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A Train Story

Email to a friend:

I’m on the train on my way back to NYC, and there are a couple of white boys in front of me, adolescents, who were giggling over something on the smaller boy’s computer when I came back to my seat after I’d gone to the bathroom. And as I took my seat (they didn’t see me for a second) I saw the screen: the smaller boy was pointing to a picture of a black woman and, next to that, an image of a baboon. After they saw me, the boy slammed his computer lid shut very quickly, but it was too late: the blood had gone to my head. I’m sitting here with another forty minutes left to the trip wondering if I should say something without being sent to jail once we get to the station, or not forget this and write it down again and again.

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I want to thank you for your e-mail. I didn’t have a chance to write before now because I had to lug all this stuff home and I wanted a moment with my thoughts—and to replay the movie that was that particular train ride.

I sat behind those boys for a while, watching, incredibly enough, ” The Three Sisters”—the Actor’s Studio version, with Kim Stanley, and Sandy Dennis, and Geraldine Page. I learn more about writing from performers than a lot of other things, including some books. In any case, Kim, as you know, is a perennial favorite. Along with Montgomery Clift, Kim manages to find elements in text and space—to fill the poetics of space—with a subtlety that rivals and often makes trite the experience of reading established, generally self-conscious-as-verse, verse. Kim and Monty are the white space between lines of poetry.  I sort of can’t believe Kim’s IMMERSION in a role: the role is real, and she isn’t. That is the humility art demands: the evisceration of one’s body the better to show the fucked up human soul. In any case, there are those lovely speeches in the first act in the Chekhov, where the sisters say they’ll know they’ll be forgotten, replaced by other sisters in different houses, and Verishinin, the visiting army officer, says they will, in fact, be remembered—that they are traces of reality that will stay in memory, and on on and on.

I didn’t want to be torn away from this very real invention by the reality sitting in front of me, and how Irina’s talking about the warm air reminded me of the warm air beyond the train windows but, still, I had to perform in this play I didn’t want to perform in. But Vershinin’s words really worked on me: our lives mean more than we know. (I just read a fabulous quote, attributed to Jane Bowles: “Life has more imagination than we do.”) And who was I not to let my life lead me to its various starts in conclusions. I have no “power,” over how my destiny will effect or not effect someone else; all I am is an image in someone else’s mind. At least, that’s how the Chekhov, and these various performers were affecting me. As the black and white images bounced along on the bouncing train, I knew I had to do: tell those boys about themselves, as the elders used to say in Brooklyn. I couldn’t look the memory of my mother in the eye if I didn’t say something; indeed, I couldn’t look at my inner eye if I didn’t say something. And I hated what I became as I waited to say something: a person who clocked the uniform of the offenders (docksiders, cranberry-colored chinos, Lauren shirts worn down at the collar and cuff), thus sizing them up as “privileged.” I didn’t want the class twinges we all suffer from—despite the long journey from England, Americans and especially New Yorkers can read privilege in a second–but there it was. And there I was. Is the computer screen a private space? If you open your computer screen on a crowded train an invitation to look at what you’re looking at? And there I was, wondering for a minute about all that when I heard myself say, leaning over those boys seats as we all prepared to enter Penn Station, but before we got our bags: “You know, if you look at a picture of a black woman, laughing, and then point to a picture of a baboon, people might take it the wrong way. Racism hurts. It’s not an abstraction. Sexism hurts. And people use both things to belittle people. Fortunately for you, you’ll probably never experience any of these feelings.”

The boys were silent for a moment. I turned back to my bag, and started to pack up. A white woman behind me said: “Well done.”

The older boy said: “Sir, that had nothing to do with sexism or racism!” And I said: “Well, it looked that way, you guys were laughing and pointing to those images, and why did your friend shut his computer screen when he saw that I saw?”

The older boy: “Sir! That wasn’t about anything racist—or sexist!”

And the white woman behind me said: “Kid, why don’t you just apologize and shut the fuck up?!” I turned to her. Our hands touched. I said: “Did you read that mess about Obama at Barnard, and how idiots in the Limbaugh sphere are now using his support for women to slag them off?!” And she said: “I think the world is going crazy!”

A black man further down the aisle started to walk toward us; I don’t know if he heard any of the exchange, but blood hears blood—especially if there’s a chance it’ll be spilled. But I nodded that he shouldn’t come any further. For obvious reasons: if there was going to be harm, he should be spared harm.

The car got quiet. We started to collect our bags. My suitcase, though, was on the rack at the front of our car, so, I had to wait for those boys and their friends to get off the train to collect it, my legs pulsing with that strange adrenalin that the minority faces in the company of the status quo, and there was the realization, too, how, sometimes, the action can not only change the atmosphere, but allow other people to speak, too. As we walked out of the train, a white man who had been sitting across from me and the woman gave us the thumbs up gesture. Outside of the station, the air was warm, and people were going about their night time business. As in a play or story by Chekhov.