Cultural Criticism on the Empire Builder Trans-Continental Train

I sit in the observation car for a long time, because the scenery is fantastic.  I’ve been on this train for a day and a half–two days and a half if you count the trip from New York to Chicago.  Now I’m going from Chicago to Seattle and there are great stretches of land that look almost flooded, with spines of trees reaching up and what seem to be the remains of shacks or broken boats, but I realize that in fact these are bodies of water, probably the Great Lakes, because we’re coming up on Minneapolis.  It makes me aware of how coastal I am–I know the geography of California and New York, but confronted with Midwestern lakes and rivers I’m–excuse me–all at sea.  When we got onto the train there weren’t two seats open for me and my boyfriend, and I had to sit next to this terrifying piece of cissexuality who made me acutely anxious, but now everything’s ok.

An Amish family has overtaken one of the car’s tables; they play various card games and smile at everyone.  I have the image of the Amish that I guess most people have–quiet, insular, and unfriendly to outsiders–because I’ve seen them once or twice, plus the Harrison Ford movie Witness, so I expect them all to be ice queens of the Kelly McGillis type, but these are friendly and chatty.  They borrow phones, or ask others to talk on the phone for them, so they can communicate with drivers who’ll take them from the train station to their final destination.  There is apparently a large industry of people who drive the Amish.  The more you know.  This particular family has several small girls who traipse around the car smiling under their white bonnets.  The combination of white bonnet and dark-toned simple dresses makes the girls look more delicate than they might look in the jeans or sweats worn by the other little kids on the train.  A boy who I assume is their older brother looks around with the guarded expression of your average male adolescent, and I can’t help wondering about his sexuality, because he’s at the age where he’s just starting to have one, or know that he has one.  Plus I have the well read urban queer’s lust for the rural and straight, where you think about them squirming and gasping and rolling in hay.  This boy’s blond bowl cut unfortunately forestalls the fantasizing I’d normally do with such a Flannery O’Connor-ish ruddy and suspendered masculinity.

After a while, the kids go to bed, and a teenage girl is left sitting across from the bowl cut wearing boy.  They talk occasionally in very quiet voices, and at the table across from them a group of young men are playing cards.  The card playing men have names like Frank and Jim, curse often, and drink from little travel-sized liquor bottles.  They’re playing Texas Hold-‘Em because they figure everyone in the country knows how to play it.  I hear them say this and am acutely aware that I don’t know how to play Texas Hold-‘Em, so much so that I almost want to turn around and say so.  I’m writing a short story about a trans boy in a notebook, though, and our worlds don’t intersect at this time.  The juxtaposition of gambling and cussing and drinking with the Amish adolescents strikes me as funny, in the way that the world organizes itself into tableaux that seem to be establishing scenes in novels.  It’s like the Amish kids are having it explicitly modeled for them just how vain and sinful the world of “the English” is.  (I know from Witness that they call us the English, but on reflection it is very very probable that this is inaccurate.)

We’re late getting into Minneapolis, and I try to get off the train for some air.  The card players do too, and one of them at least is very drunk.  His name is Frank and he keeps trying to get the other one–Jim?  Tad?–into an argument about the 49ers vs. the Green Bay Packers.  We’re in close proximity, waiting for the train doors to open, so we start to talk and I try to make a joke about how little I know of sports–it’s all Greek to me! etc–but it gets subsumed in Frank’s drunken happiness.  He’s pleased, I think, that he’s managing to pass so much of this train ride drunk, playing cards, talking to people he vaguely knows.  This is a kind of happiness specific to the cross country train–just overjoyed not to be bored and insular.  For me, that’s a distillation of what happiness basically is–a loss of interiority, getting to watch lakes go by with other people instead of by yourself.  This might be why I like trains so much.

I’m used to happily drunk straight cis guys on trains, and I actually mind them a lot less than I mind straight cis guys in any other form.  On my last cross country ride, this pair sat across from me–one English guy and one American–and I didn’t even get mad when the American guy suggested I become a magician’s assistant.  “You’d just have to dress up in a cute little outfit,” he said.  This was before testosterone, and I said, “You don’t think I’m a girl, do you?  I’m just a really pretty guy,” and he said, “Can I take a picture of you?”  I said sure, for some reason.  Probably because I was charmed by him–he offered me drinks, though I declined, and his conversation was great–earlier he’d intimated to me that he will never in his life go hungry because of he is willing and able, if needed, to kill and eat deer, squirrels, and other animals.  So somewhere out there is a picture of me taken by that man on his disposable camera, because he was interested in something of what he saw of me from under the bill of his faded blue cap.  Still, at Union Station in LA I walked away from the train fast, made my dad practically run with me to the car, because I was worried he might follow me.  The cis straight guys I talk to on trains are a lot more threatening off trains then on them.  We all deal more easily with what’s liminal when we’re somewhere liminal ourselves, in flux, traveling.

