Amtrak has become a huge part of my life over the past few years. Though it’s often quite pricey, it gets me from college to home and vice versa safely and soundly. I used to be quite scared of sitting on the train alone for 7 hours, but after a couple of solo trips, it became a pretty natural process for me. Those 7 hours give me the space to catch up on a good book, process the things in my life that I’ve been too busy to give real thought to, and get ahead on work or school. The alone time does me wonders, and it’s something I was really looking forward to as I stepped onto the train to Richmond last week.
The train was fully booked, so our seats were assigned to us. I made my way down the aisle, eventually finding my seat – D14. In the seat directly next to mine was a middle-aged white man. He offered to lift my huge suitcase onto the overhead compartment, and my noodle arms were quite thankful that he did. I thanked him, sat down, and remained quiet for the first two hours of the train ride as I typed up some articles for my internship. Most people on the train weren’t talking unless they were sitting with friends or family members, so the lack of conversation between me and my seat-mate did not surprise nor disappoint me. As I chipped away at my work for the week, I noticed him taking pictures of the scenery that we were passing by, just as I often do when I am blessed with the window seat. When we were pulling up to the 30-minute Washington D.C. stop, he turned to me, explained that it was his first time taking Amtrak, and asked if it was a bad idea to leave his belongings on the train while he finds the bathroom. I told him that it’s a pretty safe train, but that I usually take my bags anyway. He thanked me, and we talked briefly about our respective destinations before getting off the train.
I parted ways with him for the D.C. break, but as soon as we were both back on the train, he immediately struck up a conversation with me. Before I knew it, we were sharing stories about our high school athletic careers, favorite vacation places, and the Olympic events we were looking forward to watching. At some point during a lull in the conversation, I even texted my boyfriend, excitedly telling him that I made a “friend” on the train. Obviously, this man had much more life experience than I, but it was nice to have some company, especially after a long pandemic that made meeting momentary friends almost impossible. I was learning so much from him too – from the challenges of being a software developer during an era of outsourcing, to what it’s like living all over the country. I could tell he was probably conservative, considering that he threw some shade at affirmative action when it came up in conversation…This didn’t bother me in the moment though, for most of my family is conservative, and even though I’m very much not, I’ve learned how to navigate and de-escalate political arguments with them over the last few years. I could tell he was hesitant to say anything political, especially when he led the little shade-throwing comments with “I don’t want to get into politics but…” However, as he warmed up to me, that guard came down.
At one point, this man and I were sharing crazy train stories. I decided to tell him about the time I was on a train the day of the Capitol attack back in January. I told him about how people from the attack boarded my train and how terrified I was until I got home safely to Pennsylvania. He let me finish, and only then did he whisper, “you’re not going to tell anyone, are you? I was one of the people at the Capitol that day.” I knew he was conservative, but nothing could have prepared me for hearing those words. I had no clue how to respond. Do I tell him what a horrible citizen he is? Do I nod along as if I’m somehow okay with what he just uttered in hopes of not starting any tension since I’m forced to sit next to this guy for the next few hours? Do I stop talking to him entirely? I didn’t go with any of those options, and truthfully, I don’t even know what the best option would have been. I instead just stared at him, overcome with shock and fear. This wasn’t just someone who sits behind their computer screen writing discriminating tweets. This was someone who was part of a planned terrorist attack that led to multiple deaths. I can understand conservatism, and I can even try to understand how Trump supporters can still stand with him, but I’m sorry, I will never find it in my heart to think that what happened that sad winter day is at all acceptable. There’s a way to be patriotic and fight for what you believe in, but this attack crossed every line.
