Last week I set out to tell you about the man on the train, but I got distracted by that whole episode with my headphones. I’d tell you how that turned out, but I’m still too annoyed to talk about it.
So. The man on the train.
Not long ago, I took Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to San Diego. (I suppose you could have figured that out—not the San Diego part, but the part about me taking the train. After all, if I wasn’t on the train, the whole story would likely go, “There was a man on the train. The end.”)
The Pacific Surfliner runs next to the ocean and provides a breathtaking view of the Pacific. It’s lovely the first dozen times, but nowadays I usually pick a seat away from the ocean side and leave the view to the newbies. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because when the train gets to Los Angeles Union Station, it turns around. I don’t mean it goes back where it came from; I mean they manage to turn the entire train 180 degrees, front-to-back, even though it’s still heading in the same general direction. Don’t ask me how or why this happens; I know, and the answer isn’t in the least bit funny, so I prefer to leave you with the impression that a) this is some sort of railway magic and b) Amtrak likes to arbitrarily turn around a 600-ton passenger train purely for giggles.
Anyway, the upside is that cars on the east side of the train above Van Nuys (where I get on) will be on the ocean side between LA and San Diego, and vice-versa. This confused the living daylights out of me the first time I attempted to pick a seat on the west side of the train and found myself staring inland at the 5 Freeway. It took me at least three more train rides before I figured out what the hell was going on.
This time, I didn’t pick my side based on the ocean; I found a backward-facing seat with a nice window view, knowing that it would be facing forward after the train miraculously swapped ends at LA Union Station.
It so happened this seat was on the ocean side of the train. In front of me was an older (as in significantly older than me) woman, and across from her was a much older (as in much older than me, the woman ahead of me, and probably some of the hills we were passing) man. He was the type of old man who one might describe as either cute or doddering, depending on how much he was annoying you at the moment. At this moment, and the ones leading up to it, he wasn’t annoying me in the slightest. Even his one cell phone conversation, carried out at the extreme volume one might use while making a transcontinental telephone call in 1916, was cute; he was trying to communicate (to his daughter, I surmised) the lateness of our train, and was doing so in the manner of one clearly not used to communication devices that don’t have a wire running into the wall.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they tell their daughter their train is late. You know what I’m talking about: Some will complain loudly (“Stupid Amtrak! They can’t do anything right! The conductor was rude! The carpet is dirty! And my Danish was soggy! No wonder people hate the train!”), while others seem to meet even the most unfortunate situations with good humor—something I always try my best to do, albeit with varying degrees of success. This man clearly had a lot of practice in the latter: “Oh yeah, guess we’ll be late, heh-heh,” he shouted down the phone with a pleasant laugh. I couldn’t see him smiling, but I could hear it, and I decided I liked the old man right away. As far as I was concerned, he could dodder as much as he wanted, and I would not feel an ounce of annoyance.
During one of the moments when I had my earphones out—this was before I lost the rubber in-the-ear thingie—I heard the woman and the man discussing the fact that he was on the wrong side of the train for the view of the Pacific, which he had never seen (the view, I presumed, not the Pacific; given his age and the Pacific’s size, I though it unlikely the two had never met). This didn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Oh, I can see it fine from here, I can just look right across the train, heh-heh,” he said. The woman insisted that he must have a window seat for his first ride on the Surfliner, and was all set to change seats with him. This would have involved moving the roughly two metric tons of knitting supplies she had with her.
“Oh, no, you don’t have to move, heh heh,” said the old man. “I can just come over there and sit next to you.” He stood up to join her, but it seems that having the old geezer join her as a seat-mate was a bridge too far for our girl.
“No, let’s just switch seats,” she said. “You take my seat and I’ll take yours. Let me gather my things.”
Now, I have been in situations, and I’m sure you have too, where people offer to do something nice, but they really want someone else to do the nice thing in their stead. I can envision a situation where she would offer the old man her seat, but really wanted to offer him my seat. That clearly was not happening now, because such a desire would be accompanied by a meaningful glance in my direction. But she did not glance in my direction; I don’t think think she was even aware of my existence. She’d been snoring like an idling bulldozer when I got on the train.
I love it when people do nice things; it makes me want to do nice things too, and this was a golden opportunity. I didn’t give a toss about seeing the Pacific that day, and the seats across from me were now empty.
“Here, ma’am, you stay put,” I said, standing and addressing the back of the lady’s head. “I’ll move over there, and sir, you can switch seats with me.”
Of course, both of them were old, so neither of them heard me.
“Let me just get my things together, dearie,” the woman was saying, stuffing her needles into a giant bag that contained enough yarn to knit a tea cozy the size of New Hampshire.
“No, no, ma’am, I’ll move,” I said a little louder. “You stay put. I’ll move over there, and sir, you can have my seat.”
“Oh, you’ll move?” said the woman, turning to face me. Inside my head, a little voice spoke up: Isn’t that what I just said? Twice? The word “doddering” began to materialize at the fringes of my consciousness. I pushed it away.
“Sure, sure,” I said, realizing that two-thirds of the only communications I had had with either of these people since the dawn of time began with me repeating the first word of the sentence twice. That must be some sort of a record. “I’ve seen the view a dozen times. I’ll move, and both of you can enjoy it.”
“Oh, how sweet of you,” she said to me, and then turned to the old man. “Look, he’s going to move so you can have his seat,” she said.
Unfortunately, the old man seemed to be as far behind in this communication as he was in his understanding of modern-day electronics. He had apparently not yet processed the rejection of his idea to share a seat and was eyeing her knitting, trying to find an old-man-butt-sized slice of space. And then, suddenly—I could see it in his face—the whole let’s-switch-seats thing burst onto the stage of his mind like the unexpected return of the hero previously thought dead.
