pull-up.”  He turned around and said “well my friend is The Marine, he should really be the one to show you” and he stepped to the side.

The Marine was not an older gentleman.  The Marine was younger than me and Big and Tall and Wide and Blonde and he filled the hall in that way that large men tend to do.  The voice in my head that always whispers “you should cross the street, just in case” started in on me, while the voice that said “fuck him, stand your ground” straightened my spine.

But we weren’t on a sidewalk in the city, we were in the narrow hall of an Amtrak sleeper car, and his friend was right there and the attendant was close enough to hear me scream so I didn’t back into my room and lock the door.  I just dropped to the floor and asked where my hands go.

He told me to put them under my shoulders and I said they were and he said no, you’re shoulders aren’t that wide and it really did make all the difference in the world.  I mean, I still can’t do a push-up, but I can feel how it’s supposed to work now, and I actually think if I keep at it one day I could.  But that’s not the point of this story.

(picture of marines doing pushups)

As we were doing the push-ups in the hall, the doors to all the sleeper rooms were open and the service dogs had the absolute audacity to poke their little noses out after two long days cooped up inside.  This was shocking to me, because the dogs had been so quiet and well behaved that I genuinely thought there was only one of them.

I am fully aware that there is a special breed of entitled pet owners who get cheap “service animal” vests off the internet and stick them on ill-mannered pets just so they don’t have to leave their damn dog at home.  I’ve gone so far as to scold a woman in a grocery store and tell her she should be ashamed of herself for passing her pet off as a trained service dog and making life harder for those with actual service dogs.  (The damn thing was humping my leg in the produce section.  Service dog my ass.)  Throw in the fact that I only sort of like dogs to begin with, and you can pretty much rest assured that I would have been the first to pitch a fit if those dogs were doing anything the slightest bit untoward. 

They were not.  This is very important.  The dogs NEVER, not one single time, misbehaved in any way that I saw.  And, as I said, I was the only other passenger in this particular train car.

So it came as something of a surprise when some random Amtrak guy that we hadn’t seen before in our 48 hours on the train suddenly shows up and starts scolding the military guys for letting their dogs step into the hall.  I’m not exaggerating, that’s ALL THE DOG DID.  It wasn’t even both of them, just one.  Turns out he had just turned eleven years old.  Poor old fella just needed a bit of air.

Then this Amtrak guy starts straight up interrogating these guys, who have been nothing but polite, calm, and cooperative, demanding to know what their disabilities are and shit like that, which I’m pretty sure they aren’t allowed to do.  Now I’m getting annoyed.  We are only a few hours from Chicago at this point, which was the last stop for that train. We had been on for two days, and were all about to get off, and the dogs had been no trouble.  There was absolutely no need for any fuss.

I poked my head out into the hall and assured the guy that the dog had a service vest and I had seen it around the past two days and he just took it off for a minute.  No big deal.

Well, Mr. Amtrak did NOT like that.  He starts in on how having a vest but not wearing it is a “removable offense.”  I made sure to look him directly in the eye when I rolled mine and flounced back into my train car.

Mr. Amtrak got bored with his lecture and wandered off, and then I heard the weirdest thing.  The Marine said “she stood up for us.”  But he didn’t say it in a “what a silly little girl” kind of way, like I usually get.  He said it…well, he said it like I say it.  When I’m asking men who are being nice to me what they’re up to.  Like you might like it, but first you want to know why.

Now why on Earth would a Big Wide Blonde Marine use that tone?  That tone is for people who are used to constantly fighting battles with no support.

Who stands up for Marines?

The answer, of course, is no one.  Marines stand up for themselves.  That’s the whole schtick, right?  The few, the proud, the badass, all that bullshit.


Who watches the watchmen?

Who ordered the code red?

Marines do what they are told.

A lawyer I very much respect recently pulled the rug out from under me when he told me that he himself was former military.  Conservatives love to talk like they own the military, and they have succeeded in planting the image of an overly aggressive ape of a man with latent white supremacist tendencies who just want an excuse to go shoot at someone.

Jacob Longman is in no way any of those things.  So when he told me he was military before law school, my jaw dropped.  And then he told me that the military is much more liberal than most people realize.  “To succeed in the military, you have to like big government because you are literally pledging your life to the ideology of your nation, for better or for worse.  You are trusting that the men giving the orders are doing so with the best interests of the entire nation at heart.  You believe in the machine.  And when your leaders fail you, it hurts.”  That was interesting, and I’ve chewed on it a lot the past few months.

