• October 20, 2016 |

    footnotes on faith

    overheard on Amtrak

    article by , illustrated by


    In September, I was on an Amtrak train to Boston when I realized that the man next to me was calling somebody who was dealing with schizophrenia. So, the people in your head, he said, clearing his throat. What team are they on? Who’s the organizer? Who makes the plays? Talk me through it. Where are you?

    Across the aisle from us, a daughter pestered her sleeping father: Daddy, we should have taken the bus. This is too slow. She bounced on her seat, impatient, while he nodded and shifted back to sleep. So, what you’re saying is, they’re not so loud today? Through the phone, I could hear the person laugh.

    I think I might have fallen a little in love with him: Who is that good at talking somebody through a schizophrenic episode? The girl had succeeded at waking her father up; they were now playing thumb war, poking and snapping each other’s fingers. I’m winning, I’m winning! she howled, glorious in her gloating. The phone call ended, and I watched as the man let a soft sigh slide out of him, the one concession he made to whatever had just happened. We got off at the same station and made small talk. I learned that his name was Jean, that he’d recently moved to Boston after nearly a decade in China and was born and raised in Tennessee. In response, I cracked jokes about New England weather. I wanted to say something about his friend but didn’t.

    Sixty years ago, this interaction might have gotten us—a black man and a white woman—arrested. It might have led white men to murder Jean. We shook hands, parted ways. One month later, I typed jean china boston tennessee into Google. It told me to look for gene’s chinese flatbread café menu instead.


    On September 12, 2001, Allen Kay took out a 3 x 5 index card and wrote If you see something, say something. It was his attempt to guard against the inertia of despair that he believed was gripping America after 9/11. Manhattan may have looked like it was collapsing, but we could still do something; we could use our eyes to keep each other safe. It became such a popular sentiment of civic duty that the Department of Homeland Security (which was created in response to post-9/11 security concerns) trademarked it for use in its public awareness campaign about civilian safety.

    In 2010, Kay told the New York Times that he was inspired by World War II propaganda. “The model that I had in my head was ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships,’” he explained. “I thought it was ironic because we just want the opposite. We want people to talk.”


    I sing odes to Amtrak on a regular enough basis that it’s no longer embarrassing but expected; Amtrak, a love story is the caption of a recent photo I posted on Facebook. I love Amtrak and Amtrak tolerates me, so we’re basically three plot twists away from being a romantic comedy with some horrendous gender and sexuality politics. Above all, Amtrak lets me lie to myself. I can stay in one place for six or seven hours (or even eight—I’m looking at you, Northeast Regional ride from hell) but still say that I’m moving. And when I’m writing, when momentum and inertia start to look and feel the same, this ability to believe in stasis that isn’t static means everything. For me, Amtrak gives what Joan Didion calls, in Blue Nights,  “faith—another form of momentum.”


    From the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of faith: belief in and acceptance of the doctrines of a religion.

    Another one: a system of (non-religious) belief; a set of firmly held principles, ideals, or beliefs; a creed.

    Still another one: power to convince. This one’s obscure, though.


    In October, The Atlantic reported on a trend that occurs along California Zephyr (as Amtrak’s California route is known): Plainclothes police officers will enter trains and accuse, harass, and sometimes detain passengers whom they suspect of trafficking drugs. Two years ago, Samia Hossain of the ACLU reported on the guidelines that Amtrak issued to its ticket agents about how to recognize traveler conduct that was “indicative of criminal activity”:

    Hossain added: “Reporting based on broad categories of suspicious behavior is problematic because it almost always results in racial and religious profiling, as well as the targeting of perfectly innocent activity.” If you see something, say something—a statement whose vagueness can make it seem universal, even though its impacts are disparate and disproportionately racialized. It makes me think of what Claudia Rankine writes in her memoir Citizen: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” There, it’s shoot first and say something—Sorry, maybe, but rarely—later.

    In light of America’s perpetual practices and policies of anti-blackness, I’m wondering what it means, exactly, to place your life in the hands of strangers. We do this, implicitly, nearly every day, from taking the train (Amtrak or otherwise) to walking across a street. But seeing a police officer will activate a different set of histories and associations depending on how you identify, what your life experiences are. I used to think that the faith that undergirds our days—the faith, say, to trust that the strangers on your train have your back—could extend and radiate outwards.

    What contours that faith? What expectations are invited or assumed, and which ones are left by the wayside? Jean, the man who knew how to talk somebody through a schizophrenic episode, was, I would say, “unusually calm.” I would also say that he was unusually compassionate. I want to believe that these are not false choices between communal safety and individual compassion; otherwise, I don’t think that I could believe that people like Jean are not only possible, but also real. So, to say something: I saw a man whose life saved somebody else’s, and he was looking around as he did it, carrying little or no luggage.