“Oh, he’s going to move?” said the old man, and turned to me. “Are you going to move?”
Oh, for crying out friggin’ loud, said the little voice in my head.
“Yes, yes”—three-fourths!—“I’ll move over there, and that way you both can see the ocean,” I said, definitely louder than I needed to.
I quickly yanked the cord of my laptop out of the power outlet. (One of the reasons train travel beats the crap out of airline travel, besides the fact that you don’t have to wait until ten thousand feet to use your computer and you can get up and go to the can any time you damn well please, is the abundance of in-seat power. If it wasn’t for the fact that it takes at least three days to get anywhere besides San Diego and the average delay is on the order of 18 hours, I’d take Amtrak everywhere I travel). I picked up my computer, hooked my backpack under my arm, and started dragging the cords over to the other side of the train, hoping that if I couldn’t inform the cute dodderer of my intentions with the spoken word, I could do it by pantomime.
In my rush to be demonstrative, I nearly tripped over the cords and sent myself head-first into the metal frame of what was to be my new seat. I could imagine the conversation as I was getting stitches*: “As a matter of fact, doctor, yes, I did bash my face on an Amtrak Surfliner armrest while trying to give my seat to a cute-but-potentially-doddering old man. Really? Third one this week, eh?”
* Actually, if I were getting stitches, there would be no conversation; there would only be me crying, because I am deathly afraid of needles. Clarification: I’m not deathly afraid of all needles, only the ones that are destined to pierce my skin. My stepmother, a retired psychologist of the Freudian school, likes to say that I have penetration anxiety, then laugh herself silly.
“Oh, you’re going to give me your seat!” said the old man, finally getting what was going on. He appeared not the least bit upset at the realization that he would not be sharing a seat with the woman and her knitting—and here I’d thought he was being deliberately obtuse so as to put the make on the ol’ gal. Shame on me.
“Yes!” beamed the woman. “He’s going to give you his seat so we can both see the ocean!”
“Oh, how splendid!” said the old man. “Oh, thank you very much!” All of a sudden I felt like I was three and basking in the admiration of my grandparents. (“Stanley! Aaron made it all the way to the toilet, and he didn’t spill a drop!” “Oh, how splendid!”)
I wasted no time in plunking down and plugging in, and in seconds the old man was enraptured with his view of the Pacific, which really is quite enticing, even if you’ve seen it a dozen times.
And now we come to the real reason I am telling you this story, because that was when I saw his book: The Death of Liberalism.
Instantly, I began to wonder where this meant the old man stood on the political spectrum. Was he a liberal? Was he a conservative? Should this have weighed into my decision to give him my seat?
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m one of those people who judges the merit of a relationship on a person’s beliefs. I engage in political debates all the time on Facebook—besides playing with model trains, it’s one of my favorite ways to divert myself from the paying work that is inevitably piling up—and I have never once unfriended or blocked someone because their views were pig-headed moronic the uninformed rantings of a thoughtless imbecile totally wrong different from mine. Furthermore, I have plenty friends who are completely clueless blockheads have opinions that differ greatly from my own.
Still, I just gave this man my ocean view seat, and I had a right to know, dammit! It’s not like I hadn’t invested a good ten minutes of my life attempting to switch seats with him.
I have never read The Death of Liberalism, so I looked up descriptions on the Internet. This shed no new light on the situation; apparently the people who have actually read the book don’t know what it’s about either.
It was a rainy day, but the old man sat there, fixated, watching the ocean through the window, a happy smile on his face. Meanwhile, his book also sat there, its cover facing and mocking me.
Anyone who can enjoy the scenery, even on a rainy day, is normally on my approval list, right up there with people who can laugh about a delayed train.
But… What did that book mean?
I pondered this all the way to Solana Beach, where I got off the train. For those who are familiar with the Surfliner, you know that’s a fair amount of pondering.
I know, I know… such behavior is not normal. Welcome to my life.
The Solana Beach platform sits a good two or three stories below street level. I got off the train and stood there waiting. This had nothing to with the cute-slash-doddering old man and his book; given my gnat-like attention span, I had all but forgotten about him as I rushed to gather my things and check ten times that I wasn’t about to leave my mobile phone on yet another train. Rather, it was because I wanted to check out a few private cars that had been added to the train in Los Angeles.
This had its own humorous effect, because as I stood there waiting for the train to depart, no fewer than three people stopped as well. Rather than head up the stairs or into the elevator to get out of the rain, they appeared to be wondering why I was just standing there and trying to decide if they should do the same. At least four more people hesitated, my inaction giving them pause. One person stopped, looked at me, looked at the elevator behind me, looked at me again, then the elevator, then me.
“Is that the elevator?” she asked, pointing somewhat vaguely to the elevator.
“I think so,” I said, also somewhat vaguely.
“Oh,” she said uncertainly. “Okay. Thanks.” She trotted off towards what was allegedly the elevator, presumably to press one of the buttons and take the risk that it would summon the car and not bring about instant nuclear holocaust.
And suddenly I was reminded that humans, no matter what our illusions to the contrary, are herd animals. Of course I wanted to give the old man my seat; he was in my herd. Of course I reacted to his book: He might not be in my herd.
It’s a silly explanation, but I felt better as I trudged up the stairs in the rain. Wherever the old man is, I hope he enjoyed the rest of his train ride. But I’m not sure if I hope he enjoyed his book.
© Aaron Gold