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Strangers On A Train

We first spotted him when we came up the stairs to the second deck. He was hard to miss. We were still in the station in L.A. on a gorgeous sunny morning, all-aboarding the Coast Starlight which runs almost 1200 miles north to Seattle. Mitch and I would be getting off that evening in Oakland.

It's a tough little staircase for anyone not completely able-bodied. Narrow and steep, it takes two right turns, and if you're carrying anything at all, it's clumsy and awkward. At the top, we saw a tall young man, maybe twenty or so and at least 500 pounds, thick glasses with an elastic strap holding them onto his head, gigantic pale legs bulging out of Bermuda shorts, who'd just climbed that staircase and plopped down in the first space he came to. He was so big he took up both seats. His face was red and glistening and his chest heaved with exertion, mouth hanging open to get more air. He had a goggle-eyed look of excitement, panic, wariness, fascination and bewilderment, and he hugged a tiny portable television close with both arms. Mentally deficient, I registered as we passed by. Traveling alone, sternly warned by whoever put him on the train: Watch out. Don't let them steal your television.

The Coast Starlight route is mostly a beautiful ride, worthy of the name. You're out of the city amazingly soon and wending up switchbacks into the hills north of L.A. The part of the ride that's actually on the coast has an extra dimension of thrill to it because erosion has put the edge so close to the tracks in places that it gives you the illusion that there's no ground under the train at all. Along about Ventura, you start seeing oil derricks way out there on the blue sea, far enough away so that you could, indeed, as some pro-coastal-oil-drilling politician once remarked, hold up a dime and block it from your vision.

Lunchtime rolled around. First call, said the steward over the P.A. system. Let's go, we said, before the stampede. No need for the book and dark glasses when you're part of a pair.

The dining car was mostly empty, and the steward, still just setting up his game board, making his first strategic placements, put us by ourselves at the far end of the car, on the ocean side. We sat with our backs to the wall like Wild Bill in the Deadwood Saloon. Someone could still surprise us from the door closest to us, but we had a clear view down the length of the car in the other direction.

The tables populated gradually. Moms, Dads, teens, kids, sportily-dressed senior citizens. Handshakes, introductions, conversation. Where you folks headed to? Oh, that's a real pretty area. Our son-in-law is stationed up there. That was some game last night. Our daughter just had a baby girl. The train was not particularly crowded that day, so there were still a few spaces left, including at our table, when a looming figure carrying a television filled the door at the other end of the car.

It wasn't quite like the saloon doors swinging open and the piano stopping and everyone shutting up—but almost. Forks and coffee cups paused. Eyes flicked and averted. The steward looked around, gazed at us for a fraction of a second longer than he looked at other diners. With just a hint of malicious glee that I may very well have been imagining, he raised his hand, signaled, and pointed.

Thighs like tree trunks rubbed together, moving down the narrow aisle between the tables, television riding high, tucked under an arm. Waiters nimbly dodged, children stared and people pulled elbows and feet clear as he walked the entire length of the car. He heaved and squeezed into the seat opposite us, meant to hold two people, and occupied it entirely. He put the television on the table. Sweating and adenoidally mouth-breathing, he looked at us. "Hello," he said in a high, formal voice. "Hello," I said, and picked up my menu. A man at a nearby table gave us a pitying smirk.

Mitch was not amused. Without a word, before I could stop him or say anything, he got up and stalked down the aisle toward the steward. To lodge an objection, I was sure. But I, the vastly more experienced laissez-faire philosophical dining-car veteran, felt the thrill of an impending Bokononist adventure (see Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut). I watched my tablemate over the top of my menu. He looked out the window with the focused intensity of a bird dog.

Then he sucked in his breath like a little girl who's just seen Tinker Bell, and let it out in a sharp soprano coo of delight. I looked out the window. There was an oil derrick. And another, and another. For each derrick, he gasped and cooed. People were turning clear around in their seats to gape at him.

Behind my menu, I was convulsed with happiness. This was perfect serendipity. It could not possibly, under any circumstances, get any better than this, never, ever. Mitch came back down the aisle, expression grim, evidently told by the steward to like it or lump it, until he took in the scene: my face, our tablemate and the people around us, assessed it in a nanosecond, and instantly shifted gears. He sat down, pointedly met the looks of some of the other diners, and smiled at the young man.

