Sightseeing Car

July 4, 2017

I think since the Fourth of July is a travel day, that means I’ll be sidestepping the holiday altogether. It’s such a hot, dusty, crowded holiday sometimes and we’re sliding toward authoritarianism right now, so skipping it seems fine. But it doesn’t work out like that on the Coastal Starlight Amtrak train from Salem to Seattle.

By the time we cross the Columbia River and head up into Western Washington, I’ve abandoned my seat in coach and am stationed in the sightseeing car. On those big trains that come all the way up from L.A., the coach cars feel like dormitories. People are really camping out in there. There’s little babies, and odors, and sleeping bags. More than half of the curtains have been pulled shut. The sightseeing car is full of light and windows, with the seats facing out.

A couple of volunteer park rangers are narrating what we see out the windows. They have a lot of good information about rivers, the industrial stuff we pass, ships taking grain to Hong Kong, steel plants. Osprey nests. Local history. It’s a bit cheesy at times, but I enjoy the narration of the ride, and it’s kind of cute how many people are happy to be talked at by the old duffers in vests.

Different people sit around me and then depart. They half listen, half talk amongst themselves. A young man in head to toe Seahawks gear sits down awkwardly in the seat next to me for a while. I take him to be Middle Eastern. Two young Asian women across the aisle seem to just be getting to know each other. I catch snippets of their conversation. “It can be hard. Do your parents speak English?” “No, do yours?”

I’m half listening, half writing in my journal about my weekend at the coast. A little voice says, “Excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?” It’s a black girl of about 8 years old. She is wearing pink sweat pants and a grey sweatshirt with pink stars on it. She has many long black braids. She’s confident, she’s polite, she’s smiling. For the moment she’s unaccompanied by an adult. I tell her to sit down. She’s peering out the window but also keeps blatantly looking over at me writing. “Whatchu writin about?” she asks. I tell her, “Just my weekend. Stuff that happened.” She looks disappointed, like she doubted I had a very interesting weekend, and if it were her writing it would be something juicier.

A little while later, an older man comes in the car. I don’t take him for her grandpa at first because even though his skin is dark brown like hers, he has one long braid down his back and his facial features and body language remind me of the old Native guys in the town where I grew up. But he is her grandpa and they move a little further down the car to where there were two seats together. He is spare and stone-faced, with a ball-cap on and plain jeans and a t-shirt. He doesn’t react much to the girl and certainly not to anyone else around him, but she merrily fills the picture in. “Yes, this is my grandpa,” I hear her say to someone across the aisle. She’s turned around in her chair, long arms hanging off the back. “We go to the lake, but usually only when it’s good for fishing. We catch a lot of fish. And eat them.”

I remind myself not to stereotype. Just because he seems really Native American, that doesn’t mean he is. He’s just a travel weary guy with an inscrutable face. And the whole inscrutable face thing, that’s stereotyping too.

We pass a tree farm, and one of the volunteers is saying in the microphone, “This is a Christmas tree farm, but where on Earth do you think you could use a 30-foot tall Christmas tree?” The little girl’s hand shoots up. The old white guy points to her and she says, “IN A MANSION.” He says, “Well no, they just cut some of the branches off to make wreaths and the rest of the tree keeps growing.”

She turns back to the window, unfazed. She seems to know her answer was better than his. She seems pleased with herself, and reasonably sure others are pleased with her too. Not in a show-offy way, but just in a nice way.

I hear two people behind me talking. Their travel plans were both thrown off by the train derailment a couple of days earlier. They commiserate, and then start talking about other things. They both live in Seattle. The woman is white, in her late twenties or early thirties. I’d taken a peek at her earlier. I don’t know about the guy. He sat down after I looked last. I don’t want to look over and be obvious.

Then I hear her saying, “You know, that one, that loud-mouthed African woman.” I think, “Who can she be talking about?” and then realize she means Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American councilwoman. The woman is saying that raising the minimum wage to $15 has “ruined Seattle” and caused businesses to close their doors. The man she’s talking to says “Um… that’s all really… debatable.” The woman goes on to say that she herself got a pay bump when the minimum wage was raised, but she says it scornfully, like it was no good to her.

A man on the other side of them overhears the exchange and comes into the conversation. The two men are ignoring the woman now, choosing not in fact to have that debate. They are talking between themselves about volunteering for this or that Democratic state legislator’s campaign. They are both really well versed in the nuances of local politics.

