You Don’t Ride the Train Alone

A column by Steve Russell about the virtues of train travel.

An argument for train travel is the people you meet. Some might take that as an argument against, but I’m not sure why a practicing xenophobe would be traveling in the first place. To travel is to invite the unfamiliar into your life.

It’s possible to meet people on a ship, but it’s the same people for the duration of the voyage, and cruise ships are packed with activities that trump sitting and visiting.

On the Lake Shore Limited, I was seated in the dining car with a couple from The Netherlands.

We traded stories about my trip to Holland and their trip here.

The guy was on crutches and the talk turned to why.

He had been in an accident at a time when they already had reservations for their U.S. trip, so when he was able to walk with assistance they decided to come ahead. They made some gentle fun of the health-care debate in this country, as their country has had universal coverage for all of their lives.

I told them I am in the U.S. minority that does not find socialized medicine to be a threat to freedom except the freedom to be bankrupted by illness.

They said that avoiding bankruptcy is more than having all medical needs covered and asked me what happens to income in the U.S. in case of serious illness or accident.

I explained about Social Security disability. It does not kick in for six months. When it does kick in, it is based on your prior contributions. Since the Reagan administration, almost everybody is denied on first application, so it effectively takes almost two years to get a dime.

They shook their heads and explained that in their country, the social security system would totally replace salary for the first year, with payments beginning right away. Then they'd receive 90 percent of salary the second year.

They were distressed that the Dutch government is raising the retirement age by a few months. I pointed out that, in the U.S., if we uncapped the payroll tax, we could afford to LOWER the retirement age—which makes more sense than raising it if the problem to be addressed is unemployment.

On the Texas Eagle, I was reminded why the U.S. will not uncap the payroll tax and lower the retirement age.

I met an apparently sane man who informed me that Bill Ayers wrote both of Barack Obama's books and that Obama was conspiring to make the bandwidth assigned to broadband access destroy GPS because Obama owns stock in the company, LightSquared, that is contending for the bandwidth.

I explained that a professor at a research university is under a great deal of pressure to not ghostwrite for anybody, since it's "publish or perish," and stuff in somebody else's name—which is not even in Ayers' discipline—would not count.

But I didn't have anything to say about the LightSquared "scandal" because I didn't know anything about it. I expressed skepticism and asked for his e-mail address.

When I got home, I had no trouble finding the "scandal" all over the right wing echo chamber. I then sent him, in part:

First, why I'm writing.

It's because you seem like a sensible guy who has been exposed to a decent education and is generally sane.

But talking to you reminded me of a conversation with my barber, who informed me in all seriousness that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and educated in a madrassa.

In Arabic, that just means "school," but the word has taken on a peculiarly Western meaning of Islamic religious school, which Obama never attended, but would be more qualified to be POTUS if he had.

But my point is he, the barber, was a decent guy and should have known better than to spread such garbage.

Now, when you told me Obama held stock in LightSquared, I smelled garbage.

A POTUS is unlikely to hold any stock in any individual company unless in a blind trust, both because of potential conflicts of interest and because a POTUS does not have time to pay attention to a portfolio. I personally only entered the market in 2008 (great timing, eh?) and I've made money every year, but it requires major focus that I could not have brought to bear in either of my careers, neither of which was as demanding as POTUS.

As I expected. The POTUS owns no stock at all in any individual companies.

Did I return him to fact-based reality? No, but the conversation, and the one with the Dutch couple, are reasons for me to enjoy taking the train. Habits die hard, though, and I retain my boyhood attachment to the open road, the Indian car, and the days when we could keep them running with duct tape and bailing wire.

Whether you like the train may turn on you view of travel as an individual experience or a collective one.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu.