Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
To the Man on the Northeast Regional

To the Man on the Northeast Regional

In the event this finds you.
(image source: Amtrak FB page)

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Dear Sir,

We don’t know each other past a brief interaction, and in the event this finds you, wherever you are, tucked behind anonymity, I am hoping it may be of service in your walk with God.

We were both on the Amtrak N.E. Regional that initially departed from New York City last Tuesday in the early afternoon. I’m not certain if you boarded at Moynihan Train Hall or shortly afterward in Newark, but by the time we were leaving New Jersey, it was difficult for anyone not to notice you.

I was sitting at a table in the Café Car with my back to you and a young man with whom you were engaged in robust conversation. It was a packed ride, and not only were all the tables occupied but there was a considerable line running down the center of the car to purchase food and drinks — which is to say: even in this especially loud part of the train, chatter aplenty, you stood out.

I promise I had no desire to eavesdrop, and yet, it was impossible to not hear your conversation. The entire car was forced to listen. I’m not kidding.

It started out innocently enough. You were talking about your relationship with Christ, and hey, being a churchgoing person myself, the subject doesn’t bother me. You were, I guess, attempting to proselytize to this young man, but it sounded like he was engaging enthusiastically, and the conversation was none of my business. So, I attempted to focus on work.

But the volume. My goodness, the volume. This was a moment I cursed myself for leaving my headphones at home, a rookie travel mistake for which I was now paying dearly.

You gradually became louder — so loud that out of the corner of my eye, I could see folks at the tables in front of us (and the folks in line), occasionally glancing back with a raised eyebrow. At least one person in line looked back at you and then locked eyes with me, as if to say: is this guy serious right now?

I did a small shrug and tried to focus on the many emails waiting patiently in my inbox for a response.

And yet… you kept going. It reminded me of that Saturday Night Live character played by Will Ferrell: the voice immodulation activist — not as monotone, mind you, but definitely as concussive. You were, I kid you not, a notch above that volume, just booming over the typical yammering of the Café Car.

I was very tired—this was my third roundtrip to NYC from D.C. in less than a week’s time, with some sort of work event every evening (multiple events on a few evenings)—and I just didn’t have the energy to care.

But then, the conversation between you and the young man took a turn. You told him—and the rest of us in the car, as everyone could hear you—about a moment recently when you were talking to one of your work friends about a mutual acquaintance who’s a trans woman.

You talked about how you misgendered this woman and your friend at work quickly corrected you. This had made you angry because your work friend—apparently, a middle-aged man like yourself—insisted that you not misgender her. This enraged you.

During your rant, you said something like “why do we have to pretend to be considerate to these people” — which, in case you’re wondering, is positively fantastic to have shouted at the back of one’s head when the conversation is about oneself.

There was a perceptible drop in the decibel level of the Café Car at that point, and this time, I felt a dozen eyes purposefully scan our corner, including a few that fell directly on me, gauging my reaction.

I’m not really allowed to have a reaction. You see, I’ve been here before. If I say something, I risk inflaming a situation with a person who is clearly primed to be a problem. On the other hand, I’m not gonna run to Amtrak personnel and bother them with a complaint that someone in the Café Car is being rude, which can also inflame the situation. Anyway, those folks are overworked, and I don’t wanna drag them into this.

There’s also the question of how trans folks are generally perceived when we express anger or hurt. It doesn’t always go well. In fact, most of the time, it puts people who are not transgender on edge. When we express pain, people who are not transgender have a tendency to get defensive and angry.

It’s also exhausting. Every trans person has been conditioned to pick our battles and engage selectively. If we responded to every instance of transphobia, from trivial to severe, it’s all we’d ever do. So… we have to choose wisely.

I did the quick arithmetic and decided to keep my mouth shut and hope the moment would pass quickly. I didn’t see a need to escalate things, and honestly, again, I just didn’t have the energy.

The young man sitting across from you—apparently as caught-off-guard as the rest of us—responded admirably, all things considered. He told you he lives his life and respects how others live their lives. He then changed the subject.

You went back to talking loudly about Jesus, and mercifully, my own prayers were answered because I was provided with a sufficient distraction that made me temporarily not care about your presence.

The train made another stop, and at some point, I looked up to see someone different sitting across from me: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. We exchanged pleasantries, and before I knew it, we were engaged in one of the better conversations on politics and American life I’ve had in quite some time.

Mr. O’Malley is good people. We were both Fellows in different years at the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, over which we bonded, among other topics. He kindly bought me a drink and regaled me with anecdotes from his storied career in public service.

It was a nice respite from, well, you know… your pontificating.

Midway through our conversation, there was a ruckus behind me, and I looked back to see you engaged in some kind of heated argument with someone over table space, which got bad enough to the point that, once again, the rest of the Café Car looked back toward our corner as you spat out expletives at this person for whatever reason.

