Riding on the Peace Train
‘The revolution, it’s in the café cars, on every train across the country. The old men, listen to them. They talk about overthrowing the government.’
Dennis Kucinich dares imagine a world without war, where people actually intend good, rather than ill. He puts civility back into public discourse. But in America he’s a pariah.
The American Revolution starts here
By Stacey Warde
I hate traveling the holidays. It’s safer to stay home. I’m tired, cranky. One thing, though, keeps me feeling OK about hitting the road while suffering the rush of frenzied shoppers and the maddening, marauding stupidity of being in a hurry: A trainload of supporters for Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic presidential candidate, will leave with me early in the morning, making a pitch for “Strength through Peace on Earth,” a solid holiday message.
Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, Train 774, leaves the San Luis Obispo station daily at 6:45 a.m., and rolls south to its final stop in San Diego. My stop, Santa Ana, a frequent destination for me, close to the home where I grew up and where my parents still live.
I buy my tickets online but pick them up at the station a day before departure to avoid the rush. A volunteer at the SLO station directs me to an automated ticket dispenser. The place is already a madhouse. With his help, I punch some buttons and activate the machine. My information comes up on the screen.
“You’re Stacey Warde?” asks the volunteer above the din, peering over my shoulder, as if he knows me.
“Yeah.” I turn to look him over, making sure he isn’t going to sucker punch me. I don’t know why I feel this way, when people seem to know who I am before I know who they are. I’ve never in my life felt as paranoid or careful as I have in the last seven years of dictatorial rule from the far right. But fear has its deleterious affect on a nation whose leaders have no regard for humanity. It turns us into monsters and begins with a sudden mistrust and soon we’re cowering or cutting peoples’ throats. This guy appears harmless.
“I’m David,” he says and as he puts his hand out I remember him, a filmmaker from Morro Bay who’s worked on the Texas Legacy Project, interviewing the Lone Star state’s best-known politicians. We talk about the Peace Train that is supposed to arrive in San Luis Obispo later this the afternoon with Dennis Kucinich and his supporters, who will then walk a short distance to Mitchell Park for a rally, before leaving in the morning for a run to Los Angeles, where the crew will get off Train No. 774 at L.A.’s Union Station and gather for another rally on Olvera Street.
I think about attending the Mitchell Park rally but have too much to do to prepare for the next day’s journey. I’d love to hear Kucinich even though I’m not inspired to consider him a viable candidate for toppling the Old Guard in Washington. Still, I hold Kucinich in high regard for being the only politician with the balls to read in Congress the articles of impeachment against Dick Cheney, who should have been arrested a long time ago. If I can’t make the rally, I figure, I’ll have the opportunity to talk to him directly on the train.
“So, is Kucinich really going to be on the train today?” I ask.
“He was supposed to, but he couldn’t make it,” David says. “His brother died unexpectedly and he had to cancel the trip. But the peace ride’s still going on.”
A Kucinich fan interrupts our conversation. “Is Dennis going to be on the next train?” David explains the sudden tragedy.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” the man responds, and adds with a wink and a laugh, “maybe his wife could take his place.”
David informs the man that she’s where she’s supposed to be, by her husband’s side. Kucinich’s wife, a tall striking, statuesque redhead, has been a big draw for Kucinich, and supporters will be quick to tell you how beautiful she is. The man walks away, disappointed.
I look at David and we both shake our heads.
“The train’s great, isn’t it?” I say, glad to have my tickets and parking pass in hand.
David leans in closely and says: “The revolution is taking place in the café cars on trains all across the country.”
“The revolution, it’s in the café cars, on every train across the country. The old men, listen to them. They talk about overthrowing the government. They’re disgusted with Bush. They’ve had it; they’ve had enough.”
I’ve sat in on a few parties myself in café cars, so I know what he’s talking about. People have a way of speaking their minds after they’ve had a few drinks on the train. Maybe this ride with rebels would be just the thing, even without Kucinich.