Now, we step off the train into the Minneapolis chill.  Thank god for free air.  Train passengers exchange first names, hometowns, points of origin, destinations, always.  Frank is from Montana, and that’s where he’s traveling home to, to visit his hometown.  He goes to school in Wisconsin, where he’s coming from.  A mom is carrying a kid into the station, and the kid is looking out over her shoulder with the disturbed delight of the very small person.  He points out how cute the kid is, and I completely agree.  He says he’s a kid fanatic, which is a bit creepy until:

“What are you studying?” I ask.  He says, “Elementary education,” which makes it slightly less creepy, although he is still a very drunk man cursing copiously in front of kids, but who can judge upon first acquaintance, so take from all that what you will, I guess is the moral of that story.  “And Native American studies, because in Montana–” he hitches up his whole face and talk-laughs out, “We got a lot of Indians.”  I have no idea what my face did when I heard this remark, but I’m pretty sure I looked exactly as angry as I felt.  He was too drunk to notice.

It’s important to note that he’s also white, as far as I can tell, and working class, as far as I can tell, and I am very aware of my expensive blazer that I’m wearing, and of my expensive education which has helped me learn to feel weird about white guys studying Native American studies because of having “a whole lot of Indians around.”  And then I feel uncomfortable about my brain thinking that my social class has taught me how to interrogate my whiteness, because that plays into classist ideas about the racist “redneck,” and I basically fall into a black hole of thought, and before I know it Frank is talking about his tattoos, because he’s getting an owl tattooed on his side because “the Indians–it symbolizes wisdom, and for them that’s actually a female trait.”  He has more, religious stuff, Catholic, a cross on his arm that he shows me, and a big back piece featuring the Virgin which he doesn’t.  He’s getting half his back done in Catholic iconography and half Native American.  He says “Northeastern,” and that’s as specific as he gets.

After I ask what he studies I tell him I study poetry, and he says, “I fucking love poetry!” with lit up eyes and a huge smile.  It is very hard for a poetry student not to enjoy someone who reacting to their studies like that.  And at tattoos, I mention how much I enjoyed watching my ex-boyfriend get tatted with a tarantula.  I look away from him as I say it, not deliberately, but my unconscious motivation is I can only assume not to see his hypothetical flinch at the word “ex-boyfriend.”  The conversation continues and we talk about the tattoo my ex got and its meaning, and whether or not he flinched when I looked away he doesn’t seem discomfited.  Which leaves a variety of options, including but not limited to a) he is drunk, so my queerness didn’t, ahem, penetrate; b) he is totally down with queer stuff; c) he is homophobic and hiding it well out of tact, kindness, or one of the other many possible reasons.  My guess is it’s some combination of options b and c.

I came out to a woman on my last cross country train, while we stood in the dusk somewhere in Indiana, and she assured me everyone in my life would come around.  She was middle-aged and kind and had long dirty blonde hair; she was moving back West to live with her well-monied daughter because she had lost her own job, and she could help take care of her sisters’ kids.  She also served as a buffer between me and the more rambunctious able-to-kill-and-eat-deer photographer guy.  I have done her a great disservice in forgetting her name.

I get back onto the train when Frank goes in to buy chips at the station.  It’s dark inside; they’ve shut down power so as to connect with another car, and my boyfriend is asleep.  I sit down next to him for a while and write.  During my layover in Chicago, where I have just left, I got to see Jamie, who mentioned that he loves watching movies with cultural studies people.  I would like to tell Jamie–and probably will, when I see him again on the Chicago layover on the way back–that taking trains is Candyland if you’re into cultural studies.  People just open out to be dissected, like Frank, with his appropriative tattoo plans and affection for poetry and willingness to accept the fact that I have an ex-boyfriend; like the guy who wanted to photograph my body because he’d misread it and luxuriated in that misreading.

Or–here, I’ll tell you a really good one–one time, there was the guy I talked to for like an hour and a half, and his daughter.  He was in agriculture, and disparaged me for spending all my time on the coasts.  “See the middle of the country!  All that stuff you call flyover,” he said.  He’d been in some vaguely colonial line of work in South Africa which he did not explain to me fully, but when I told him how I was reading Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi he went into a long diatribe about how Africans didn’t know anything about agriculture and how that was the reason for famine in postcolonial countries.  I was fresh out of my first real education on postcolonial discourse, and I lit into him for that, but his daughter–probably about fifteen, and interested in studying sustainable agriculture–wanted to talk about the Vampire Chronicles.  This guy, splendidly enough, turned out to be way into Anne Rice, and his favorite was The Vampire Lestat, and he had only the first knuckle of his left middle finger.  I cannot recommend trains over airplanes highly enough, if you are into people.  Everyone has these infinitely complex lives, and a lot of them are incredibly fucked up, but on trains you end up talking to them about Lestat of all things, and as I remember it all three of us found common ground in talking shit about Twilight, which might actually be in this day and age the great equalizer.