The man could tell I was shocked, but he proceeded. “Ask me any question you want, I’ll be honest with you,” he explained. I, still speechless, had zero and a million questions at the same time. The only one I could get out after a few moments was “Were you inside the building itself?” He answered that he couldn’t get inside, but he wishes he could have. I then asked him if he was scared or not, and he said that he was overwhelmed with excitement and love for our country. He also said that it was a really emotional event for him, and that when he got to share the video of the event with his mom, he felt really connected to her. At this moment, I was bewildered as to how we were talking about the same event. The emotions he described were ones that you feel at a Fourth of July celebration, or perhaps at an election when the candidate you supported wins. I was stunned at how an event that was so negative for the majority of the county was so positive and uplifting for him. This man went on to claim that the people who were arrested for the attack were political prisoners and that the government was misusing its power to silence Trump supporters. He later went on to tell me stories about the trouble he’s gotten into at work, including the time when he was discussing his support of building the US-Mexico wall in front of another worker who was an illegal immigrant. Great guy.
Through this whole three hour long encounter, I felt extreme cognitive dissonance. I know I don’t stand for any of the things he was saying. I know that I specifically want to go into a career field that fights for and defends the rights of many of the people that he shows discrimination towards. I knew that I’m the person who tries relentlessly to convince her relatives to adopt more progressive views. Yet in this moment, when real life challenged me, I just nodded along to his hate in an effort to not start trouble. Later that day, when I discussed the interaction with those close to me, I was met with comfort and support. They assured me that the right thing to do in that moment was to keep the peace instead of going off at him about how wrong he was. I was really touched by this perspective, for I felt like a coward for the whole six hours beforehand.
Nonetheless, I hope I will act slightly differently if I ever find myself in this situation again. I still believe that trying to change the views of a middle-aged white man who proudly stormed the Capitol is pretty difficult, but still possible. However, trying to radically change his point of view while you’re forced to sit next to him for the next three hours presents a danger that I don’t feel comfortable risking. Nonetheless, there were definitely more subtle ways I could have stayed more true to my beliefs than direct confrontation, and I truly wish I tried harder to do so. I could have steered the conversation to topics I’m passionate about, such as prison reform. I could have shared with him the things I’ve learned during my internship with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. He seemed very interested in my law school plans, so the prison reform topic would have been easy to incorporate into conversation and could have provided him some insight into the other side of topics that he probably feels a certain radical way about. He was sharing his views with me, and oddly enough he gave me the space to share mine, but I choked and chose not to do so. I don’t think that makes me any less dedicated to equality, democracy, and justice, but I think it definitely shows me where I have room to grow in terms of confrontation. This distressing interaction taught me that protests and official debates aren’t the only places for perspective-changing conversations, and that these altering moments can happen in smaller, more casual, forms.
The other lesson I took from this train ride was that there’s human in all of us, even in the people who seem like they’re the worst of the worst. Even though I couldn’t bear listening to the hateful things he was uttering for a huge chunk of our talk, there were moments where I genuinely connected with him before the Capitol attack conversation came up. In fact, I think the only reason he felt comfortable enough to share information with me that could very well lead to his being arrested was because we had connected on other topics beforehand. I can’t ignore that part of him and of our conversation. Our similarities are clearly less important in the grand scheme of things, but they are still quite notable. There’s some potential for connection with every single person you meet, and something about that gives me hope. I don’t know if that lesson should or should not be adapted into politics, but in a purely human way, it’s comforting. It’s hard to view that man with any kind of acceptance, for his beliefs directly go against the humanity of other people, but I still believe that the world would be a more peaceful place if we at least tried to acknowledge our shared humanity.
As I type this, I am sitting on my train ride home to Pennsylvania from Richmond. I’m sitting next to a man who looks like someone that the first man would likely have uttered racist things about. This current man and I haven’t had a lengthy conversation, but we did briefly share our frustration about the train being an hour behind schedule. I’m sure we could connect on a lot more than just that, and on a lot more than I could connect with the first man about, but I don’t think this interaction is any less valuable than the first one. Every single day, in every short and long conversation we have, we get the opportunity to experience someone else’s humanity. Whether it’s their experience attacking the Capitol or their annoyance at the train, they’re inviting us in, even if just for a moment. We might not agree on everything, and their views might make you want to rip your hair out, but at the end of the day, all we can do is stand for what we believe in and try to share our insights in various ways.