Yesterday, I rode BART. I was coming back to SF from Berkeley, a BART trip I have probably not made in over 30 years. For whatever reason, while I was at the downtown Berkeley station, trains stopped heading to Millbrae. I missed the last Millbrae train while double-checking which line I should take. Eventually, I learned that I’d need to take a Warm Springs-bound train and transfer at MacArthur. I realized this only after missing a Warm Springs-bound train or two. All told, I probably spent 30 minutes at that Berkeley station.
While I was there, reading a 4-year-old Make magazine I’d bought at Half Price Books, I found myself seated, on one of those round concrete “benches,” next to a woman in her 60’s or 70’s. I didn’t pay much attention to her.
Later, a young black guy came along and sat down between us. I didn’t pay much attention to him, either. He was tall and thin, wearing a suit and expensive-seeming basketball shoes. I was mostly looking down at my magazine and didn’t really note how young he was.
He immediately struck up a conversation with the elderly woman. Maybe she handed him some printed material? He started talking about why he didn’t vote. He didn’t believe in it. You could say what you want about Barack Obama being the first black President, but he still had to answer to someone. There was always someone behind the scenes really pulling the strings. Voting was a waste of time because the system was rigged.
The woman argued that things were never going to change if you didn’t vote, and that voting certainly didn’t make things worse. They went back and forth. Both of them, it began to appear to me, were at least slightly mentally-challenged. I’m not trying to make a value judgement. I don’t mean that simply because I disagree with them that they were obviously incapacitated. They just both seemed to have some mild mental health issues. When I eventually looked up at the woman, she had a pretty pronounced growth of chin hair. I mean, really significant. Her call on whether she deals with that, but I don’t know any woman who wouldn’t address such a thing.
The guy was likewise … odd. He mentioned that he and his family were going to move to Puerto Rico or Cuba, since the system here was so unfair. Not my first choice on where I’d take my family to improve quality of life. But I’m an old white dude.
They actually had a heart-warmingly positive interaction. Two strangers at a BART station.
All three of us got on the same Warm Springs train. Within seconds, it seemed, Suit-and-Nikes guy was in a conversation with another black guy. I was about two rows away from them, seated. They were both standing, though there were a smattering of available seats.
“Do you know what a ‘nationality’ is? What country do the Japanese come from?” the new dude asked. He was a bit shorter. Dressed all in black. Medium-large afro.
“Japan,” the taller guy said.
“What country do the Chinese come from?”
They went through this with two or three more nationalities. The new guy seemed to be making an argument that by calling someone “African-American,” others (whites, presumably) were “stealing” your “nationality.” He seemed to be trying to convince the well-dressed young man that “African-Americans” should consider themselves native Americans (not, “Native Americans?”) and not “black.” I didn’t really hear or understand the argument against using the term “black.”
What struck me the most about this whole interchange was how quickly these two got involved in this dialogue. It started within minutes of the train leaving the BART station. Maybe within the first minute. It seemed to me that the new guy had been looking for someone to engage on this topic and something about suit-and-Nikes recommended itself.
I don’t want to misrepresent either of these conversations. They were both quick to spring up, and unexpected in their trajectory. Both were, definitely, political. Both the young man in black and the older woman with a goatee had their own perspectives they were trying to sell. It was easy for me to view the old lady as harmless and the young black man as being part of something potentially dangerous.
Everything I witnessed was civil. I was mostly not paying attention to any of it. But afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Both engagements were surprising in their own way. Random, or not so random, encounters at a train station.