I know that not everyone has the privilege to let this stuff roll off their back.  I am white; Frank’s talk of his tattoo does not make me unsafe.  Some of it does not roll off my back–the people who are looking at my body and staring at my gender, for instance, but a lot of it does.  I try to be Isherwood-esque about it–a camera, because these privileges enable me to see and record certain things–I’m trying to give you some idea of the lens of this camera, and where the photographer’s privileges enable him to place it.  I guess it’s worth noting how disability works with trains, too–they’re way better for my anxiety than planes are.  Although as far as I can tell trains aren’t accessible to people who use wheelchairs, a guy who uses a cane and deals with seizures tells me that his disability prohibits him from taking planes, and he’s grateful for Amtrak in this regard.

It’s possible that Frank will go out to Alaska, where he tells me they’ll pay for his college if he goes to teach, and have some revelatory educational experience with something he reads or someone he meets, and get a clue about why saying “I love Native Americanism” is a problem.  Hopefully he won’t get the tattoo.  It’s possible that the sustainability-loving daughter of the agriculture worker who loves Lestat will read Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance and start huge fights with her dad over the Thanksgiving dinner about his bullshit racist colonial ideals.  It’s possible that the guy I ran away from at Union Station will have a niece or nephew or brother or sister come out as trans, and will go to an ally workshop and really internalize it, and will join Trans Youth Family Allies and spend time saying to other cis people, “Hey, how the hell do you think that person felt when you told them they were in the wrong bathroom? Have some respect.”

And I will keep going, doing this, whatever it is: noting the people around me, careful to be critical of what I see and what I think and feel.  I will remember that the train I ride today, will ride tomorrow and the next day, is called the Empire Builder, and as I look at the beautiful country I travel through I will remember by what violence I came to look at it.  I like living at the intersection of literature and social justice; after all, I’m in damn good company here, and I get that cool understanding of everyone as an infinitely complex human being that I think literature offers like nothing else.  I think that this is probably what I am supposed to be doing, meeting people and talking to them.  I didn’t talk to Frank about his tattoo or his ideas this evening, because he was awfully drunk and awfully cis, but we will be on this train for two days more.  I don’t think I can change those ideas, to be honest, but I can keep on talking to people, so I will.

7 Responses to “Cultural Criticism on the Empire Builder Trans-Continental Train”

  1. 1 iremsen June 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Trains. I enjoyed this blog, it brought back memories, of long ago. You mentioned stopping in the Midwest, during a layover. My grandparents lived on a beautiful, remote, peaceful farm, in the middle of nowhere. Isolated, accept for the train, the tracks running through the middle of their property. Mind you, my grandparents didn’t even own a car, so we are talking true isolation. But, my grandfather was intrigued by the trains, I remember he kept, very detailed ledgers, of schedules, time of day, size (train passings) etc. He and I sat there, as the trains lumbered by, the caboose engineers would always wave. I remember, especially, after dusk was a favorite time, as we could see the, the diners, as they ate their evening meal. Men, women, children, where were they going? How complicated were their lives? Those trains provided a brief glimpse, into a much larger world, for my grandfather and I. I was not a child of privilege, but, for a moment, the trains, provided an escape, for both of us. I look forward to more of your observations and I think Amtrak will continue to give you infinite material.

  2. 3 Lady Doe X June 3, 2012 at 3:17 am

    an artificial or affected writing style; affected …

    I digress. I think you should move a teeny bit outside of your head space and that would reduce anxiety. The gentleman on the train may have taken the photo because he enjoyed the conversation/trip and wanted to capture the memory. He may have liked your hair cut and needed a photo example.

    As I aged (read: matured) I realized that most of the time people are so worried about their own issues they don’t give a shat about my appearance and presentation. Really, who has that time.

    do not stress about changing your mind about your gender, politics, writing, statements etc. That is what young people do. It would be alarming if in 10 years you felt the SAME about everything. No one does. That is universal and not gender-related.


  3. 4 Matt June 4, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this piece of thinking, thanks for sharing it.

    It reminds me of the time I took a ferry from Haines, AK to Seattle, WA. People bought me drinks to hear me play my guitar, even though I’m terrible.

    I don’t know why it is that people are so much more accessible, open and friendly on trains and boats, but as soon as they’re out, they’re hurrying away like you mentioned at Union Station. It’s like beating or rape would’ve been unthinkable on the train, but somehow it’s just plain likely once you’re off. That’s such an interesting dichotomy.

    Maybe the world would be a better place if everyone treated Earth like a boat or a train. I fantasize that everyone did, and that it was, in previous generations.

  4. 5 Tony Adams June 4, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    You said, ” For me, that’s a distillation of what happiness basically is–a loss of interiority, getting to watch lakes go by with other people instead of by yourself. This might be why I like trains so much.” I’m now on the other side of that reality. I’m full to the brim with years of trains and the people on them. The essence of happiness for me is the privatization of my days. The happy seclusion of the high walled garden. I do remember your days well, and I’m glad I rode all those trains and did all those guys and ate all those breakfasts in all those cities.

  5. 6 Lara June 16, 2012 at 12:30 am

    hi stephen, great observant writing. wanted to tell you that i’ve heard amish say ‘the english’, so there is truth to that!

  6. 7 cannabis August 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said
    “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the
    shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I
    had to tell someone!

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