At 5:30 a.m., I’m on the road, the full moon infusing the early dawn with a warm purplish luster, and pulling at me like an unquenchable woman. I don’t want to go, yet the possibility of riding on the Peace Train compels me, lures me away from the comfort of home and a warm bed. I hope to find something new—political enlightenment. At the train station, the holiday travelers jam themselves into the ticket line, and sit restlessly on benches or mill around the train, waiting for the doors to open. A big crowd, the largest of any I’ve seen yet at the start of the line, gather to board the train.
Are these all the Kucinich people? Is he that popular?
Traveling by train, you can relax, and avoid the aggravation of driving L.A. freeways. You meet unusual people, watch flush-cheeked mothers pound Bud Lights as their children scramble up and down the aisles, screeching and panting, pushing on doors, while old men eye young women sitting alone with their computers and iPods, heads bobbing to the music in their earphones, oblivious to all except for the occasional dude who struts the aisle and nods and smiles at everyone.
Every day the Pacific Surfliner from San Luis Obispo to San Diego rolls furiously along as commuters dig into purses and bags, pull out food and drink, books and magazines, bottles for their babies, cellphones, computers, every contrivance you can imagine, and settle in for the scenic ride, a movie on the laptop, the adventure of meeting someone new, or simply to take a long nap.
It’s a swirl of activity from start to finish, with stops and starts, and people getting on and off and making small talk, or running down to the café car to buy alcohol and get spun while the Amtrak train lumbers along the beautiful and terrifying California landscape: Open meadows spread down to the Pacific Ocean where only the well-heeled are free to roam; and graffiti-filled corridors pass in flashes through the train windows, where L.A.’s homeless pitch their filthy mattresses and try to catch a few winks between passing trains and roaming thugs.
Riding Amtrak, you get to peek into people’s lives and backyards. For some reason, commuters speak more freely on the train than on the street. They actually look you in the eye, even if they don’t always smile. Thugs, gang-bangers, businessmen, college students, harried mothers, and bemused elderly couples ride the train. Surfer dudes and chicks, voters and congressmen, old men talking about revolution, they all ride the train. People speak their minds on the train.
When I don’t feel like talking, I peer into people’s backyards, some tricked out for horses and trails, others broken down with the detritus of suburban living—rusty cans, plastic, scrap metal and sunken, unused cars. You see all the neighborhoods with their tired streets, and their residents—homeboys, suited businessmen, children kicking their hopes with balls and hoops and bicycles, the American Dream. Our rail system, as neglected and raggedy as she is, is the best way to travel in the U.S. and is probably the only truly democratic space in the whole country. It’s no wonder our federal government hasn’t given the public railways the uplift they so desperately need.
In the seven years that George W. Bush has governed, I’ve never been more broke, or felt more hopeless and restless for change. I’m convinced that something went dreadfully wrong in the U.S. when Bush took over. Nothing has been the same since. Our world took a turn for the worst. My quality of life has deteriorated to the point of despair and hope feels remote. I’m ready for a radical change. I’d like to see the Old Guard get the boot. I’d like to see Bush and Cheney stuffed upside down inside of a dunking tank for a taste of their own medicine. But I doubt that Kucinich will be the one to do it for us, even though I like his guts.
Dennis Kucinich quickly found a solid base of support in SLO County, connecting with progressives like Pamela Marshall, publisher of Information Press and with individuals who support HopeDance Magazine—independent, homegrown publications. They advocate sustainable and peace-driven solutions to local and global problems. They’re often at the frontlines of protest against violence, consumerism, war and corporate-driven values that promote greed, consumption and waste. Their efforts are a stark contrast to the money and pervasive cowboy conservatism that dominate here.
Kucinich had planned to make his pitch to this small but active band of supporters seeking to stop the war in Iraq, impeach Bush and Cheney, and end our addiction to oil. The L.A. Times has variously described him as a “far-left” Democrat, whose policies and ideas verge on the “absurd,” and who is a believer in “UFOs.”
