The Fem Spot

A bag on a train

Posted in Personal Essays by femspotter on October 16, 2009

October 16, 2009

I often wonder where human decency has gone…drifted away, it seems, on a sea of righteous indignation. I try and make a point of analyzing and correcting my own behavior, the annoying habits I do that alienate my fellow (wo)man. My unhappiness about the dwindling supply of decency is compounded by the fact that it appears only I try to improve myself. Of course, this isn’t the case…it just seems that way when my emotions are racing.

There was a bag on the train this morning: lonely, overlapping a pair of seats. My husband and I had upgraded our tickets from Coach to Business Class in the hopes that leg room would be augmented. We hadn’t considered the human tendency to occupy two seats even when traveling alone. We meandered up and down the rows of the sole upgraded car looking for two seats together, finally deciding that we would have to sit across the aisle from each other and be satisfied. Row after row, people squeezed their bodies up against the train’s grimy windows as if fearing to catch Swine Flu from us. Their various carry-on parcels adorned neighboring seats.

I was just about to ask one stranger if she wouldn’t mind lifting her luggage from the aisle seat beside her when I spotted a pair of adjoining seats burdened only by a nondescript black bag. The only noticeable features about this parcel were that it bore a blue sticker stamped “CREW,” and it was not obviously connected to a warm body.

I thought of all the reasons for the bag to be there: somebody, a crewman, was saving his or her own seat for a return trip; the conductor, in haste, had dropped his or her luggage on the way to work, etc. I’m not terribly suspicious: I didn’t think about terrorism on Amtrak from Newark to Richmond. Why would Osama Bin Laden want to kill me on a visit to my younger brother, a hardworking college graduate who had just accepted his first “real” job at a non-profit institution where he saves lives and teaches little children to swim? He’s a good person. So am I. So is my husband. We’re liberal Americans. We want everyone to have healthcare, marriage, religious freedom, et. al. EVERYONE.

And we want everybody on the train to have a seat adjoining their loving spouse. We want everyone in a pair to be able to exchange encouraging caresses and anecdotes on their trips. This person, the bag owner, probably dropped his or her luggage and ran off to the bathroom, the café car or employment. It’s okay, I told myself. I’ll just move the bag onto the luggage rack next to the seat and we can sit down. Later, if someone comes back and intends to sit in this seat, I’ll relinquish it. After all, it’s “first come first serve.”

Or is it “finders keepers, losers weepers?” Which expression fits the situation best? Who gets to decide?

Certainly, a couple on a train cannot be expected to sit apart when they’ve upgraded their tickets and found a booth otherwise intended for a plain black bag.

I sat. I set about organizing my work station: six hours of uninterrupted blogging time awaited me. I have many topics and no time to write about them. Today, it’s the fatty, fat, fat supermodel fired for violating her contract with a major clothing designer for being, well, fat: 5’10” and 120 pounds. The nerve! I should be writing about that! How can anyone be contractually obligated to an unhealthy weight? According to Weight Watchers – the cult of self-modification to which I belong, she should weigh a minimum of 139 pounds at that height. Boy, did I have a lot to say on this subject!

However, the moment I began to type, I was unceremoniously interrupted by a large man in a blue uniform. “There was a bag here,” he announced.

My husband scrambled at my left elbow. “Yes,” he or I replied apologetically. “Were you sitting here?” We gestured toward the bag resting three feet away.

The man glared down at us. “See, now, you shouldn’t have done that. You can’t move people’s bags. If I moved…we can’t even do that,” he ranted.

“I’m sorry but there were no seats together. We’re on the train for six hours and we’d like to sit…” I interjected politely. (I was very careful to keep calm at first.)

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. There are seats. I come in here every day and I set my bag down right here. This is where it goes.”

“Do you mean that you’re not going to sit here, you just want to put your bag here?”

“That’s right.”

My husband could see that this was not sitting well with me – on principle. It’s always about the principle with me. After all, I had vowed to myself that my bottom, not being superior to anybody else’s bottom, would not take the seat of another. If he were going to sit in that exact seat, I was prepared to move to another and sit apart from my husband. My principle of self-improvement and basic humanity dictates that everyone is entitled to that seat: male, female, black, white, Jewish, Hindu, etc. EVERYONE.

Apparently, for this conductor, his “everyone” was everyone but paying customers. My husband, who had stood up in preparation to move, leaned down and whispered that it wasn’t worth getting upset over. “But I paid to upgrade my ticket, and we bought our tickets at the same time to sit together, and we are on the train for six hours…” I stated, loudly, in protest.

The conductor announced that he didn’t care. “I will not be treated like this,” he added.

You won’t be treated like this?” I asked, yelling – oh, hell, I was practically screeching at that point and the tears of injustice had begun to well up in my lower eyelids. “You are kicking us out of a seat so your bag can sit here. I’m a paying customer. You can’t treat me like this! What are you, 8 years old?”

“No, I’m 9.”

At that point he turned his back to me and muttered something about how we could file a complaint with Amtrak through him. “Who is your supervisor?” I asked.


