A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I was taking a complicated Amtrak route to a family reunion in New York State—involving two different lines, a few hours in a darkened Cleveland station, and then a nap—lulled by my large, soft seat and the rhythmic pull of the wheels. In the morning, I roused myself to buy hot tea in the snack car, and sat watching the familiar, flat green landscape roll by. At a nearby table, a group of Amish men held a lively conversation in Pennsylvania Dutch, sprinkled with English phrases. Over decades of traveling with Amish people on trains and buses, of shopping at their stores and roadside stands, I’d never heard them laugh.
I considered train travel as romantic, forgetting—in the fog of empire—how these tracks were built. Hypnotized by the beauty of stolen indigenous land, which was carved and blasted by underpaid workers laboring under dangerous conditions, including many immigrants. The first law restricting immigration to the United States was The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882. Decades before the idea of America as a place of good fortune (Tawfik in Arabic, the first name of my father’s father) entered my so-called dirty immigrant grandparents’ heads. But not before barbed wire—razor wire, concertina wire, the devil’s twine—became a deadly feature of this country’s prisons and prairies, battlefields and border walls. Today, I could buy a roll of military surplus wire for twenty-five dollars, cheaper than a train ticket to almost anywhere.
The train was pulling into Buffalo when I spotted the squad cars. Late-model American vehicles, brown and beige, door decals identifying them as immigration. To protect and to serve is the motto I remember, to protect and to serve. The train shuddered to a stop before the station was in view, and then the conductor let down metal steps to the platform. Dread shook the car like heavy foot treads. We were twenty-eight miles from the Canadian border and six months into the era of Trump.
The authorities knew who was on the Lake Shore Limited. You can’t buy a ticket on a train without ID—online or off, card or cash. They know everything. Would they drag some inadequately documented or blacklisted person off the train right in front of me, leaving me too frozen by fear to protest? Had our orange Il Duce declared martial law during the innocent night hours that I’d been unplugged? Would Rochester, New York not—on this suddenly pear-shaped day—be the city of my final destination? Would my phone ring itself out in some official drawer, with frantic calls from the cousin who might never find me?
I heard the sound of boots on the train steps, along with a soft, sinister jingle. Handcuffs terrifyme. I’d been cuffed—repeatedly—during seven arrests and in the week I’d spent as a guest of the state, for refusal to pay a fine. Civil disobedience was my crime, and defiant trespass my charge: refusing to leave private property when ordered to do so.
So much of America is private property.
I’d always been cuffed with hands in front, which even so hampers the ability to rise from a seat, to enter or leave a vehicle, to climb or descend stairs. God forbid I should be cuffed from behind. I imagined stumbling down narrow train steps and smashing my face on the concrete platform.
My mind flashed back to the grim old Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, complete with a Venetian Bridge of Sighs in blackened granite, over a street that when the prison was built, had been as muddy as a canal. And then to bland modern lockups, whose lobbies could be the prelude to any unpleasant encounter—with Social Security, say, or an Urgent Care doctor. Houses of detention have cells with bars. A cot. A sink. A mirror that is a scratched piece of metal, bolted down like everything else, its reflection rendering any face unrecognizable.
Concentration camps, as we have come to know—not for the first time in this nation—are much worse.
So why was I imagining being held in a sterile cube with no furnishings, behind a blank door with an invisible lock? Not a rendition, but a redaction—like the history slashed by thick, obliterating lines in my old friends’ Freedom of Information Act files. One reason why I’d never sent for mine.
An officer—just one officer—entered the car. He was tall and fleshy, with ruddy skin and blond hair, like the shopping mall guards of my youth. His short-sleeved outfit was the color of the uniform I’d worn in Brownies. (…To help people at all times. And to live by the Girl Scout Law.) But there was a pistol on one big hip and handcuffs on the other, the hip closest to me. The horrible jingle came nearer, as he moved past the Amish families, who were sitting in the rows right in front of me.
The officer stopped at my seat and thrust his face toward mine. “Are you an American?”
“Yes.” One hoarse syllable was all that I could produce.
He didn’t ask to see my ID before moving down the aisle—confronting some passengers with his blunt question, passing others by. The car was silent, except for the occasional yesor rustle of papers. I found myself worrying about the slight older woman wearing a hooded djellaba whose seat was at the back. But the officer left our car alone. Peering at him, my neck stiff with anxiety, I was certain of that. Then I craned my head to look out the window. All I could see was the train stretching behind me—cars like silver bullets, with unreadable windows. Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! came into my head. In “Howl,” the poet Allen Ginsberg is describing the experience of wandering the streets of Manhattan, psychically crushed by looming skyscrapers. But I felt that sense of terrible isolation.
I don’t know how much time passed before the train wheels resumed their leisurely clack into the Buffalo station—although we arrived in Rochester early, and soon I found myself in the relative safety of my cousin’s van, chattering about the details of our reunion. We drove so far north, to Sackets Harbor, at the lip of divided Lake Ontario (a little town that once housed the first permanent military base in the U.S.), that my phone connected with a Canadian cell tower. Welcome to Canada! International rates now apply! it announced, before I shut it off.
Are you an American? Are you an American?
Henry David Thoreau, who coined in word and deed the term civil disobedience, expounds in Walden on his hatred of trains—to him, the hooting, hurtling intruders of the capitalist Industrial Age. We do not ride upon trains: they ride upon us.
Last summer, as the Lake Shore Limited approached Buffalo, I noted that the border patrol cars had been replaced by vans with black windows, and the Brownie uniforms by the SWAT gear we associate with ICE. But no officer boarded that train, or made that riddling demand.
This summer, as I prepare to travel the same route, I wonder. Has the official attention of our unstable republic shifted to the Mexican border, where we are caging mothers and children—and then, sometimes dispersing them to camps and “centers” all over this unaccountable country? Or to ICE’s bristling preparations for mass raids of homes and businesses, planned to sweep up those placed on deportation lists for small infractions—an unpaid utility bill, an ignored parking ticket?
Perhaps the stop, search, and seizure of a train twenty-eight miles from Canada—well within the one hundred-mile radius in which such violations are legal—now is something too trivial for these salaried thugs. My occurrence on the Lake Shore Limited in 2017 may prove to have been just a rehearsal for the horrors to come.
Don’t send thoughts and prayers: take action.
Angele Ellis is a poet and activist who lives in Pittsburgh.
Copyright 2019 Angele Ellis