"I'm Mitch," he said. "And this is Ellie. What's your name?"

"Robert," he said in his high little voice, and extended a pudgy hand across the table. If Mitch hesitated, I didn't see it, though I knew he was thinking about where that hand might recently have been. But he was completely on board now, and shook Robert's hand as if it were perfumed, manicured, lace-cuffed and belonged to the Belgian ambassador. I smirked back at the pitying man at the other table. I'd rather sit with Robert, who's about a thousand times more interesting than you, than listen to you blather about your grandkids any old day.

I know a man with an IQ in the upper register who says that when he was very young he believed he was retarded. I know another man with a PhD in organic chemistry, who, if you saw him on the street, you would assume was out for the day from the sheltered workshop. He has a big lopsided head, a misshapen body and peculiar uncontrollable nervous tics of the face and hands. What was Robert? After ten minutes with him, I no longer presumed to classify him, except to say that he was some sort of innocent. In terms of Robert, though, the usual definitions of that word don't quite satisfy me: an unsophisticated person, a simpleton, an idiot, someone unacquainted with and incapable of sin. Well, maybe that last part. Innocence seems to me to be a comparative state, and compared to everyone else in that dining car, right down to (and perhaps especially) the six-year-olds, he was utterly unacquainted with and incapable of guile. He was truly a stranger in a strange land.

A few years before, Mitch had worked hard and effectively in the movement to stop Big Oil from drilling off the northern California coast. The Santa Barbara coast, where the train was now lumbering along, had been conquered years before, and the ubiquitous derricks like little lunar settlements out there on the water were evidence of their victory. When you run barefoot through the surf on those beaches, your feet sometimes get black and oily.

But Robert loved oil and everything about it. He didn't love it the way the CEO of Exxon loves it. He loved it purely for its fascinating self: that it was ancient, that it had formed from the remains of plants and animals without number that had lived eons ago, that it lay in vast black oceans under the earth, and he loved its many uses and the elaborate, ingenious systems and machinery invented and built by humans to get at it.

Mitch asked him questions while some of our immediate table-neighbors eavesdropped: What are the names of the big oil companies? What are some examples of things made from oil besides fuel and lubricants? Happy and excited, Robert rattled off the names of a dozen giant corporations. He pointed to the plastic frames of his glasses, the vinyl pen protector in his pocket, the pens, the shell of his television, the cups we were drinking from. He knew that oil spills and automobile emissions were not good and that people did bad things because of oil, but he couldn't help himself — he was in love, and love is blind.

He told us where he was going: to his uncle's ranch in Montana. No, he hadn't been there before. His mother was sending him. His mother and her new boyfriend.

His mother and her new boyfriend. It wasn't hard to picture:

Christ, Faye. Get rid of him. He creeps me out.

But, Andy! Montana! It's so far away!

Baby, he'll do fine. Make a man out of him. Maybe lose some blubber.

When we finished lunch, we stood. We both shook hands with Robert, making sure everyone nearby saw and heard us wish him a good trip and say it was nice to meet him. And looking neither left nor right, we made our triumphant procession down the dining car.

It was a long, long ride to where Robert was going — all the way up the rest of California, through Oregon and half of Washington to Seattle, where he'd get off the Coast Starlight and get on the Empire Builder for 800 more miles of Washington, Idaho and Montana. In the seats all the way. With his ticket (one-way?), his wallet attached to his belt by a retractable cord, a letter from his mother in his shirt pocket, all 500 underslept, rumpled, dazed, unwashed pounds of him getting off the train in the middle of Montana with his television, to be met by… some lean young cowpoke in a Jeep, who'd drive him miles and miles out to the ranch. Where he'd have to sleep in the bunkhouse with more young cowpokes. He'd cry at night. His uncle would force him to try to learn how to rope and ride. And then things would go all Lord Of The Flies: his glasses broken, his television stolen, a lot of tequila around a bonfire, Robert lassoed, bawling, trussed up on the ground and branded while red drunken faces yipped, yowled and ki-yied…

Or maybe his uncle was kind and wise, and he had a swell time in the fresh air under the big sky and lost a couple of hundred pounds.

I think about him a lot, and wonder if he could possibly still be alive.

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