OCTOBER 12 2010 18:16h
During my recent, extended travels through the United States on a train called “The Empire Builder”, I was reminded of the fact that not too long ago, the only way people traveled long distances was by horse, boat, or ship.
There was no such thing as leaving one continent in the morning and arriving on another the same night, which is one reason most people never traveled beyond a 50 mile radius of their own town or village. And if they did, it was usually to leave, with a heavy heart and shattered soul, never again to return to their native land. Whether for economic or political reasons, or to hide their real identities, reinvent themselves in an alien land, the trip was not for them a pleasant excursion but a permanent exile. Nowadays, though, as I learned on my extended trip from Florida to Oregon, people are all too anxious to divulge not only their identities, but their entire life history, to a total stranger on a train. Is this a consequence of the reality show syndrome in the United States, where every private act is shamelessly exposed to the entire world in order to achieve that fleeting five minutes of fame? How else to explain the willingness to share with a stranger what, under normal circumstances, would be shared only with the most intimate of acquaintances or family members?
Paul was willing. He boarded the train in Orlando, Florida. I watched him as he stood in line with a friend. He was short, tanned, and overweight. His friend was taller, tanned, and fit. I watched them as they talked and laughed together as they inched closer to the train. Which one would be boarding? I wondered, or was it both of them? Where had they been, and where were they going? I watched others in the line as well. Most of the women were obese, not just plump or overweight. As they walked, their buttocks looked as though a group of angry hamsters were writhing around just under the skin. Before I knew it, Paul had sat down next to me in the empty seat. He gave me his last name as well, which was Rumanian, and which I have now forgotten. Within the first half hour, I learned he had never been separated from the “friend”, who had waited with him in line, for over 22 years, that he was HIV positive as a result of being contaminated
with blood from his now deceased HIV positive brother, that his father had been in military intelligence and that Paul had lived all over the world – Bonn, Paris, Istanbul. His father had once been in an elevator that had suddenly plunged seven stories to the ground floor and he had sustained multiple fractures in both legs. It had taken him years of therapy to walk normally again. He had been lucky! Paul in his earlier years had worked for a company that had produced taping devices and other espionage equipment for the CIA, with which they had killed scores of innocent and not so innocent people. “We were required to watch videos of the results of our work, to show us how effective our products had been. What it was, basically, was shots of people getting blown up.” He had been pretty upset about that, he admitted, and had been to see a psychiatrist about it, and a lot of other things, too, for example, the adulterous actions of his former
wife. “After the divorce, I acted upon my true impulses”, he confessed.
I was thinking, as he emptied his soul to me, what if I had objected to being seated next to a HIV positive passenger, (for health reasons), a gay man (for moral or religious reasons), a CIA collaborator (for moral, political, ethical, or philosophical reasons), an obese person (for aesthetic or seat space reasons) or even a Rumanian (for political, ethnic, linguistice, or historical reasons)? The consequences could have been unpleasant for hapless Paul, especially in today’s American political climate. After all, the U.S. populace is split 50-50 along political lines, and parts of Paul’s history wouldn’t have appealed to either die-hard conservatives or liberals. But this is, I thought, an American thing. It wouldn’t have been “polite” to object to any of it. It wouldn’t have been “American” to openly judge or condemn or make anybody feel “uncomfortable”, at least in public. Only in America, after all, are the stupid
described as “intellectually challenged”, the handicapped as “differently abled”, the homeless as “residentially flexible”, the obese as “gravitionally challenged.”
As Paul finally disembarked in Minnesota, he shared with me the wonderful news that his “partner” had decided to fly up and join him. I considered, during those last moments, sharing with Paul that I was a former federal prisoner, had been involved in an air piracy, later worked as an adviser to the President of Croatia, was traveling by train involuntarily as a result of my past history, and found his earlier occupation – devising devices used to blow people up – disturbing and horrific, but I resisted the temptation. As the wise Seneca said, “if you wish another to keep your secret, first keep it to yourself.” So, as far as he knows, I’m just the typical all-American woman who sat next to him for a few hours on “The Empire Builder.”you wish another to keep your secret, first keep it to yourself.