is that it’s public, so when the young man
the size and shape of Biggie Smalls squeezes
into the seat next to me on the Amtrak bound
for Chicago, there’s nothing I can do but bear
it, try to finesse and fidget some elbow room.
And the public nature of this northbound train
makes it impossible not to hear the chatter
of the family directly in front of me: white
mother, black stepfather, her pudgy teen
daughter—at least that’s my rickety guess
as we stutter past rotted-out buildings,
stop at corroded rail stations only open
for each day’s departures, arrivals.
They are headed to the city for a taping
of Jerry Springer, daughter intending
to tell the nation—late-night weed-smoking,
munchie-eating part of the nation still watching Springer—
that she shares her man with another woman,
all of them together in the same house.
“Technically, I’m dating his cousin,” she says,
and her stepfather agrees, claims they’ll put
on fireworks for the cameras, let Jerry’s producers
believe their backwoods hillbilly escapades
are worth buying. The B.I.G. look-alike asks
What’s the problem? and the teen daughter says,
“Me and her get along fine,” no problem in her mind.
Graying and snaggle-toothed, the stepfather
seems a pimpish Prospero to her country-girl Miranda,
her mother so exhausted she barely speaks,
curled like a child in her window seat.
Today is MLK Day, and in one more day,
Barack Obama, son of a black father and a white
mother, becomes president, and I’m trying
to figure out how any of this fits together—
black and white, fathers and daughters, money
and greed. I know Cook County is hundreds
and hundreds of miles from Massac, where I think
this family lives, where Jerry Springer visits
can substitute for family vacations. The girl,
who’s never been on a train before,
doesn’t like what she sees out the dirty
streaked windows—I could never live here,
she says, the houses are too close together.
The train car keeps lurching forward,
always this close to jumping its tracks.