In early 2014, I developed a plan to purchase what I considered to be a “train outfit.” I had decided to take a dream trip on Amtrak from San Francisco to the East Coast, where, as it happens, three of my good friends live within a few miles of each other in the state of Maryland. I would be on the train for four days, and although I was content to dress like my slovenly self for three of those days, for some reason I wanted to look feminine and sophisticated for at least a 24-hour period. And because “feminine” and “sophisticated” are not adjectives typically ascribed to me, this would be a bit of a stretch. To help myself out, I turned to the TravelSmith catalog, and I finally settled on a lovely turquoise microfiber “big shirt” to be accompanied by a white microfiber tank top and white pants. The trip would be in the spring, after all, and my understanding is that one is allowed to wear white pants after Memorial Day. I would accessorize the ensemble with matching aqua earrings that my sister had made for me. I could really see myself breezing through the cars in a supremely confident fashion.
(I am posting a picture of the general outfit. Obviously, the young woman in the photo is not me, and she is wearing black pants which is clearly a mistake. She is, though, hanging off the side of some sort of transportation, so she clearly agrees with me that this is, for all intents and purposes, a “train outfit.”)
Originally I thought I would describe my entire, wonderful Amtrak journey in detail in this blog, but it occurred to me that droning on and on about it might give my legions of readers a good reason to drop their heads and snore. So, fast-forward to day two of the trip. (Day one was a fiasco involving a six-hour bus ride to Reno, but I can save those details for another post.)
I was in the observation car that day when I met a woman named Pearl. (That is not her real name, and I didn’t think I should post a photo of her. And she is not one of those two characters in this blog’s featured photo. They were just fellow denizens of the observation car.) Anyhoo, Pearl lives in San Francisco, and she was heading back to visit her relatives somewhere in the Midwest. One of the first things I asked her was how she’d found herself in SF, and she told me she had moved west when she realized that she was not going to survive financially where she was living and that California offered a lot more in the way of support.
Sigh. This is where my bias started to kick in. I started to make internal assumptions about Pearl, and I wondered if she was taking advantage of California’s legendary largesse.
To be perfectly honest, one of my shortcomings is that I can form a strong, stubborn opinion early on. But I’m also willing to listen and then completely change my mind. For example, when my former band Three Hour Tour decided to insert “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges into our setlist, I gnashed my teeth and whined like a baby: “Too vulgar, not our style, gross, loud, and just plain VILE!” Three months later, I declared it to be my favorite drum song of all time.
So, I decided to suppress my rush to judgment and ask Pearl about her story, even though I was continuing to assume that she was on the dole and sucking away the taxpayers’ money. Well, it turned out that she had three sons. Two of them were out on their own, including a military medic who had just gotten back from Iraq. But her youngest son, Benny, was 31 and autistic, and, although fairly high-functioning in some ways, he was totally unable to care for himself. After her husband left her, Pearl had gone to work as a paralegal, but the cost of home care for Benny ate up most of her earnings. In fact, she began to see herself heading for abject poverty. So she moved to San Francisco, where she could get enough assistance to enable her to support herself and her son. She did sell her car, which meant that she and Benny had to haul their Costco groceries on the bus back to their small apartment in a questionable part of town. But at least they were able to live on the money she earned through In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) for working as her son’s caregiver. I was starting to see that California’s largesse was, in some instances, a godsend for people who were struggling to manage the daunting challenges they had been handed.
I ended up spending a lot of time with Pearl, and one morning she asked me if I could do her a favor. She and Benny were in the coach section of the train, and Benny was pestering her because he wanted to know what a sleeper room looked like.
I had gotten a sleeper room because I really did not want to travel four days across the country sitting upright in a seat. I was very fortunate, of course, to be able to afford the luxury of a bed (loosely defined) and bathroom (even more loosely defined). Pearl and Benny had no such good fortune, and they would be together, never losing sight of the other, sitting upright in their seats for days. (I will say, though, that Pearl looked like a million bucks. She wore – and slept in – the same outfit every day: a neon orange suit, festooned with all kinds of fun costume jewelry. She felt that a respectable person should dress for the train.)
So Pearl asked me if I could show Benny my accommodations, and as soon as the word “sure” barely escaped my lips, she whirled around and scampered off to the café car to get a burger, which threw me into a sudden and severe state of panic.
First of all, I have the worst sense of direction known to humankind. We all know lots of people who claim to be similarly handicapped, including, I would guess, a good proportion of the people reading this blog. However, I firmly believe that my particular affliction is unparalleled. In fact, it is legendary. One time I was dining with a group of co-workers at the California Pizza Kitchen on Van Ness when I found myself (shudder!) having to get up to use the bathroom. When I emerged from the restroom, I could not for the life of me figure out how to get back to my table, and I found myself out of the restaurant entirely, in a back alley with a bunch of construction workers. When I got back to the office, I was recounting the story about the construction workers to my friend Kate H. and she said it sounded “like the plot of a porn film”!! That line will make me laugh until the day I die.
The thing is, Pearl had asked me not only to show Benny my accommodations but also to bring him back to the coach section to find her! Ordinary people would think nothing of this, but it was already a challenge for me to find my own way around on the train. To be honest, I was never really successful at it; I just went lurching from car to car until I found myself in, for example, a place with tables and silverware, which I would then cleverly deduce was the dining car. One evening I headed back to my sleeper and threw open the door to what I thought were my accommodations, only to find that it was the porter’s room. And he was in there. I stammered my mortifications and lurched away to find my own room.
My other source of anxiety was the fact that I was unsure of myself around an autistic person. At the time, Benny might have been the first autistic person I had ever met. Would I know how to behave? Would he like me? Would he express emotions in uncomfortable ways? Would he ask me math problems I wouldn’t know how to solve? Would he suddenly curse me out as had happened to me once when I worked with a writer with Tourette Syndrome? (“Your articles are very sweet and graceful,” the writer had told me. “F— you!”)
But I swallowed my anxieties and carefully led Benny back to my room. He absolutely loved it and took photos of just about everything. He did nothing unusual and didn’t curse at me. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all until I got him back to his coach section when I luckily spotted Pearl’s neon orange outfit. “Okay, Benny,” I said, relieved that we had found our way. “There’s your mom. You take care now.”
He hesitated. “I want to tell you something first,” he said. “I love the way your blue shirt matches your eyes. Did you know that there are many shades of blue? There’s periwinkle, cornflower, royal blue, midnight blue, turquoise, powder blue, sky blue, baby blue . . . .” Five minutes later, he finished with “. . . and cerulean.”
He actually said “cerulean.” I didn’t remember that one from my box of Crayolas.
“But yours are more like sapphire blue,” he said. He smiled and put both of his hands on my face. “And you are absolutely beautiful.”
Well, not really. But it didn’t matter. I floated back down the aisle in my glamorous train outfit. Meanwhile, Benny and his devoted mother continued on their journey, bound together forever. God bless and protect them both.