Before we start, I must admit that I didn’t set foot in Wisconsin this time, but only saw it from the train as I crossed it going West, then East. (I had been to Madison and Milwaukee before.) This, then, is really a train Postcard, but the long distance train is a community in itself. In fact, Americans seldom have such thorough conversations as when they’re trapped on a long distance train. If only more of us could be confined that way, we would relate to each other a whole lot better, but such a wish also conjures up citizens being packed into boxcars as they’re sent to hard labor, or much worse. How many Americans will cross this country without seeing any of it?
Ah, the ecology of the long distance train! If Lewis and Clark were alive, they would freak out over the outlandish fauna to be discovered on the Empire Builder! Where else will you find a woman trying to eat some very badly-made, meatless fried rice, only to give half of it to a stranger, “The plastic spoon is clean. I wiped it off real good with a paper napkin.” Since she couldn’t afford the $7.25 for chicken and rice at the Spokane station, she had asked for just rice, but then it tasted “like popcorn,” she discovered with a grimace. The other lady couldn’t afford anything at all, however. Hence, the leftover with a used spoon.
Or take a young man from Missoula who was trying to hit on a woman by giving her a cup of instant noodles, “Yes, you can have it! I just ate one myself. It’s pretty good! Really, you can have it.” Tall and lanky, he wore a gray baseball cap backward, a Marines jacket and charcoal colored, thrift store trousers. Like his face, everything he had on was worn and faded. After spending $4.50 on those two cups of MSG-flavored ramen, he was left with just $13.
Sitting in the lounge car, the woman of his fancy was with three friends, two of them male, and though they didn’t seem all that interested in his plight, the Missoula man kept sharing, “By the time I get to Fargo, hopefully it’ll be night, so I can sleep at the station. After that, I’ll find a shelter and stay there a week, maybe a month. It won’t be my first time in a shelter. A buddy was supposed to put me up, but after talking me into coming, he stopped answering the phone and even changed his friggin’ number, but I figure sooner or later I’ll run across him in Fargo. I’ll bitch slap him! I had a place in Missoula, but I gave that up, so he definitely has an asskicking coming for leaving me on the friggin’ street. I’ve spent all my money on this train ride, and I won’t go back to Missoula, because there’s nothing for me in Missoula. In Fargo, I’ll take any job I can get, dishwashing, janitorial…I can’t lift anything heavy because I had a car accident. In 2006, I had a seizure behind the wheel and cracked my skull, broke my back and a bunch of other bones.
“I have this bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Funniest thing is, I got married in Lake Tahoe, California, then woke up the next morning on an Indian rez outside Minden, Nevada. How the hell did that happened?! My wife, this Indian woman, must have poisoned me. Twice, I’ve been on dialysis. I was down to 99 lbs., and I used to weight 200. I was 22, she was 46, and she died at 53. Suddenly, I was living on this Indian reservation. Yeah, I quit drinking when I woke up and married to that!
“You’re lucky to have someplace to go after getting off this train. I thought I had a place! I’m all right, though, I have 13 bucks. I’m not worried. That’s enough for a pack of smoke and a meal, then I’ll check myself into a shelter.”
Though train passengers are more affluent than bus riders, for sure, you’d be surprise by how many poor people you’ll find on Amtrak, for some towns have no air or bus services, while on some other routes, the fare differences between bus and rail are minor enough that one might as well take the much more comfortable and civil train.
On the train, the top 20% or so go to the dining car for every meal, while the rest of us settle for the café lounge. Some skip eating and drinking altogether for their entire journey. Between Chicago and New York, I sat next to a friendly yet glum man who ingested nothing, not even a drop of water, for 21 hours, and near Clifton Forge, West Virginia, I overheard this dude boast that he had been starving for two days. He couldn’t bring himself to cough up $6.25 for a damn cheeseburger, he said, so he was boycotting it out of principle. Who can blame him? Give me the Dollar Menu or give me death!