I’m sure it was super important.

For what it’s worth, that outburst felt like a gift because, truth be told, in one fell swoop, you came across as both insecure and in pain. Grown adults don’t cuss out strangers over table space in the Amtrak Café Car. Even on bad days, that’s not a thing reasonable adults do.

Suddenly, things clicked into place, and the marginal hurt over your anti-trans commentary earlier instantly dissolved. I was left simply feeling sorry for you. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, I promise. I mean that it made me wonder what’s going in your life that you felt this angry and insecure in the company of strangers on a mundane Amtrak ride.

It made me wonder what you’re going through right now that feels so painful. Your behavior that afternoon came into clearer focus. You’re in considerable pain and lashing out at the world.

Mr. O’Malley departed at the Baltimore stop, and eventually, you and me and all the rest finally arrived at Union Station in D.C. and began to leave the train.

I had forgotten my water bottle, so I doubled back, where a kind gentleman saved it for me, and I noticed you and me were nearly alone in the Café Car. I’m not sure why you hadn’t left yet, but there we were.

I should point out that one of my biggest weaknesses is my naïveté. I tend to have an annoying faith in the goodness of others, even when they haven’t exactly acted with kindness toward me. I’ve seen this work both ways. Sometimes, it leads to a moment of understanding (and sometimes, even friendship). And sometimes, it leads nowhere, and in those moments, it’s hard not to feel foolish for trying.

I think I do this because I know I’m profoundly imperfect myself and grace is one of those things that has a way of being reparative far beyond the present issue. We could all use a lot more grace in the world, right?

Against my better judgment, I walked up to you and extended my hand. I introduced myself with my first name and, with all the warmth I could summon, told you that I hope you’re gonna have a good day. I said it genuinely. I wanted someone to offer you a smile before you left the train and collided into the outside world.

With a look of deep annoyance, you quickly shook my hand, went back to gathering your things, and hissed that you were just trying to spread the Gospel. The way you said it as you glanced up gave me the impression you thought it might have an effect equal to that of water being tossed on the Wicked Witch of the West.

You, I guess, had thought this was about me overhearing all the Christ chatter — that I was about to confront you on all the Jesus talk.

When I responded “Oh, I have no problem with the Gospel; I find sharing it is most effective when done by example rather than words,” you did a double take from the bag you were gathering. Of all the responses I could have given, it was clear this one wasn’t on your bingo card.

You stood straight up, looked me in the eye, intent on getting the last word and asked (in a bit of a harsh tone):

“But do you know the Holy Spirit?”

(You asked this not unlike how a certain kinda dude would say “okay, name all their albums in chronological order” if a woman said she liked a particular rock band.)

But I do know the Holy Spirit quite well, so I answered in the affirmative. I told you I had known the Holy Spirit for a long time, which is quite true. I know what it means to know the Holy Spirit, to feel the Holy Spirit within me. I don’t expect others to understand it, of course, but I get it. I know that feeling. I crave that feeling.

I then said: “And the Holy Spirit reminds me that Christ loves you and Christ loves me and we are all called upon to love each other as Christ loves us.”

Naïvely, I thought this might thaw the ice between us, but I don’t think it did. You were still looking at me, but now, you had the expression of someone who really wants to be angry but you’re not sure why. What I had said is something you’ve heard in your church a thousand times, I’m sure of it.

But coming out of my mouth, it was just confusing.

You’ve built this bubble for yourself. You’ve flooded your daily life with people who sound and think exactly like you do. You thought you had your own language with them, a language only spoken in your church community. Because of that, it’s easier for you to disregard the outside world, particularly anyone who doesn’t speak your language.

And now, suddenly, standing in front of you, here’s this trans woman who’s fluent in that language and possibly may even speak it with greater efficiency than you do.

You stared at me, still angry but unsure what to say. I mean, what could you say in response to that?

I promise that all I wanted to do was mend some fences. In my wildest (and naïve) dreams, I had this hope that maybe we’d hit it off and talk about how God is bigger than all of us, how little we understand compared to God’s own understanding.

Clearly, that wasn’t gonna happen, so I said: “I hope you take care, brother.”

You looked at me for a beat and muttered “you, too” and walked away in a bit of a huff.

If this ever does find you, I hope you’ll understand that I recognize you’re in pain, and we do odd things when we’re in pain. One of the most common phrases of this era, already well-worn, is: “Hurt people hurt people.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

But I also hope you’ll understand that exclusion is the opposite of Christ’s teachings and has never amounted to anything worthy of the Gospel.

Finally, and I say this with love: just because you’re not in the Quiet Car doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be considerate to others.

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Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here: