Thursday, June 13, 2013

Savannah Travelogue, Part 1: On the Train



My boyfriend and I are on a train that’s stopped somewhere near Rocky Mount, North Carolina, sitting across from each other at a table in the club car that we have, improbably, all to ourselves, our laptops facing each other as if we’re playing Battleship. I can see the lady who works behind the counter of the train café in the next car, slinging individual DiGiorno’s frozen pizzas into a munchkin microwave and exchanging plastic-wrapped Entenmann’s pastries for cash and the occasional crumpled tip. A flirtatious older man who’s clearly made multiple visits to her station today approaches and says he has decided to commit suicide. He entwines his wizened old pinky finger with her coral-nailed one and says, “You know what that means.” None of us know what he means – the café lady, referring more to the pinky vow than to the suicide threat, which she seems to have dismissed, says, “What, we’re married now?” The man picks up a massive cinnamon bun crisscrossed with icing, and then we get it: the suicide thing was a little joke, about the high caloric content of his selected afternoon treat. I turn to my boyfriend and say, “Mmm, I might just have to commit suicide later, too.” He smiles politely and says, “No, don’t.” Perhaps there’s something in the sterile air that’s making us all irreverent.

We’ve been sitting here for a while because there’s a problem with the signal of a train ahead of us; my boyfriend had just been talking about how slow commuter-train transport is in the U.S. compared to places such as Europe and Japan – how we defer to freight trains, the ones that carry our sellable goods, people trains making way for products on the shared tracks. Also, the Wi-Fi connectivity isn’t working; I grumble good-naturedly, then my boyfriend pops up and says, “Let me test a theory.” He disappears. He does that sort of thing, comes up with theories and tests them. Almost as soon as he’s vanished from sight, the train inches forward. I don’t know what his theory was, but it seems to have gotten us moving, at least.

None of this matters. I might as well be doing a typing exercise. I’m writing to write right now, typing masquerading as writing. Can the word “masquerade” ever be used in an unpretentious way? But there’s really only one person who’s ever told me that my writing is pretentious, so I should stop worrying about that. Forward motion, don’t look back.

I looked out the back window of the train today. My boyfriend suggested it; he said, “It looks cool back there. You should go back and see.” I was surprised that no one else was there, watching those poignantly receding tracks and pondering, just as I’m surprised that we now have the club car all to ourselves. (Well, all to ourselves plus a white-haired Southern belle interrogating the weary café lady who is taking a rare sit-down break while a new pot of coffee brews. No, "pot" sounds too quaint – it’s probably a small plastic pitcher. A thingie of coffee. A goddamned thingie. I promised not to make any of these "travelogue" posts too precious, if that's even possible.)

Anyway, the back of the train – the caboose, as my siblings’ kindergarten teacher euphemistically called whoever was the last kid in line, in these PC, everyone’s-a-snowflake days – was not only abandoned, but the apathetic guy in the Amtrak uniform sitting at the back didn’t seem to care that I went there, although I’m pretty sure I could have just pushed on through the back exit door and tumbled onto the tracks. I guess he figured that if I had the will to do that, why should he try to stop me?

“You can’t change other people. It’s impossible.” That’s what the volunteer coordinator said at the third and most recent session of the group counseling for offenders of domestic and sexual violence that I’ve been observing. She muttered this, sotto voce, ad lib, an aside, in response to something that one of the participants, one of the offenders, said. It was an unofficial statement, not printed in either the workbook or the binder we’d all been given with class lessons and homework for the 18-week course. I think the guy had been blaming someone in his life for provoking him into an angry reaction, and then he had caught himself, had backtracked, and said, “I’m not going to change her.” I thought about what the coordinator had said and its implications for the group she was facilitating. What were we doing here if not trying to change other people?

It’s not often that I get this, hours when I’m captive at the keyboard – by the circumstances of our poky, all-day transportation situation – but not also supposed to be doing work, when I have nothing else to distract me, when I can just type and type for hours. These should be ideal writing conditions for me, hours on a slow-moving train, sliding through brightly decaying Southern used-to-be towns, trailers in fields of dandelions, my boyfriend opposite me but occupied with his own work, not even the Internet (or Gmail, or Gmail IM, or Facebook -- let alone this blog; I'm typing all of this first in a Microsoft Word document, to paste in later) to distract me. Surely I should crank out some masterpiece, here in these conducive environs. And yet I’m writing about writing. Typing about writing. I’m going to stop doing that now. I could tumble off the back of the train.

I’ve been meaning to write about the new volunteer gig, the one in which I play the role of creepy, wordless voyeur at the back of the room while a group of about 30 folks who’ve been arrested for incidents of domestic or sexual violence (or “assault” or “battery” or whatever official words show up in the police reports) listen to the coordinator and a rotating cast of “facilitators," some of them reformed offenders, lead everyone assembled through lessons in pinpointing the true roots of their anger and how to defuse that aggression before it harms another person. I’m supposed to observe, and take notes, and complete the homework assignments (tasks such as “identify your core values” and “describe what occurs in your body when you recall an incident that made you angry”), for 18 weeks, and then after that 18 weeks I should be well-versed enough in these lessons and the trademarked “techniques” (such as one called, always in all-caps, HEALS, a method of dispelling anger -- almost as much by trying to remember all the steps and what the letters stand for, it seems) to help facilitate the next group that comes around.

I took a ton of notes on a large notepad that I brought home from work, but right now I’m trying to see what I can think of on my own without the aid of those weeks-old scrawlings that I hope I can still decipher. I mostly think of the people, the specific participants. I wouldn’t be so dumb as to use their real names on here, but there’s a guy – we’ll call him Eddie – who’s always there early, talking off the ear of the professional social worker who leads the group, in what seems to be a very validation-needy sort of way. The coordinator puts up with it, like a popular nice girl suffering the earnest pantings of a lovelorn nerd. I worry about this guy, this Eddie. The first week, as everyone else sat in chairs arrayed in a circle and I at a table in back (one of the facilitators had told me to sit there, that "this is where the observers sit"), an unintroduced (because the volunteer coordinator forgot to do so) and unexplained presence, I watched as Eddie colored in the “violence towards children” segment of a pie chart (I forget what the chart was meant to demonstrate; bad things you shouldn’t do, most likely) with angry black scrawls. I mean, just that one segment. He left the rest alone.

My boyfriend is talking to me about how Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't believe in molecular biology. I have only so much focus. I’ll write another post soon.

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