Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Traveling with Convicts on Amtrak
Last Wednesday I took a Muni bus from Civic Center to the San Francisco Ferry Building, an Amtrak feeder bus across the Bay Bridge to Emeryville, a train to Bakersfield, and a bus to Palm Springs. According to a skillful, knowledgeable bus driver, Wednesday is the best day to travel on California's usually congested highways and byways.
The train was fairly empty until we stopped at a station near Coalinga, when suddenly there were dozens of men wearing sweat pants and white T-shirts filling the cars. Nobody asked, but it looked like they had just been released from prison.
I was sitting at a table working on a laptop, since there is free wifi on the San Joaquin Amtrak line. The relaxing sway of the train was making me absurdly happy, and before I knew it a skinny old black man dressed in white sweats was seated across from me at the table. We smiled and said hello but mostly remained silent while I worked and he watched, everything.
For four hours, we sat across from each other and simply exchanged glances, except when I offered to get him something at the snack stand for lunch and he declined. "I don't drink, but that beer sure smells good," he said when I returned with a chicken burrito and a watered down light beer. There was something about him that was so peaceful and yet hyper-alert that it felt like I was sitting next to a holy person.
We were on the same bus that went through East Los Angeles on its way to his destination, Riverside, and he sat across the aisle from me like I was a good luck talisman. When he got off, his possessions were two sturdy file boxes and a TV set that looked to be 30 years old. A weathered, ex-con, middle-aged white guy who was the only other passenger left on the Amtrak bus going to the Coachella Valley told me that my traveling companion had just been released from jail that day for the first time in 20 years. "He was taking it all in, man, everybody on cell phones, a whole new world. Must have been a trip."