Dispatches
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Ethnography

Strangers on the Train

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016: Ethnography, Stories.

Steak on the Floor

Shortly after noon, as I turned into the desolate gravel lot between the elevated interstate highway and the lonely railroad crossing at Deming, I saw some baggage piled at the edge of the small, open-ended shelter provided by Amtrak for waiting passengers. And when I rolled down the window of my truck to let in some freeway air as I ate a sandwich, a short, gray-haired lady emerged from the shelter to stare at me.

“Train’s running twenty minutes late,” she said. “I just got a message on my phone.” I was also set up for text alerts, but I’d been sitting on my phone so I hadn’t heard the tone. Not that I cared about a twenty minute delay at the start of a two-and-a-half day train ride.

While I was eating, I noticed two young guys wearing packs approaching the shelter, one Asian-looking, the other an Anglo kid pushing a bike. They were both dressed in globally stylish trekking gear and wearing garish neon sneakers, so they looked like aliens in this dusty old cowboy town. The Anglo kid started doing showy handstands and elaborate yoga poses while balancing on the railing of the shelter – the kind of thing a college student might do to impress chicks.

I finished my sandwich. Deming is a couple thousand feet lower than my home, and the truck was getting hot in the bright sun, so I joined the others in the scanty shade of the shelter.

“Have you taken this train before?” I asked the old lady.

“Sure, every year I take it to San Antonio to see my relatives. This delay is nothing. One time I had to wait five hours because some idiot stopped his car on the tracks and the train hit him. Probably some idiot committing suicide. Damn government people made us wait five hours while they checked everything out.”

“Well, I’ve had to wait longer than that,” I replied, surprised by her callousness. “You need patience if you want to ride the trains.” I winked at the young guys listening to us.

“Damn government regulations are killing everything,” she continued. “I wonder how much longer Amtrak will last, running on nothing but subsidies from the rest of us.”

I chuckled. “That’s exactly what we were saying thirty or forty years ago. But somehow it just keeps going.”

“Government spoils everything it gets its hands on,” she said.

“Well, I’ve worked my whole life in private enterprise, and that can be just as bad. I rode the private railways before Amtrak, and the equipment was old and shabby, the trains were dirty, and the service was awful. Amtrak is a big improvement over that.”

“It’s government regulations that killed the private railroads,” she insisted.

The young guys were talking about a transmission that was due to arrive here from somewhere else. The Asian kid had a British accent. “Did your car break down?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was making a grinding noise all the way from Las Cruces, and we only made it to Akela, east of here, where it finally gave up. We got a tow into town, and we’ve been waiting five days for the replacement. It’s a really big one for a Ford van, so it’s coming from somewhere far away.”

“I hope they found you a rebuilt one, so you didn’t have to pay for new!”

“Yeah, no problem there.” The Asian kid left to get snacks at the gas station across the road, and his Anglo friend looked back at us. “My friend is from Australia, he got tired of waiting and decided to take the train east.”

“There’s a lady that sells burritos at the El Paso station,” said the old woman. “The train stops long enough so you can buy ’em from her right there on the platform. Two dollars for a good burrito.

“Some people won’t buy ’em because they think they’re not sanitary. They only eat in the dining car. But I know what goes on in restaurant kitchens. I had a friend that was a chef in a fancy restaurant, and somebody came in just before closing and ordered a steak.

“That chef pulled a steak out of the fridge, threw it on the floor and stepped on it.”

I laughed.

“Then he just picked it up and dropped it on the grill. And I don’t blame him for a minute. In a restaurant, they make you work overtime but they never pay you for it. It goes on everywhere, all the time, people working for nothing.”

I wondered how that fit into her hatred of government regulations. Then we heard the horn blow, as the train came rolling in from the west.

Dining Car Dreams

At 5pm, somewhere between El Paso and Alpine, I heard a call for dining car seating on the loudspeaker, and realized no one had come through the coach taking dinner reservations, like they used to. A conductor told me you have to go up to the dining car and make a reservation on your own, but when I got there, there was only one table occupied, and the hostess said she could seat me now, so I took the first empty table.

A few minutes later, a tall, full-figured young woman wearing a formal, all-black goth outfit strode past and dropped decisively into the middle of the seat facing me across the table. She was pale-skinned, with a tiny jeweled stud oddly-placed above her upper lip, dark lipstick, and a delicate but ornate black choker circling her neck. The dining car is normally strict about seating four people to a table, but they left us alone for the rest of the evening, as the tables around us filled up.

