Train Crossings

A flutter of panic came over me, followed by curiosity. Were they rapists? Molesters? Murderers?

The doors on the Chicago-bound Amtrak train threatened to slide shut, as I wrestled my suitcase on board and scanned the aisle. No seats.

Glancing through the coach windows every few seconds, I saw my dad watching protectively from the platform. At 28, I was petite, and perceptive, but not entirely streetwise. Stepping out of his sight and dragging my oversized luggage behind, I entered a fourth car. It smelled of beer and cigarette breath, but at last a seat.

I pushed my bag into a corner of the car and parked myself down, pulling out my iPod and doing a quick survey of my neighbors. Each seat contained a man: whiskered, smooth-shaved, tattooed, muscled, musty, soap-scented. Each man wore a white T-shirt and gray sweatpants. Each one of them stared at me.

“She’s got pretty feet,” I heard one say. “I like hot pink.”

I glanced at my toenails peeking from my flip-flops.

“Where you going?” said one, who had swiveled his entire body around to face me, his hands hanging onto the top of his seat like a kid clinging to the side of a pool.

“Chicago,” I answered, wondering if I should abandon this seat and keep searching. I was headed from a family visit in Champaign, Ill., to O’Hare International Airport to catch a flight the next day back to Los Angeles, where I lived.

My bag was already stowed, my book open. Relocating now would have been an ungraceful move, sure to attract more attention and unwanted remarks. It was a three-hour ride to the city. I could manage a few ogling eyes.

Who were these guys anyway? Were they traveling together? There must have been about a dozen of them, and they seemed to know each other. Where had they come from? I decided to ask.

“Baby,” one replied, “we just got out of prison.”

I gulped. If only my father knew that after our sushi dinner, he had sent me off on a train full of ex-inmates who had been un-cuffed only hours ago.

At discharge, corrections officers had loaded them into a van and dropped them off at a station in Southern Illinois, about an hour and 15 minutes from where I had boarded. Each man had departed with a black garbage bag stuffed full of their cell belongings, $10, and a train ticket.

The year was 2006, and most of them probably hadn’t been this close to a woman while unsupervised, or one who didn’t work in law enforcement, for years. If I had claws on my feet they probably still would have leered.

A flutter of panic came over me, followed by curiosity. Were they rapists? Molesters? Murderers?

I needed to deflect their attention.

A younger me might have tried to shrink into my seat, as I winced at their overtures throughout the ride. But I had been working as a reporter for long enough by now that I knew how to control situations with my questions, and when to shut up after certain ones had been asked. It had worked on everyone from homeless people, to kids, to politicians and cops.

Over the years, I had also used reverse questioning in my personal life to commandeer my own job interviews, fill awkward silences, hide my stupidity, mask my unpreparedness, insinuate meaningful connections with strangers and acquaintances, and feign interest on dates. Most often my questions were triggered by real interest, and I could fire them off in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, without jotting them in a notebook beforehand. Other times, my questions came from desperation, nervousness, and insecurity.

On the train that evening, mostly out of self-preservation, I started to interview.

It started as a slow trickle of one-sided conversations. What did your cell look like? Did you ever get into a fight? Really? Eyes widening. What happened?

I told the man sitting next to me, who had served his time for drug charges, what I did for a living. But the rest didn’t bother to ask me about my job, or much else. One would overhear my conversation with another, and wander over to chime in with his own experience.

Two-and-a-half hours into the ride, the ex-inmates had gravitated around me as if in a kindergarten-sharing circle. I knew about the blades they had constructed in their cells from twisted notebook pages, the robber whose father abandoned him, the attempted-murderer who never stopped loving his ex, the women they planned to hook up with that very night, the mothers they had disappointed.

By the end of the trip, they just talked and I just listened, never once leaving my seat. There were no more innuendos. How easily they had wilted.

When the downtown Chicago skyline emerged, a silence fell over the car. The men stared through the windows and into the night.

After the train pulled into Union Station, one helped me unload my bag. He thanked me for the chat. “It’s the first time I’ve felt like a human being in eight years.”

Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

On my way out, I waved goodbye to the rest of the guys from Vandalia Correctional Center. But they didn’t even notice.