Oh, I couldn’t hold back. He was telling me, essentially, that my person – who had paid roughly $200 – was less important than his bag, which had paid nothing. He was rude and abrupt. And he had turned his back on me. “You’re an asshole!” I yelled with my face scrunched up like a 10-year-old’s. (For, if he’s 9, then I must be at least 10. I was right: just and correct.)

“Yes, and I’m going to be that for the rest of the trip,” he said, whipping around. “You can move or the next stop will be your last.”

My husband pleaded with me to move. My face was red. The tears were coming, and coming fast. And I still had to save my blog’s witty first sentence and turn off my laptop. I did so, begrudgingly, and moved down the corridor. After my dramatic exodus, the conductor lifted his bag back onto the seat and walked to the front of the car to collect tickets.

A very pleasant lady offered me her seat so that my husband could sit beside me. I thanked her through my tears. “Don’t give him any more of your tears,” she whispered gently, brushing my shoulder with a soft hand. This reassured me that others agreed our conductor was a despot in the same league as a Nazi soldier with a gun; he didn’t carry a gun but I suppose his hole-punch, blue uniform and cap provided him with supreme Amtrak Business Class train authority.

On his way past us, he collected our tickets and observed my blubbering hysterics. “Are we having a bad moment?” he quipped.

That was it! “I’ll have you fired, Dickwad!” I screamed. And as I partially stood and turned to make sure my message was delivered with brutal sonic force, I saw his lonely bag on a lonely chair.

I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. If I’d learned anything working as a journalist, I’d learned that everyone – however modest or placid on the surface – has a story to tell, and an interesting one at that. EVERYONE. I had potentially undermined his: he might be a lonely man in a blue uniform and his bag may represent his solitary state, permanently installed with importance on “his” regular chair. It is quite possible that I overreacted demanding that others live by the principles I hold dear. The passengers got a fiery display of righteous indignation from both sides of the bag, so to speak. Either that, or my hysteria had ruined for them what was to be a relaxing vacation like mine.

There will in fact be plenty of days for feminist rants about too thin models and actresses and the corporations that exploit them. (Knock wood.) But today is the day that, on principle, I must continue to analyze and correct my behavior. I must remember my husband and his acceptance of the things we can’t change. I must remember the woman who graciously gave up her seat to console me. I must remember the bag on a train and what it represents: it has two sides just like every other story.


21 Responses

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  1. faemom said, on October 17, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    He was an ass. Especially when he came to gloat later. I am always amazed at how rude people are. I remember getting on a train with baby in my arms, toddler in tow, and a backpack. As I passed row after row, men in their seats looked away, and I remember getting upset because when I was young and single I would jump to allow an older person a sit. Finally at the last row where I thought it would be safe to stand a man elbowed his friend and offered me their seats. I was so grateful.

  2. Mom said, on October 17, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    I’m sorry. Did you get his badge number? He was absolutely on the wrong page. He could likely have had you removed from the train at the next stop for being disruptive by his standards, but the last eviction could have been yours had you reported the incident to his “real” supervisor. I have generally enjoyed my Amtrak rides even when the cars are very crowded. I am sorry this one, your first, was marred by someone’s behavior whatever his “story” may be. He was totally off base and should not be allowed to force his selfishness and power trip on those who actually pay his salary.
    It is beyond understanding.

  3. femspotter said, on October 17, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    I am trying for sympathy. I did want to report him until I finished my essay. His bag goes in “his” seat everyday. Many people, I observed, thought to move his bag. They eyed it on their way to less private destinations. I did it. Perhaps I acted in haste and selfishness. I am growing up.

    I am only 10, after all. :)

  4. David Gunn said, on October 20, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    If you can please provide the train number, date of travel, your departure and arrival points, and an approximate description, we can see about him.

    • femspotter said, on October 20, 2009 at 3:59 pm

      Who is “we?”

      • David Gunn said, on October 21, 2009 at 1:32 pm

        We is Amtrak.

    • femspotter said, on October 21, 2009 at 4:44 pm

      Well, David (Amtrak), we departed from Newark just before 11 a.m. on Friday October 16, 2009 and got to Ashland, VA around 5 p.m. We were on the first car, marked Business Class. This man took tickets and made announcements in this car. He was not on the train after Washington D.C.

      Beyond his being tall (though I was seated during my interaction with him so he may not have been especially tall), he was a black man in a blue uniform with cap. That’s all I remember about his particulars, though I should point out that he had two bags and not one. I call it “a bag on a train” for poetic reasons. Both bags were small to medium in size and were marked “CREW” in light blue.

      I am curious what his description of this occurrence would amount to. I think it is risky for Amtrak or any other interactive company to hire employees who require special conditions for their personal items and mandate such conditions at the expense of paying customers. However, I did not make a formal complaint to Amtrak because I am trying to correct myself and have vowed never to touch someone else’s luggage on a train again.

      I have wondered what he would have said if I had waited and asked him in person if I could have the two seats for my husband and myself to sit on. Would he have told me “no?” Was my moving his bags what irritated him or was it just important for him to have the luggage in that particular seat? Either way, the really scary part of keeping an employee like this is that he didn’t let the incident rest after I had changed seats. He goaded me when he came to take our tickets, making it even worse.

