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.