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The Empire Builder Day 2 Afternoon, Part 1: Enemy of the State

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When I left the dining car I returned to the lounge/observation car. By now it was nearly mid-afternoon; the sun was beaming hotly through the terrarium-like cabin car and so the whole room felt alive and warm after the cold conversation with Carol. Given the midday trek through American Heartland, there were considerably more people sitting in the cabin. The seats are all situated to constantly view the rolling scenery, with the chairs slightly bent on angles to presumably allow you to view things as much as possible, and maybe be a bit more social with anyone seated with you. Small tables for resting books, glasses, laptops, etc sit in-between some of the seats. I found a spot to sit and take in the view while I resumed writing. Wanting to log online and upload some of my pictures and access my blog, I opened up my iMac and looked for a network that might be easily accessible.

I clicked on the wi-fi icon and looked at my choices (note to anyone thinking of doing this particular train route: Amtrak’s promised ‘wi-fi access’ stalls and disappears about three minutes after you pull out of Seattle.). About 12 network names appeared in the drop-down list with an assortment of names; “Chrissy’s iPhone”; “Belkin blah blah blah”; ones that were clearly town/regionally-related…..and then, nestled inside of these network names, one caught my eye: White Power.

I froze and looked again. White Power.

I gulped and shifted in my seat and for a moment, just looked at the window again, watching the wheat and grass fields stream by. I re-clicked the wi-fi network list, and as the search dial spun, the list refreshed. Not only were there the original network options I’d found a moment ago, the network options had grown to expand to include two more networks named “White Power”; a total of three that seemed to reappear every few network names like some odd DNA sequence.

At this point I was sweating and closed my laptop. I looked around; all around me were quiet, white faces, some chattering with loved ones, some studiously looking through the lens of expensive-looking cameras; others fumbling on their phones or devices. No one looked at me as I frantically studied their faces–I half expected to look up and see everyone staring at me, waiting to pounce on me.

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I was, to put it bluntly, pretty fucking scared. It dawned on me that the network could belong to anyone on the train, sitting anywhere near or close by. Quickly, paranoia set in; I began retracing every bit of conversation and encounter that I’d had since boarding the train. In my mind I reviewed the faces of everyone I’d talked to; I tried to recount any and every subtle twitch in the lip; the extra flicker of an eye’s blink; maybe some slightly less-than tone in obligatory greeting as I passed someone on the train. I thought about down in the sleeping quarters; was there anyone down there that seemed like they would’ve had this network? I tried to think about the towns that we’d trolled through already; I spent 5mins Googling some of the towns–Malta, Whitefish, La Crosse,–and then panicked that, fuck, they all sounded like havens of white pride themselves.

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I suddenly pictured passing through a darkened tunnel on the route; everything going black for half a minute; me sitting in the dark in my seat, whipping my head around. Feeling a rope tossed over my head, or worse, emerging moments later and finding everyone in on train donned in a white hood.

I suddenly felt like I was living some sort of Hitchcock/Twilight Zone experience; trapped on a train, only able to run north-south along its corridors, running from some invisible men that I didn’t know; that could appear at any moment. I froze–I couldn’t focus on writing one iota, and began pacing the train, peering and not peering into faces as I walked along the cars. Some of the faces returned my stare and smiled; some blandly looked back with weary passenger eyes; some stared straight through me, but all of them terrified me. As I made my way from car-to-car, I held my laptop open; I felt like a ghostbuster using my laptop as a sort of racist-PKE meter; watching and waiting for White Power wi-fi to disappear, multiply, something.

I made my way to my sleeping car room and sat there scared and stunned. I drew back the sliding door and laid on my bed, slightly hyperventilating. I tried to imagine how to navigate the rest of the trip–at this point I calculated that I must’ve been another 24hrs away from Chicago–I started thinking:

  • Who could I trust the rest of this ride?
  • How would I deal with dinner–could I get it in my room? Could I trust the staff to not tamper with my food?
  • Had they already? What was too late to worry about?

Earlier on during the trip, the fact that I was black was a friendly, communal curio; it was a quietly acknowledged, seemingly innocuous detail that might’ve walked the fine line of endearing and obnoxious to the other passengers, like a lisp. But discovering the White Power wi-fi created a totally different perception of self; I suddenly felt I’d gone from nice to notorious. I also began being very, very aware of the fact that I felt very, very alone on the train. Suddenly, a lot of the beautiful landscape seemed like a wide open, still-hungry graveyard. All the serene heartland scenery that I had been chewing away at with my eyes and iPhone alike, seemed like the gaping maws of spaces that might swallow me whole, never to be seen again.