Going to your seat on a plane, you pass through the first class compartment, and there you can see, very starkly, the larger, couch-like seats with no shared armrests, more ample leg room and much better dressed people who have gotten on before you. They will also be the first ones to jump off. On a train, however, the dining car is like a mythical realm to the bad broth slurpers, with what’s happening there only wafting downstream as improbable rumors crackling over the intercom: “Today’s seafood catch of the day is a mahi-mahi filet, served with two sides, at $23.75. The Amtrak signature steak is $25.75…” Yes, yes, I hear you, there are always rich and poor in any society that comes after hunting and gathering, but do mind that gap, eh!
Since they know what it’s like to be ordered around, waitresses and bartenders tend to be the best tippers. Conversely, those who have only been waited on can be extremely demanding, if not rude, to the waitstaff. With their multiple requests, they will send a waitress scurrying back and forth to the kitchen, and they’ll nonchalantly ask that a menu item be tailored made. So fixated on getting their ways, some won’t relent even when they’re on a train. A woman from Sharon, Massachusetts complained to me about her dining car experience, “They only had one vegetarian dish, pasta with vegetables, so I ordered that, but I didn’t want the pasta, only the vegetables, but when I asked the waitress to withhold the pasta, she gave me all this attitude! She said they were already made, and I could pick out the vegetables myself, but I didn’t want to look at the pasta and be tempted to eat it! I’ve lost a lot of weight, you see, and I didn’t want that pasta in front of me. Everything I said drove this psycho waitress nuts! When I asked for skim milk instead of whole milk for my coffee, she just glared at me, and after I had told her I didn’t want a bun with my salad, she brought it out anyway! In fact, she brought out two! She was trying to get at me, you see.”
When our train stopped in Milwaukee, I thought of Woodland Patterns, the best poetry bookstore in the entire country, and of Grace, who showed up there when I gave a reading in 2005. I had not held her since 1985. Giving me a tight hug, Grace said, “You haven’t changed,” then she stole one of the books I had brought for sale, I think. I can’t blame her. Like so many of us, Grace had wanted to be an artist. Erasing Grace and Milwaukee, the train chugged and whistled its way to Portage, and that’s where Kelly and his daughter got on.
With his body always tilting to the right, Kelly doesn’t walk, he staggers, and that’s how he entered the lounge car. Sitting across from me, Kelly had to strain to speak, and sometimes his eyes would shut, his head would droop forward and he’d nod off for ten seconds or more, “I was a sheet metal worker. My brother and I had a business. I didn’t have insurance for myself since I hardly ever climbed up that ladder. I was trying to save some money, you know…”
“Kelly!” I had to grab his arm to wake the man up.
“It’s my pain medicine. It puts me to sleep.”
“You were saying you didn’t have insurance?”
“Oh, yes, so I fell thirty feet! I’ve had operations on my right knee, upper right arm and back. I’m always in pain. On top of that, my wife is bipolar. I’m messed up in the body, she’s messed up in the head!”
“So where are you going on this train?”
“I’m taking my daughter on a trip. She’s 16. I want to clear her head…”
“Kelly! You want to clear her head.”
“Oh yes, I want to remove her from the bad influences. It’s impossible to raise a kid these days, because whatever you’re teaching them, it’s contradicted by the television and Internet, so who do you think they’re going to listen to? My daughter was fine until she discovered boys a couple of years ago.”
“So where are you going?”
“We’re going to Portland, hang out for a couple of days, then rent a car and drive down to San Francisco.”
Though I could clearly see Kelly dozing off on Interstate 5, I only said, “Your daughter will love San Francisco! She hasn’t been there, right?”
“She hasn’t been anywhere. My daughter has only visited Chicago and Milwaukee. I thought she would enjoy this trip more, but she’s been pretty blasé so far. She’s at her seat, texting. I thought I was sitting next to a ghost, and that’s why I came up to this lounge car.”
“Maybe she’ll get into it more after a day or two.”