As soon as the train pulls out of the San Luis Obispo station the conductor begins his round, walking through each car to check tickets and destinations. Outside, thin clouds turn pink as the moon yields its evening glower to the rising sun. Children gaze in wonder as their parents fluff the morning newspaper. The distant fields turn golden. I fight the urge to sink into my seat and nod off for some much-needed rest. But I’m too curious. I’ve at least got to take a look at the Kucinich crew, if not mix with them.
I peer up and down the train looking for signs of progressive liberals. They’re not as easy to spot as you might imagine. Liberals can be as elusive as conservatives. You never know which you’re going to meet. I look for the obvious signs: books with liberal titles or magazines like the New Yorker, the Nation, and best yet, T-shirts that show the faces of Bush and Cheney behind bars with the words, “I have a dream.” I look for progressives carrying hemp bags, wearing rainbow-colored shirts, munching on veggies and covered with buttons, mottos and pithy political statements. I’m disappointed when none materialize.
A few grey-haired folk wearing red long-sleeved shirts with white lettering pass me and enter through the doors of the forward cars: “Kucinich for President…Get on Board the Peace Train!” I can see through the windows of the doors more red shirts, placards and blue balloons, and the flurry of activity I’d expect of a political rally. Each time the doors open, the raucous noise of political hubbub can be heard: “Bush,” “Cheney,” “Iraq,” “Impeachment,” “Peace.”
The conductor offers a hint of recognition as he comes to collect my ticket. “Oh, hey,” he says, “how you doing today?”
“Great,” I answer as he pulls my ticket.
“Santa Ana station,” he says, placing a colored tag above my seat.
“Hey,” I say, “are the Kucinich people on the train this morning?”
“Yeah,” he responds, turning his head to the forward cars, “they added two cars to accommodate them.”
“Can I go up there and sit with them?”
“Sure can,” he says. “Have a good trip.”
Before venturing forward, I run downstairs to buy a cup of coffee from the café car. I half expect to see old men plotting another grassroots American Revolution but instead observe a pretty young woman listening politely to a loud, overweight and overbearing, red-in-the-face alcoholic woman nursing a can of beer, ranting about late trains, and unfaithful, abusive boyfriends. The pretty one nods and doesn’t say a word. It’s too goddamn early to be that drunk and riled, I think. As I listen, another woman, who has already met a few of the Kucinich travelers, takes her place in line behind me and says she has trouble pronouncing his name: “Kook-an-itch? I still can’t say it right.”
“It’s Koo-SIN-itch,” I respond.
I return to my seat where I pop open a travel-sized bottle of Bailey’s and spike my coffee, sitting back, taking in the sights, sipping, satisfied, unconcerned with Kucinich or his supporters, wishing the dreamy moment of quiet isolation and the sweet alcohol flavor of my morning coffee will last forever.
As we roll along, I peer out the window at the open spaces of south SLO County. The green and loamy sea of ag land beyond Grover Beach and below the Nipomo Mesa reminds me of an era captured by photographer Dorothea Lange and author John Steinbeck, when California had become a place of golden dreams for the poor and uprooted, and people dwelled in hovels or dilapidated cars, attempting to create new lives. By the time we reach Guadalupe, the train is nearly full with the same familiar, sad faces of this earlier Depression, full of hope and despair.
At each stop, Kucinich believers carrying their placards, balloons, a harmonica, and noisemakers rustle themselves off the train to meet people of like mind who have come to meet them at the local station and hug and briefly chat, to spread the good and bad news, and show some love before the conductor politely waves his arm and urges them back: “OK, gotta keep her rolling folks. Time to get back on the train.”
In America, fear rules. I’ve noticed this in friends who feel so completely demoralized by our current political crises that they can’t move. They refuse any longer to hope in leadership that values human life, or makes policies that benefit not just the rich few but the entire commonwealth. They’ve given up and turned all their hopes into one long cynical snort: We’re fucked! It’s over for the United States.