      Perhaps a way to avoid discomfort for traveling pairs in future is to assign seats to ticket holders in advance.

      • David Gunn said, on October 22, 2009 at 8:38 am

        L.K., if you would please mail a copy of your blog post to:

        President Joseph H. Boardman
        60 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E.
        Washington, D.C. 20002

        Business class that day, from NWK to WAS, had 28 people on the manifest leaving NWK, out of 303 total entrained. Please enclose a copy of the stubs (from your reservation 055269) you and P.K. received. We are determined to root out unprofessional behavior among our train and engine crews, and reports like yours are central to our ability to manage our workforce.

        You have my personal apology for the rude and unacceptable manner in which you were treated.

      • femspotter said, on October 22, 2009 at 1:12 pm

        Thank you for your concern, Mr. Gunn. Please understand the we are not L.K. and P.K. as you suppose. But your apology is soothing and I appreciate it. I will consider making a formal complaint. Thank you again. :)

  5. factcheckme said, on October 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    LOL who is “we” indeed. hmmm.

    i have only had good experiences with train employees, but i will never forget the time i blew up over a fellow passenger asking me to “take my feet off the seat.” i absolutely blew up at him in front of everyone during morning rush hour and everything. he fucking had it coming too, and worse, but i wont bore you with the details. i was upset about it for several weeks afterwards (yes, WEEKS). theres kind of a moral code amongst commuters, where you dont bother someone unless you need to get out and they are in your way….or one or both of you is on fire. plus i was wearing my ipod which is the international symbol of DONT TALK TO ME. i hope that never happens again…as you indicated, i am considering whehter a behavior modification on my part could avoid another episode.

    secretly, i kind of hope i taught him a lesson in train ettiquette…but somehow i doubt it.

    • femspotter said, on October 21, 2009 at 4:50 pm

      Behavior modification is a tricky thing, isn’t it? In a relationship, you can vow to return phone calls and NOT get upset when a friend does not…but in the end, your relationship suffers if your friend never calls back. How much behavior modification falls to you and how much to others? Some people will just never meet you half way.

      Isn’t it funny how when people do something we don’t like such as talk during the movie or kick our chair on a bus/train, we rarely speak up about it? We usually ignore it, fume about it silently or give the offending person a dirty look or two. If your feet on the train didn’t smell and weren’t obstructing passage, then it’s a rare person who would get upset about that.

      Live and let live. Or as they say at Amtrak: “Live, but don’t take my bags off that seat!”

      I know what you mean about that lingering feeling of anger…it’s difficult to eliminate it without the use of… …a blog! ;)

  6. Mom said, on October 21, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Who is “we” indeed!
    All one has to do is google Amtrak Sucks to get a million similar stories.
    The blog is extremely well written and upon removing myself from any emotional attachment, actually quite funny.
    But it saddens me that what could and should be an equalizing mode of transport in a country as wealthy as this, never mind, “greener than each driving his own car”,
    is sullied by unsupervised, unhelpfull, yeah, self fulfilling personnel, and poorly maintained equipment.
    We are “we” but who is the “head” WE?

    • femspotter said, on October 21, 2009 at 5:00 pm

      My expectations were high, I think. I expected to board the train, snuggle with my husband, watch the scenery go by and get a little work done. The sitting with my husband part was the part that got away from me. When it turned out I couldn’t sit with him because of somebody’s bags – and an employee’s bags at that, I flew off the handle. Get a grip! I had low expectations for the trip back and it went very smoothly…

      Seriously though, I do not advocate the expect the worst mentality. I think I just didn’t consider all of the possibilities. We should have sat across the aisle from each other until such a time as there were two free seats together. That’s what you do on the subway or the local bus/train…which cost a mere $2-6 to ride…

      Fuck that! I want to sit with my husband every time I drop $100 on transport!

  7. Mom said, on October 22, 2009 at 6:10 am

    In Europe, which is noted for its rail systems and public transportation, seats are assigned on the trains.
    Most airlines in this country assign seats. On those that don’t there is always this tension and mad dash to get on first to get the “best” seats.
    I am happy that your return trip went better.

  8. David Gunn said, on October 23, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Don’t you teach at M.U. and live in Clifton?

    • femspotter said, on October 24, 2009 at 8:29 am

      I wish.

      • David Gunn said, on October 26, 2009 at 9:30 am

        Apologies for the confusion, then. The manifest suggested only one couple as you. Please do write in with a letter so that action may be taken in regards to the conductor.

    • femspotter said, on October 26, 2009 at 4:39 pm

      Tried to email you to verify my identity.

      This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification



      Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:

  9. Mom said, on October 26, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I think you should do it, too.
    After all, how will anything get better if abuses are not reported and addressed?

  10. David Gunn said, on November 9, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Your letter should not be sent to me, but rather to Amtrak, here:

    They are eager to help you, but need you to contact them to get the process started. Feedback like yours is essential, so please take the few minutes to let them know.

    • femspotter said, on November 9, 2009 at 6:02 pm

      All set!

      Thank You for Contacting Us

      Your request has been processed and sent to the appropriate Amtrak contact.

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