Strangers on a Train
Strangers on a Train Charles Mudede

I'm sitting in the bistro car on the Amtrak Cascades route. The train left Seattle at 2:12 pm and has Eugene, Oregon as its final stop. It's December 23, and my destination, which I share with my daughter, is the capital of antifa, Portland. Not long after the train pulls out of Centralia Station, a white couple sits at the Mudedes' table. The man is around 65, and so is the woman. The man has a Bud, and the woman a Diet Sierra Mist. I'm halfway down a mid-sized bottle of what Cavit believes is drinkable dry white wine. I'm also writing something about Station Eleven, an apocalyptic show about life on Earth after the collapse of a historically specific social system that the first professional political economist in the world, Adam Smith, called commercial society.

"Where are you going," the woman asks. I look up from my computer screen ("light through") and look at her face ("light on"). She (eyes kind of sad, hair kind of gray) is across the table from me. She wants to talk. Her husband sits next me. My daughter sits next to her.

"We are going to Portland, for Christmas. Family holiday thing," I say, hoping that my flat tone communicates that I'm far from interested in having a conversation with strangers. My daughter has a crossword puzzle to sort out; I'm writing. Nice to meet you.

"My son lives there," she says with undisguised disappointment, "but we are going to Springfield. That's where we live. But we just came from Leavenworth. You been there?" I had not, and saying so only opened the door to her long description of the experience of what the town's marketers call a "Bavarian-styled village in the Cascade Mountains." After hearing about the quirks of their Leavenworth hotel, the best and worst food in town, the occasion for the trip, the couple's marriage and life in retirement, their train ride from Leavenworth, the delays in Seattle, the train enters Kelso/Longview Station. At this point, my daughter's crosswords magazine is closed, and so is my laptop. In 45 minutes, the train's doors will open at Union Station. I order another bottle of wine, and, as I drink, learn about life in a town whose name The Simpsons made world-famous.

But as we near Vancouver, WA Station, something interesting happens. The woman makes it clear that now is the time to express her opinions about vaccinations, the lockdown, the pandemic, and masks.

The husband, a retired fire marshal, gives his wife eyes that plainly say: "Stay away from the pandemic, just for once, please. Can't you see these are as city as people can get? Just look at them, my dear. Look at him and her." But his wife, a retired hospital administrator, can't resist the pressure. She must bring out into the open of the bistro car the mainstream pandemic politics of our day.

"I really believe in my freedom, and so I don't get it," she says rather loudly. "I even have friends who still don't leave their house. They are too scared of the virus. But I believe freedom is more important than death. You have to go out. This is America. We are free here. You can't take that away from us. Our freedom." The train is running at what must be its top speed. Through the table's window, dark denuded trees ripple the remains of the day.

Did she want my daughter and me to fight with her? Was this a setup for one of those videos that go viral? An anti-vaxxer goes nuts on us on the train? I did my best to indicate that I did not want the conversation to take this sorry direction. Could we talk about the weather instead? It's going to snow soon, I hear. Let's talk about that. How does Springfield handle snow? Any better than Seattle? Seattle is really bad at it. Cars slipping all over the place. That sort of thing. I'm sure Brandi Kruse would have approved of this approach. No politics. Just snow. That's how we can bridge the divide.

"I don't trust the vaccines," she says. She just can't hold herself back. The barn door has flung open. She is long gone. Her husband drinks the Bud and sinks into his seat. "It's probably going to cause more destruction and death than the virus." At this point, my daughter and I realize she is not vaccinated. My daughter, however, has kept her high-end mask on during the conversation; I have not. Blame it on the alcohol.

As the train crosses the dark waters of the Columbia River, I realize that the Springfield anti-vaxxer has nothing to offer in the way of an explanation for her pandemic views, which are identical to the ones that are expressed nightly, daily, hourly on Fox News and Newsmax. My effort to find at least one thing original in her thinking or something that might appear to be a part of white conservative American culture that I, a black urban Marxist who is very much looking forward to a fourth jab, failed to appreciate, came up empty. And yet she spoke as if these tired talking points about the essential un-Americanness of mandates were her very own.

"We really don't know anything about these new vaccines. We don't," she says again after saying it again not long after the train pulled out of Vancouver, WA Station.

"What about penicillin? Most people didn't know much about that drug in the 1940s," I only say in the way of resistance.

"They saved a lot of lives during World War Two. May not be alive if the army didn't use them. Saved my dad," says the retired fire marshal, whose can of Bud is now empty.

His wife looks at him and says: "We should go back to our seats."

She then looks at my daughter and me and says perfunctorily: "Nice to meet you."

What was all of that really about, I wondered as we deboard the train at Union Station? Why did she feel so powerfully the need to say to perfect strangers exactly what Fox's hosts say all of the time to her? Did she think the Mudedes had not heard the Good News? Was she trying to save us? My guess? She's in the same situation as that Oregon father, Jared Schmeck, who said "Fuck Joe Biden" to Joe Biden during a livestreamed Christmas Eve event for children.

Everyone knows what "Let's go, Brandon'' means. It's not even funny or that interesting. But if you are like Schmeck, a man with a very limited personality, you must not only receive this worthless inspiration, but transmit it—even to the president himself. And you must say it as if it's all you are inside. This is somebody saying the code for "Fuck Joe Biden." I'm really real. You better believe me. Can you feel that? He can. The self filled with nothing but talking points becomes a self only when transmitting talking points or common Trumpy trash. The act of expressing pandemic views heard on every conservative show on the radio and TV across the land is the only way to affirm one's identity. If it's kept inside, this kind of self-being feels nothing.