My mind continued to race; I could only see horrid images like getting cornered by a mob of passengers, pressing in on me as I typed away on my laptop; imagining pulling up in some no-name Midwestern town and being dragged off the train, beaten and left in one of the bucolic fields, or having me run down to the river, dashed against the rocks.

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In my mind, I saw the train coursing its way towards Chicago in a blood-red moving trail, like the speeding journey line in the Indiana Jones movies. My legs had always wobbled as I made my way from cabin-to-cabin, but now they felt like they were watery spouts supporting my body. I was also doubly self-conscious now as I passed up the train aisles, careful not to make inadvertent contact with any of the passengers and create a deadly misunderstanding.

All around me, The Empire Builder droned on with its rolling sounds. A long, bellowing hooooo….hoooo…whupwhupwhup….hooo…hooo…hooo….whupwhupwhup….as it passed open lands and occasionally closely passed trees, other trains, poles. I shrunk myself; folded myself like a handkerchief amongst everyone around me. All my survival instincts went up like pigeons, scattering and disorienting me. I felt incredibly nauseas; I wanted the train to stop. The rolling motion felt like it was taking me closer to the brink.

My throat closed with the confines of the train. I felt defeated already. I made my way to my room and waited.

The Empire Builder Day 2 Afternoon, Part 2: The Waking Fear

White Power wi-fi was an obvious reminder of my everyday existence. Discovering the networks over wi-fi was a lot like revisiting the fears of the wide world in a giant cigar box. I felt like a sci-fi lab rat; that I was potentially living my own “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” episode. In my mind I heard the voiceover: A black man enters a train racing across the American Midwest only to discover, halfway into the Heartland, that he’s riding solo with 6 cars worth of potential white supremacists, and at each stop, more passengers board the train, heightening his fear and confusion. 

Those hours of fear never quite abated, but I did get conditioned to deal with the fear and the uncertainty. A certain grounding served as a balm to it all; at the end of the day, I remembered that much of what I discovered haphazardly was reflective of society in general: no matter how people present ourselves to each other, we all wear the mask.  That everyone, anyone, anywhere, could be deeply racist, could be deeply hating you just for not being white and being in existence is our American story. It’s the paranoia many black people live with everyday; that while we are implored to trust our neighbor, our coworker, our police, our teachers, our mailman, our barista, that we’re all a click away from knowing the truth about who surrounds us, and more jarringly, you may never know. Or you may not know until it’s too late.

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Like the wi-fi network, it’s got varying levels of signal strength, though the signals are always there. 

  • It’s the beer conversation with a group and a joke or a comment slips out.
  • It’s the pillow talk with a lover who post-coitally shares how, I mean honestly, some (insert minority group here) are just (insert unflattering, “unfortunate” stereotype here), I mean am I right?
  • It’s trolling through a HS friend’s Facebook account and finding blackface pics on Halloween.
  • It’s discriminatory standards in any assortment of business or services or relationships because of “experience” or “preference” (“…well, I had Mexican electricians 3-4 times and…”) and justifying it.
  • It’s the soft-bellied bigotry that disguises itself as merit; protects itself with the aim of good intentions; and is aided with the excuse or latitude of a growing consciousness.
  • It’s dancing in the club and cringing as the people around you throatily sing along to “Gold Digger”.

There’s a weariness to seeing and experiencing all this; it’s enough to desire to disconnect from it all from time to time. To put it on a shelf and not worry about it, not see it, not navigate it. To be able to put your feet up–for even a little bit–and see the world, the country as everyone else does–through a beautiful glass terrarium view where nothing beautiful or ugly can actually harm you. To glide through the world with perhaps some inconvenience sometimes, sure, but rarely, if ever, fear.

But pastoral, idyllic landscapes and dreams turn when you find things like a wi-fi network named “White Power” when you’re black and traveling through the middle of the country. Suddenly, trees take on a different meaning to you. And greetings aren’t greetings; they’re shorthand assurances you mean no harm. Dialect becomes guarded, informed intention. The American Heartland stops being a still-drawn canvas; it becomes a black mirror, reflecting us all.

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