The woman butts back in and says loudly, “Are you Hispanic?” The man sitting next to her says “Uh, no. Not at all.” She says “Ok, well I was just asking a question.” Then she says, “Where are you from, then?” He says, “I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio.” He is keeping his voice more casual than she is, but I can hear a certain tension sliding in. I can’t take it anymore, and glance over. The young man she’s talking to is the one I’d seen before, the possibly Middle Eastern (?) man in Seahawks gear. “Ohhhh” I think, as it all slides into place.

We’re approaching Centralia now. The little girl is still engaged with the scenery, the narration, her braids, her neighbors, herself. Her grandpa is still staring straight ahead thinking unknowable thoughts and betraying no emotion whatsoever.

The guys at the front with microphones are saying, “Centralia was founded by George Washington. No, not that George Washington!” They go on to explain that George Washington was the son of “a white servant girl and an enslaved black man” in Wherever, USA. His mother was afraid he would be sold into slavery, so she begged some people going west to adopt her son and take him with them. The family moved farther and farther west and I think George was a young man by the time they got to Washington. Stories of his entrepreneurial pluck. His ingenuity. How much the town loved him. How he was honored when he died in 1905.

I’m thinking, “Well, this is told like such a happy ending, but it’s a tragedy that this guy’s mother had to give him away because of slavery.” I think of Charles Mudede’s criticism of Nicole Brodeur—writing as if only white people are reading. I figure that’s what we’re all doing all the time. That’s America for you. One long rolling micro aggression, just like this train ride.

The train stops at Centralia, and our car is blocking an intersection. Cars are stopped waiting for the tracks to clear. A white couple in white middle age walk up and stop there, waiting. I look at them and think, “So you live in a town that was founded by a black man. Huh. Looks like Trump country.” I have no idea. I’m just stereotyping. He’s kind of sweaty and ruddy with a beer gut under his t-shirt and mussed up hair and sunglasses. She’s prim in her culottes with her little bob. I have no idea. But they seem very white and they could be Trump voters.

Then they’re smiling and doing big waves and I look over and see that they’re responding to the little black girl in the sweat suit and braids. She’s cheesing for them through the window. She’s waving like she’s royalty and her subjects have flocked to the tracks to watch her roll through her kingdom. I look to see if her grandpa looks amused. He is stone-faced as ever. I think, “maybe he’s like this all the time, or maybe he’s just really sick of white people.” As the train continues to sit there, the couple and the little girl both get distracted, but then as we pull away, there is a last beaming, waving connection—this time initiated by the white man on the sidewalk, who cranes his head and tips forward and makes the girl laugh with his goofy waving.

We’re running along the coastline now, and there are people down on the beach, on the rocks, on boats, on docks with their legs dangling off – mostly white people. The volunteer guys call our attention to a small island out in the bay, Fox Island. They begin another historical story, about how there was an Indian war because the governor of Washington was going to put “four large tribes and one small tribe” on a reservation out on that tiny island. I hear that the old white guys are trying, that they are saying the governor was responsible for the war, they are saying the names of the individual nations. They are saying it’s ridiculous that someone was trying to put all those people on a reservation on such a little island.

I think “HOLD ON” that’s not a reservation, that’s internment.

And then the guy speaking says that the tribes lost that battle but they “kind of won the war” because they got larger, separate reservations.

HOW IS THAT WINNING.

God. White people!

HOW IS THAT WINNING.

South of Tacoma, the crowds get bigger, browner, more citified. From the train it looks like some idealized version of a happy, multiethnic, multicultural society. Hijabis strolling in the sun. Big latino (latinx?) families. Kids running around. Black women with big natural hair and flowy skirts, swishing in the breeze. It’s just everybody. And people look happy. Tweets from that morning’s Black Twitter flash before my eyes. What the Fourth of July means, has meant to black people. How people find a way to carve out their own meaning, find their own sources of joy.

I read Black Twitter, and maybe I’m a bit of a lurker for following so many great black women writers on Twitter and reading their blogs and think pieces. But I figure if I keep listening to them, maybe I’ll be ready just on the off chance that I write something someday that finds its way to one of them. Because I don’t want to write like only white people are reading, or talk like only white people are listening, or experience the U.S. like only a white person can.

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