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."


Markley Morris said...

What a lovely story, beautifully written - and beautiful photographs too.

Civic Center said...

Dear Markley: Thanks. And nice to hear from you.

Your driver said...

A very nice story. When I worked for Golden Gate Transit I used to get prisoners who had just been released from San Quentin. They were a mixed bag. The best experience I ever had was profound and the worst, when a mob of prisoners basically took over the bus, was kind of scary.

Civic Center said...

Dear Your driver: I've encountered both scenarios on Amtrak, so was especially happy to have the experience fall on the profound rather than scary side of the coin. I think it's easier to deal with these situations on Amtrak than on a single-driver bus.

There was a bizarre interlude on this trip, though, where a tall, crazy young black guy got onto the train without a ticket not far from Bakersfield, wearing about six layers of clothing on a hot day, topped by a yellow rain slicker. He was being arrested by the Bakersfield police at the end of the train line, while we all calmly walked by the scene to our feeder buses. I can hardly imagine the hysteria this would have caused in an airport, but at the Bakersfield Transit Center, it was No Big Deal.

janinsanfran said...

One of the best parts of working on the Prop. 34 campaign last year was getting to spend time around two exonerees -- guys who had both done over 15 years locked up for crimes they did not commit. They both had an apparent inner peace that awed me. I guess in those circumstances you either get in touch with that or lose it altogether. I don't know whether it will hold up on the outside, either. The stresses are different.

But it was a privilege to meet them.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jan: I remember your amazement at the Exonerated Ones you got to know, and thought of you on the train.