“I can only hope. My daughter needs to see how large this world is. We live in a tiny town where everybody’s in everybody’s business. People know exactly how much money you have, and so the rich kids hang out with the rich kids. If you’re poor and you hang out with the rich kids, people would think you’re just sucking up to them.”
Hit the road and you’re likely to learn a whole lot, but this can’t happen if you keep your eyes welded to that tablet. From Clifton to La Crosse, the train passed several sand mines, and we also saw idle boxcars loaded with sand. The fracking boom in nearby North Dakota and elsewhere has ramped up considerably sand mining in Wisconsin. Along with jobs and revenues, this mining has also generated silica dust that causes lung cancer and silicosis, and the miles long trains that rumble through cities and towns day and night disrupt traffic and sleep. Mining’s economic benefits must also be revised downward, since automation has trimmed the workforce, and mining’s boom and bust nature attracts transient, out of state workers who take much of their earnings elsewhere. Finally, since mining is always a tremendous act of violence against the landscape, thousands of acres of verdant Wisconsin are being turned into waste land just so this American joyride can zoom along for a tad longer. Like North Dakota, Wisconsin is also a casualty of fracking, but don’t tell this to Governor Scott Walker, for he’s so gung-ho about sand mining, he’s publicly thanked “God and the glaciers.”
Just to stay chubby, we’re eating the country itself, not to mention a good chunk of this earth, but this self-devouring orgy is clearly winding down, and as our world is tapped out, man will slide down the oily pole of modernity. With bombs and drones, then sticks and stones, everyone will fight everyone else for the remaining scraps.
On the train, I met a man from Racine who gave me a preview of what’s coming. A Vietnam vet, George discussed what he had learned about basic survival, but he only arrived at it via a preamble about a TV documentary, “If a story is passed from generation to generation, sometimes people put yeast in it, inflate it, sometimes it becomes astronomical, but PBS did such an excellent, extraordinary documentation, and that’s why I love PBS. I think every American should give them something, because they’d go from nature to biology, oceanography, photography…You name it and PBS covers it.”
Before I engaged George, he had been sitting there for maybe an hour, just staring out the window. A thin, black man, he wore a sparse mustache and had on a “WISCONSIN” baseball cap. George started out speaking very softly, but gradually became more animated, “This show was about a Japanese who was living in a cave, and everybody thought, Oh man, this can’t be, but the Vietnamese did it! This one gentleman. Cookie…I can’t pronounce his name. Kekanazi? Cookienazi? It’s so tremendous, his great desire to survive, I could feel it!
“So this man ate raw fish, he ate snails, anything that an American or average person would turn their stomach to or hold their nose and say, ‘I can’t eat that,’ but I’ve learnt in Vietnam, Don’t say what you can’t or won’t eat, because if you get hungry enough, and if you’re cut off from your supply, and your only means of survival is what God has put here on this earth, and you learn from the tribesmen and villagers of Southeast Asia or wherever…Man, you’ll find some of the best eating in the world!
“I’ve eaten squirrel and water buffalo. I’ve eaten orangutan. We didn’t have to find them, they found us. We’d go into a sector that was really theirs, and they’d be hanging out in the trees and looking at us. They weren’t scared. The baby orangutans would be inquisitive, curious, like children, and as we set up our base camp, they’d wait until we had our backs turned to snatch something and run off! They’d steal our food and weapons. They might take an M-16, and as large as their fingers are, if you have the safety off, their finger would get caught in the M-16, and it would go off while they’re up in the trees!
“We were invading their territory, so they had to be wondering, What are these strangers doing in my home? I’m not the invader, you are! You’re destroying my lifestyle, my habitat, my food supply, and I just want to know what’s going on down there? You have to look at it from an animalistic point of view.”