She was quiet at first, nervously glancing out the windows from side to side, where the sun was setting behind blue mountains and shadows were spreading across the plain. She looked to be about nineteen years old. “The desert!” she finally exclaimed. “I love the desert!” She spoke with an Eastern European accent so thick I needed an effort to understand her.

“Where’d you get on at?”

“Sacramento.”

“Long trip! Where are you bound?”

“San Antonio. I grew up in Texas, so I love the desert, where you can run free as the wind.”

She stared at me out of big, dark eyes as I wondered how she ended up with that accent, after a childhood in Texas.

Suddenly she turned and grabbed a pen out of a glass by the window, and started drawing on the paper tablecloth. I watched her, entranced. She was outlining something that might’ve been part of a figure, but I couldn’t tell what part. She glanced up briefly to explain, with a serious look, “The tablecloth is paper, that’s why they give us pens.”

I was burning with curiosity, but I waited a few more minutes before asking, “Are you always drawing, wherever you go?”

“Yes.”

“Are you in art school?”

“No, I’d like to study, but I can’t afford it. I could only go if I got a scholarship.”

“That’s the best way to do it anyway. You don’t want to get stuck with loans.”

Her accent was driving me crazy, in combination with her exotic appearance. She was like something out of an old movie. And even in the midst of drawing, she still seemed nervous, glancing from side to side like a spy, or a fugitive.

She’d added a female torso, head, and long hair above the original abstract outline, and said it was Rapunzel. Her lines were scratchy and hard-etched with nervous energy. She talked about women’s hair as a locus of power. Her eyes blazed as she recalled an art teacher in high school who had tried to stifle her creativity.

I hadn’t yet said anything about myself, but now I told her about my own teacher and mentor, who’d seen my potential from the start, introducing me to avant-garde work and giving me total freedom to experiment. I was studying her drawing upside-down from across the table, trying to figure out all the lines. “I would like to show her nude, but they might not like it here,” she said. “I always prefer to draw nude bodies, but nudity means you are vulnerable and not secure.”

“Or not. I took a year of life drawing with nude models, and for them, getting naked was a job. Men and women, sometimes old people with sagging bodies, they just stood or sat there in the middle of the room with everyone staring at them for hours at a time, getting paid for it. They seemed to have lost all sense that they were even on display, let alone naked. In some cases, I think being naked can be a sign of strength.”

Her eyebrows went up and she looked at me wide-eyed again. “I never thought of that!” I asked her if she’d ever used pastels, but she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I told her how I’d migrated from oil painting to pastel drawing because of the immediacy and tactile excitement of blending colors directly with my fingers and hands, and she recognized, accurately, that it would be like using charcoal, but in color.

How strange that two frustrated artists, one young and barely emerging, one old and burdened with experience, should be brought together, entirely by chance, in this dining car rumbling across southern Texas at night.

She was out on her own in the world, but drifting without a plan. She said she’d lived in three different cities during the past year. She scoffed at Los Angeles, so I told her about my friends there who’d survived as artists by working in the movie industry.

I mentioned the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, but at first she didn’t know what I was talking about – I had to supply a lot more detail before she could figure out what I meant. So I went on to describe the post-punk festival in San Francisco that had inspired me to create my own art space and community, long ago, and how important it is for artists to have communities and spaces in cities where they can be totally free to experiment.

That reminded her of Austin. “Austin is – I don’t know, I think it is the arts capital of the world!” she exclaimed. “They have this thing called Freak Week, where anyone can do anything they want anywhere! It’s amazing!”

We were passing through Marfa – the minimalist’s idea of an arts capital. Blocky shadows, dim sodium vapor lamps. Not a human in sight.

“Do you know what is my dream? My dream is to live in a bus!”

I told her about the young woman I’d met outside Silver City, a refugee from the artist loft scene in Chicago, who was raising her daughter in a bus parked in the middle of a corn field, beside a desert river.

The hostess announced the 7:30 seating. Two hours had passed and our world had shrunken to the brittle, glaring brightness of the dining car, sandwiched between mirror-black windows. She sat back, sighing. “Well…it is very nice talking to you, but I should be going.”

She offered me her hand. “My name is Candace.”

“Max.” I shook her hand. “I hope you find what you’re looking for!”

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