Oddly, Kucinich represents the other side of this very same cynicism that has turned him into an afterthought and an amusing anecdote in Election 2008. To many, he’s an annoying little man with as much substance as anyone who believes in UFOs. Yet, he speaks in a voice familiar to my own (although I can’t say I’ve ever seen a UFO). He speaks truth to power. He confronts the corporate brokers of trade, thought and production, telling them that their polluting and plundering of the world’s limited resources will come to an end. He promotes peace rather than war as the best means to national security, prosperity and good health. He dares imagine a world without war, where people actually intend good, rather than ill. He puts civility back into public discourse. But in America he’s a pariah.
The moment I enter the Kucinich car, the air is immediately fresher, easier to breathe, better circulated than the commuter car I’ve been occupying. It’s an older, woodsy, more luxurious car with plenty of leg space. Right away I make friends with a woman who introduces me to Bill, “the significant other” of Jeeni Criscenzo, president of the North County San Diego chapter of Progressive Democrats of America who helped organize the Peace Train run from Oakland to Oceanside, where Kucinich, Bill later informs me, was to meet with American troops and win their confidence, to show them, like any good American, that he supports them. Bill takes immediate interest in my visitation, tucking a copy of The Rogue Voice under his arm. He tells me Jeeni couldn’t make the trip because of illness and he’s taken her place. We try to talk but he’s too busy with the demands of the rally, getting on and off the train, shaking hands and wishing people well. It’s a frenzy of singing, blowing, hooting and rushing to the next stop.
Between stops, as the train churns on again, a string of red shirts tromps through the aisle of each car, up and down the train, blowing their noisemakers, wishing commuters a Merry Christmas and singing “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, who now goes by Yusuf Islam and experienced America’s appreciation for Muslim converts when the feds refused him entry into the U.S., told him to get back on the plane and go back where he came from: Now I've been happy lately, Thinking about the good things to come, And I believe it could be, Something good has begun…. The irony of Yusuf’s lyrics escapes me, yet I’m sure, as much as I embrace their passion, I won’t be joining the chorus: Peace train sounding louder, Ride on the peace train. Hoo-ah-eeh-ah-hoo-ah. Come on the peace train….
I’m caught in a whirlwind of activity and foot traffic, turning this way and that, as campaigners rush through the narrow aisles in their busyness to spread the Kucinich message, jumping on and off the train, running errands, and buying coffee. In the bustle, Bill hands me a Kucinich button, which I self-consciously pin to my sweater, thinking now I’m no longer an objective observer. I’m a participant.
The button feels like a giant beetle on my chest. I’m not used to wearing them and like to show my support in other ways. I try not to be too loud with my person when it comes to politics. To avoid the jostle I stand away from the aisle, taking a place between seats, and suddenly I’m introduced to people in the forward part of the car. “Everybody, this is Stacey. He writes for a magazine.”
“Ooh, maybe Stacey would like to lead us in a song!”
I stare, horrified, at the woman who wants me to lead choir, while other eager faces wait for my reply. “Uh, yeah, no you don’t want me to lead.” I note the disappointed responses and know that I’m still not quite part of the group. I’m an observer, participating from a distance, knowing that when I leave the train, I’ll wonder if my vote really makes a difference, whether those who support Dennis Kucinich or any of his sensible solutions will continue to press for reforms and progressive ideas when he drops from the race, or whether they will lose heart and turn bitter and never vote again….
When I return to my seat, I know it’s over for me. I can’t do it, and remove the Kucinich button from my sweater. At the Union Station in Los Angeles, the ralliers scramble for their belongings, whooshing themselves and their balloons and placards off the train for the march to Olvera Street for their next extended stop. As the train leaves the station, it’s no longer the Peace Train but Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner again, next stops Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana…. I drift off for a much-needed nap haunted by thoughts of Hillary. §
Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.