To endure Vietnam, George had to adapt to its environment, and to survive in the jungle, he became a neo-primitive, but his quest for assimilation was so fierce, he even learned to speak Vietnamese and Loatian, “People think the only dimension that exists is what we can see, but I’ve learnt from the Asians, from the Laotians, that’s not true. I speak Vietnamese and Laotian. Something comes natural. Vietnamese is part Chinese, French and Japanese combined. You may be Oriental, but if you go to Spain, you might recognize a word here and there, and you’d be like, How do I know that word? So I listened to the Vietnamese talk, and soon enough, I could also say la le, di di ma, di di ma wa, you know what I’m saying?”
Actually, I had no idea what he had said, but not wanting to interrupt this man’s train of thought, I betrayed neither mirth nor bafflement.
George, “If people keep telling you that you’re going to die, that we’re going to kill you, and if you give up your weapon, we’ll treat you nice. If they repeat that over and over, you’ll pick up the language too.
“I went to Cambodia and Laos. Being there, what I found as the greatest experience, more than the war itself, is talking to the people, and instead of spending my time going to the village to get, you know, I decided I want to get an education, and who’s better to tell you about a situation than the average American, the average Laotian? They told me stories that were absolutely unbelievable.”
Finding an eager listener, George expounded at length on numerous topics, including sagging pants, “Every time I see them I always get into an argument or a fight, even at my age, because I can’t stand these ignoramuses. I’d say to them, ‘Remember you’re a man, and a black man, so pull your goddamn pants up! That’s right, I’m talking to you! We didn’t struggle all those years, didn’t go to demonstrations and marches so you can humiliate all of us like that!’ They’re acting like fools and animals, man, like penguins, because that’s not walking. They’re wobbling! If you’re black and you say anything bad about the black community, they’ll call you an Uncle Tom, but you have to get through to these knuckleheads. Take the knock out game. There ain’t nothing funny about that! Hitting old people from behind…You know that 62-year-old man they hit in Philadelphia? They’re lucky it was him and not me, because I’d have chased them down and pumped lead into their heads, then I’d call the police!”
George on the sad shape of the American Indian, “They’re on everything but a horse.” He spoke of a Cherokee co-worker, “She escaped the rez at 15, ran off with a biker, a nut, and they’re still aren’t married 16 or 17 years later. ‘We’re still getting acquainted,’ she said. Acquainted! She can’t be older than 31 or 32, but she goes to the doctor more often than I do, She’s having another back surgery this summer. I said to her, ‘You have more pain, you go to more appointments than I do, and I’m 62. I’ve been hit with shrapnel, had a concussion, had my legs messed up from jumping out of airplanes, had my rib broken, but you’re in worse shape than me, and what have you done but ride around in a truck with your boyfriend? It just hurts me to see another suffering American, like you, not knowing what you’re entitled to, so you should reconnect with your tribe to get your share of whatever compensation the tribe is getting from the US government.’ She didn’t appreciate me telling her all this, and even got mad at me, so she said, ‘Mr. Shepherd, I’ve got work to do.’ I explained to her, ‘Not once have I made a pass at you. Not once have I physically or verbally assaulted you, so why are you angry at me?’ And she is a beautiful woman, but as good as she looks now, she must have been a superstar as a teenager!”
George knows something about getting his just compensation, for he had to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs for 10 years to be classified as a victim of Agent Orange. Before this, he was only getting “kibbles and bits” in disability payments. America’s neglect of her veterans is a disgrace, he said, “Why do we continue to spend money on murder and mayhem while our veterans sleep on the streets?” In spite of all this, George’s patriotism is unalloyed, “This is the greatest country on earth, and there’s nothing more beautiful than the sight of that flag flying. Each time I look at it, I just want to choke up. I knew in my heart I was born to be a soldier. I knew in my soul, I was born to be a warrior. I also knew that God did not put me here to be dormant or a fool. When I was a kid, I didn’t like cowboys and indians, I played with a Sherman tank.”
