I could feel the slightest jab of nausea this morning, rolling out to my van. Cancer? Or just nerves? Nervous about what? One of those mornings when action precedes consciousness, when something must be done more than felt. That coupled with a deadline. And the unknown. A nine o’clock meeting on the Stanford campus. Imagine, an entire university just over the back fence, as it were, and after 30 years I can barely find my way around. Coupled with the fact that I barely drive. Anxiety.
Actually, not quite enough anxiety. Changing lanes on the way to the university, damned if I didn’t misjudge the distance of the car behind me. The driver honked. I don’t blame him. I’m not that used to the convex mirror that hangs off the right side of my van. Things seem farther than they are, a metaphor for life. I escaped, chastened and sobered. I even found a parking space near the center of campus.
How would I feel about all this with an intact spinal cord? Perhaps about the same. I would doubt my legitimacy in something called a management forum. Find myself intimidated by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, whatever that is. And sense that mixture of elevation and inflation that seems to attend things Stanfordian. I found the institute for policy studies. Right next to the center for studies of policy. With the policy study forum doubtless nearby. And rolled inside.
Where I did well. I found my friends from Caltrain, even wedged my wheelchair in at their table. And I spoke up during our table’s discussions. It’s not my thing being out there, but when push comes to shove…. I am capable of an adequate level of shoving myself. Gratifying. I am not yet out of the game. Whatever the game is, which, by the way remains up for discussion. I am game, that is the point. And luckily the point is not about me. Except that it is. Which is one of the built-in features, no extra charge, of being an introvert. Never mind the outer agenda. Face your fears, take a step out of your self and into the world…and damned if you don’t feel better.
This meeting is about Caltrain, of course. And why do I find the current state of events so demoralizing? I have enough life experience to adopt a broader perspective. That things were always thus. That America is like an adolescent who has never known setbacks. It is an era of setbacks. An age. Still, my emotional investment leads me elsewhere. Here it is, what until the 1990s was the only commuter railway operating west of Chicago…and has resuscitated, its rushhour speeds doubled, commuters flocking to it in good economic times and bad…and now the whole thing is $30 million in the hole. And we have been summoned. We? Caltrain advisors like myself. Politicians, executives, business school types. And in three hours were supposed to come up with a solution. Take action, get involved, be the change. No sense in wasting time on this, we are Americans.
Later, in quest of caffeine and an introvert’s quiet moment at a sunny table, I hit Peet’s. Where I decide to eschew silence and talk to Brian. I like Brian. I’m not even sure if that is his name, but we see each other at Peet’s all the time. Brian will do. For Menlo Park, he is vaguely countercultural. This very afternoon, for example, Brian is off to play ‘transformative music,’ his words, not mine, in a Berkeley yoga center. Good for him. There is more to life than stock options, and Brian is living proof. While he prepares his coffee for Berkeley launch, I tell him about my morning. I ask if he rides Caltrain.
Yes, he says, a couple of times a week. It’s okay, but from what friends tell him trains are faster and better coordinated with transportation networks in places like Japan and Europe. Caltrain, he says, is just good enough to get by. They just got it to the point of acceptability and decided that was okay.
What he says makes me uneasy, even defensive. They just got it to the point of acceptability…. And who are ‘they?’ Mulling this over, I tell him, yes, train systems are much more developed and advanced in other industrial countries. Watching Brian ready his coffee for Berkeley, I want to tell him something. There is no ‘they.’ Maybe the Bay Area is small enough, or I have been here long enough, to know that there is only a ‘we.’ For years I have been attending regular meetings as a Caltrain advisor. I am supposedly the official wheelchair guy, but actually I am the train guy in the wheelchair. I have watched the struggles and clashes and sacrifices involved in getting the trains into the 20th century, forget the 21st.
The Caltrain staff is tireless, international and dedicated to fighting an uphill battle. Americans know so little about trains, understand rail issues poorly and can barely grasp what it has taken to make Caltrain what it is. During this morning’s Stanford meeting, as slides sketched out the railway and its workings, one statistical tidbit caught my eye. It had to do with the percentage of costs devoted to administration. At Caltrain, that figure is only 5.9%. In comparison to the other Bay Area transit systems, utterly miniscule. No one, absolutely no one, could do more with less.
And listening to Brian, I realize that Caltrain isn’t simply running out of money. We, all of us, are running out of reality. It’s the ‘they.’ The ones who can’t be bothered. Or we would be Japan or Europe, trainwise. It’s a subtle thing, the corrosive effects of American consumerism. We shop, we decide to buy, then we head for the checkout. Working together for a common purpose…well, that’s for wars. At least officially. Unofficially, wars are for the underclass. Gives them a chance to get ahead. No sense in sending youth of the haute bourgeoisie off to get shot. And trains? Well, they should do a better job.
So I spent the morning with people who understand they is we. That it’s up to us. And there still is an us. And I am part of that us, having chosen to be.