Now the quiet Sunday is wearing on, and the train is still late, and I’m starting to fret about missing my connection altogether and I’m definitely not going to have time to check my bag and wander off to find a charging brick and that would mean another full day without talking to my kids and that’s bumming me out.  So I work up the nerve to knock on the glass and ask the military guy if he has a brick I can borrow but he’s not in there, it’s just The Marine, but I’ve already started talking and I get the sentence out and he hands me his brick from out of the wall.

Bet Pink Floyd never saw that usage coming.

I retired to my own room and my phone is charging and I’m thinking about how of course the military would attract a certain kind of innocent, good-hearted individual who just wanted someone to tell them how to be useful.

And I’m thinking about how, when the machine betrays them and spits them out, those kind of men aren’t going to stand up for themselves.  That kind of man is just going to step quietly out of the way because that’s what they were told to do and they do what they are told.

That kind of man Respects Authority, without regard to whether the Authority respects them.  And all too often, it doesn’t.  Because it doesn’t have to.  Because people are interchangeable, fungible, disposable.

As I’m sitting in this train car, actively thinking these thoughts and composing an essay for my blog about how the patriarchy is even bad for the people that make up the patriarchy, I hear the crackle of an Amtrak crew radio and catch the words “dog” and “sleeper car.”  My neck instantly prickled.

I hear a woman’s voice, one I haven’t heard before in my two days on the train, demand that the men open their door and provide her with “some information.”

They open the door.  She starts in about the damn dogs, who are back in the room with their little vests on, sitting silently and invisibly and HAREMLESSLY.  Something about data in their system.  I’m angry and my heart is pounding in my ears and all I can think about is that guy a little while earlier saying “removable offense.”

I stepped into the hall so I could hear better.

Madam Amtrak did not like that. “Do you have a question?” she demanded.

“Nope.” I said.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m just listening”

“This is a private conversation.”

“You do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in this circumstance.”  Reasonable expectation of privacy is lawyer talk.  It’s Fourth Amendment shit, straight out of Katz v. Ohio.  It has fuck all to do with Amtrak employees or the Americans with Disabilities Act, but she didn’t know that and it sounds pretty cool.

“This doesn’t concern you.”

“I am a lawyer and I am listening to make sure you do not try to remove those dogs from this train.”

Now she’s spluttering indignant “I would nevers” and The Marine is smiling and making calm down gestures with his hand so I decide to back off, but before I turned I said “they’ve already given him enough shit about the dog.  I won’t listen to any more of it.”

And then Madam said that phrase oh-so-beloved of bitchy customer service reps: “You need to watch your language.”

I fucking hate it when people say that.  I am always very careful to not swear at people.  I do not call names.  I do not threaten or harangue (although I did once accuse a woman of being deliberately obtuse and she yelled at me for commenting on her weight and I decided it maybe wasn’t so deliberate after all).  But I say shit and fuck and dammit because they’re good words and we are all grown ups here.

I might call you an asshole, but that one is almost always said with love, so I would never use it on a customer service person.

I turned back around. “No.  You do not get to complain about my demeanor because you started this confrontation.  All I did was stand silently in the hall.”

“I told you this is a private conversation.”

“And I told YOU that the only person with a privacy interest here is him.  I will happily go back to my room and mind my own business when he tells me to.”

At that point Madam Amtrak just gave up talking to me altogether and asked The Marine to do downstairs to finish their conversation.  He of course said “yes ma’am” and followed her downstairs.

I went back to my own room and sat fuming and shaking and trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do if they actually tried to remove the dog from the train because there was no fucking way I was just letting it happen and eventually The Marine came back with the dog.

He told me everything was fine and he and the dog would be staying on the train all the way to the end.

And then I started to cry.

Later, when they had already missed their connection and were told they would have to overnight in Chicago, I asked The Marine if I could buy the charging brick from him.  He wouldn’t take the money from me.

Later still, when we were packing our things and I was frantic because no one seemed to know whether they would hold the connecting train for me and it was going to be so close The Marine stopped in my doorway to say goodbye and “it was nice to meet you.”

He said he hoped I made my train to New Orleans (I did, but it was quite a dash!) and I noticed the strangest thing.

That Marine didn’t look like such a big scary guy after all.

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