George signed up for an extra year of fighting in Vietnam, “I did it to save my brother, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to take it. There’s a law that said only one son from each family could be in Vietnam at a time. I had another reason, but it’s something civilians will never understand. It’s a burning desire called esprit de corps in the military, and in civilian life, it’s called compassion. It’s a love for those who have made the greatest of sacrifices so you, yourself, can go home.
So you’re home and you’re walking around and you see the corner store, and you think of a restaurant you’d like to eat at, and everything is so nice, the trees, the vegetation, and you’re thankful that God has granted you another day on this earth, and somebody you know waves at you, ‘How you doing?’ and you go, ‘Hey man, what’s up!’ and everything should be just fine, but it isn’t, really, a pretty sight, because no one knows what you’ve gone through, and no one cares. How many beers can you have before you feel like killing yourself?”
George spoke of a Marine who served five tours, “On this fifth tour, he didn’t come back. I went to his funeral, and it was a closed coffin ceremony. You see, people think there must always be a body inside that coffin, but sometimes a coffin is just for show. Lots of time, there’s nothing to send back but some bone fragments, half a boot, bit of clothing, a bible or dog tag, so whatever you have, you put inside that coffin. If you have nothing, then it’s just an empty coffin that goes into the ground.
“The captain was married to an Eskimo, and each time we came over, she always treated us like she had known us forever. He had such a beautiful, happy, peaceful family, and his kids had so much manners and were so humble. I’m their adopted godfather. I’d kill a brick for one of them kids.”
George spoke lovingly of his late wife, whom he was married to for 33 years, and of a grandson who was shot for trying to help a stranger, “He saw this man step on a woman’s face, and he just had to do something, because that’s the kind of man he was. That’s how he was raised.”
George’s son graduated from Clemson, and he himself went to three colleges and a vocational school. He’s also been jailed four times, however, “I didn’t hurt anybody. One of my convictions was for writing bad checks.” With his emphasis on family, education, discipline and personal improvement, George is typical of many working class Americans, especially of his generation, but his enthusiasm for the military is also all-too-common. Firmly believing in the dignity and honor of serving his country, he ignores its contradictions and abuses, many of which he has seen firsthand. After shooting the shit with and shooting Southeast Asian villagers, tribesmen and orangutans, George came home as a good American soldier, and the same Communists he risked his life fighting are about to buy weapons from American manufacturers, and why not, since America is an equal opportunity death merchant that has armed just about every country, militia or drug gang. Just call this toll-free number!
Though America’s ideology will gyrate, twerk or U-turn from moment to moment, her allegiance to war profiteering is unshakable, and as she destroys humanity, she speaks of civilization so constantly that the word itself has become suspect. “Democracy” and “freedom” she has long crapped on beyond recognition. From Portland to Williston, I sat behind a young man who spent all of his waking hours being mesmerized by a computer game. Candy, a gregarious woman with Sioux blood, asked him, “What are you playing?”
Without looking up, he growled, “Civilization Builder.”
“So what’s the point? Are you building up civilization from scratch?”
“Are you defending what you already have?”
“Oh, I get it, you want to get a lot more!”
Now, before you laugh at this young man’s naked and childish admission to wanting more, remember that greed and lust for power are fairly universal traits that spread across the political spectrum, though only on the conservative end are they openly admitted to and even touted as virtues. The war instinct is also found in all surviving cultures, with tiny pockets of pacifism remaining thanks to the mercy or tolerance of their larger societies. Again, it is mostly those who self-identify as conservatives or traditionalists who openly embrace war as not only necessary for the survival of society, but as a crucible for the development of each individual’s character. To them, a rejection of war is not just cowardly and unrealistic, but a refusal to, literally, become a man.
Exploiting these convictions, American war profiteers have few problems selling any war to the American public, and that’s why you see the generic “Support our Troops” stickers and signs everywhere, but what these unquestioning war supporters don’t realize is that, in this endless war that’s being waged by their masters, they’re also collateral damage and enemy. Fighting against themselves, they’ll wave the flag until they’re bombed back to the stone age, and perhaps by friendly fire even.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 14, 2014, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.