6 Things We Learned Travelling Across America by Train (10/13 - 10/28)

Ivan here.

It’s been a while.

Over the past two weeks, Jennie and I travelled from Los Angeles to Boston - by Amtrak rail. We spent nearly 100 hours on trains, making 24 to 48 hour stopovers in the following cities: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston.

We’re calling this Part 1 of our “Goodbye America” tour, before we leave for our round the world trip in 2018.

Here are just some of the things we learned travelling across America:


1. Life In Prison Reflects Life Outside Prison


April (not her real name), our Uber driver to Los Angeles Union Station, once worked as a mental health practitioner at one of LA’s largest prisons. During her two year internship, there were five suicides in her ward - or “pod” as she called it. Pods look something like this:

Prisoners with mental illnesses wear yellow jumpsuits and live together in one pod. The handicapped wear brown. Child molesters wear red. Celebrities (like Chris Brown) get their own separate pod, away from the ‘general population,’ a term which applies to your garden variety inmate, who wears blue.

Jennie and I learned that life in prison is very similar to life outside.

The politics in prison is the same as the real world: knowing whose hands to grease to use the phones or to buy a bag of Doritos from the vending machine. With prison overcrowding and budget cuts lowering the standard of living for guards and inmates alike, everyone tries to do more with less. Social tensions run high. While the State segregates inmates by crime for easier management and control, the inmates self-segregate by race just to get by.

In other words, America.

I was trapped in a windowless cell, same as everyone else, from 8 AM to 6 PM. The only difference was that I got to go home every night.
— April

 2. Light and Shadow in Salt Lake City


 
 

In Salt Lake City, a city which by the way, has the cleanest Taco Bells in America, Jennie and I witnessed an obvious case of unconscious bias. It was Sunday morning. We were leaving Temple Square after a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Maybe I’m just a bad guy, but I found every Mormon I ever met to be...creepily nice. It’s like the cameras were rolling and I was walking through the set of The Stepford Wives.

Anyway, like most other affluent cities, things got noticeably “less nice” once you stepped onto public transit.

At the light rail station, a young black male was making his way along the platform, asking strangers for a light for his cigarette.

I saw people visibly recoil as he approached them - and it wasn’t my imagination. You could see the frustration on his face. In the end, a student couple lent him a light. As the light rail pulled into the station and we all got on the train, I saw him slip the couple a $5 bill before disappearing into the crowd.


3. How Productive is the Term ‘White Privilege’?


I’m going to tread carefully here.

On our way from Salt Lake City to Denver, we met a woman in her late fifties/early sixties from Austin, Texas. A lovely human being. Jennie and I ended up having a long conversation with her in the cafe car over canned wine, cheese and crackers, talking about her experience volunteering for disaster relief in the States and Central America. We talked about our plans for 2018, and bonded over our shared love of travel.

 
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At times, the conversation turned serious. Without going into detail, she shared with us very real and personal struggles she’s had in her relationships and finances.

I suppose that’s what they call white privilege,” she said.

It was only a passing remark, but it got me thinking.

Does America need to have a serious, prolonged, and uncomfortable conversation about race? Yes. Are there systematic and racial injustices in this country? Absolutely. But as a minority, one who would never want assumptions about my race to define who I am, why wouldn’t I wish the same for all races?

Is it better to feel ‘woke’ educating the West Virginian coal miner about their privilege, or is it better to practice the empathy we wish to see in others?


4. What’s in Omaha?


 
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Not the golden-breasted starling, apparently. Did you know that according to TripAdvisor, Omaha has the best zoo in America? As recently as 2014, it was ranked above the San Diego Zoo for the top spot.

While we have mixed feelings about animals in captivity, the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo seemed well run, spacious, and definitely worth a visit if you somehow find yourself in Nebraska.


5. There Will Be No Napping at the Chicago Public Library


 Harold Washington Library, Downtown Chicago

Harold Washington Library, Downtown Chicago

While waiting to board a late night train from Chicago to New York, we decided to get a few hours of work done at the Chicago Public Library. At some point, Jennie dozed off at her table, only to be woken by a security guard making the rounds.

“You gotta wake up,” he said. “No sleeping.”

“Is that library policy?” I asked. “Staying awake is mandatory?”

He shrugged. “I don’t make the rules.”

Fair enough. I know we all like to follow orders around here. So we left the sleep police alone to do his job.

Liability issues aside, how is this not a policy that obviously targets the homeless? But I get it. The library is for readers - all twelve of them. It’s a place for the respectable taxpayer to while away an afternoon with his $1,000 Macbook, leaving the unwashed masses and their stench to freeze out in the Chicago winter.

I mean, aren’t there homeless shelters for that? The state of Illinois being on the verge of bankruptcy and all. 


6. $300 Rent in New York City


 Chinatown, New York City

Chinatown, New York City

A friend of ours lives in a studio above a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. Including utilities, he pays $300 a month in rent.

I know what you’re thinking: Fuck that guy, right?

Here’s the thing. Five or six decades ago, when his grandmother signed the hundred year lease on the property, $300 was a lot of money. In fact, it was practically highway robbery when you considered the gang violence that was happening in Chinatown at the time.

His grandmother passed in 2012, after raising her family (of seven) in that studio. And now, one of her grandsons gets to live the high life in New York City for $300 a month.

I don’t know about you, but I think this woman was a true visionary and long term investor.

She represented everything that was great about America.