A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
When I was a young man, I lived in Arizona. I had a friend who worked for Amtrak. You can take the train from LA to New Orleans if you want to, but it’s a bum-numb-er, and I wouldn’t advise it. My friend worked on the route from Tucson to El Paso. It’s an interesting part of the world except in the summer when nothing moves in the heat – not even the sun. It’s Chiricahua land — you know them as Apaches — but there are no Chiricahua there anymore because they were all taken to The San Carlos, to die. This was long before a couple of Republicans named Earp shot it out with Ike and Billy Clanton one afternoon in 1881. Amtrak basically follows the old railway line that went through Benson into Cochise County and across the southern end of the Dragoon Mountains to New Mexico. This was originally the route of the even older Butterfield Stage which, from 1857 to 1861, went from Tucson to Franklin (what would become El Paso.) What does all this have to do with anything? Not much. I just wrote it to smart-off about how much I know about Arizona. The real story is my friend who worked for Amtrak.
In the old days, Amtrak was a despicable railroad. They were never on time, the food was terrible, they lost reservations, lost luggage and once they lost a couple of passengers who stepped off the train during a breakdown and were left, out in the desert. Amtrak was so bad they even employed people like my friend who honestly was never prepared for steady employment. He had wonderful stories about all the foul-ups at Amtrak; unfortunately, most of them were connected to him. Finally, unable to find anything Daniel (not his real name) was even remotely competent at, Amtrak stuck him in the Information Desk. His only job was to point people in the right direction, tell them where the bathrooms were, and adjust the clock that gave the times for arrivals and departures. That’s where he ran into trouble.
Since Amtrak was constantly late in those days, lots of folks would come up to Daniel at the INFORMATION booth and ask if the train was on time. Daniel would look up from his book, point to the clock that gave the time delay and say, “Nope.” Sometimes, if his book was particularly good, he wouldn’t even point; he’d just purse his lips and shake his head and then go back to it – he loved Westerns. Think about this for a second. Ordinary people get impatient at traffic lights. So normally, unless their names were Mr. and Mrs. Mohandas Gandhi, nearly everybody was looking for a little more information than that. Invariably they would say something like, “What the hell’s going on?” or “What’s the deal?” or even a simple “Why?” Daniel would swim up from his book again, look at them like they were idiots and say, “Does it matter?” Obviously, from time to time, tempers would flare and after a couple of weeks of this, even Amtrak couldn’t take the mountain of complaints. They threatened to fire Daniel. I know for a fact he was supporting at least 2 girlfriends at the time and a large Louis L’Amour habit, so he needed the money desperately. He promised Amtrak, on the souls of his grandchildren, that he would shape up and fly right. And he did.
Daniel hit on a cunning plan. He eventually realized that people wanted a reason the train was late — even though it didn’t actually matter. They wanted to understand. They wanted some connection to the events. They wanted something to blame. They didn’t want to feel helpless. And they wanted all these things simultaneously and unconsciously. So what Daniel did was make things up. Whenever the Sunset Limited (as it is now called) was late, in either direction, passengers in Tucson were told a variety of lies based on Western novels. Daniel wasn’t stupid enough to tell them the train had been attacked by the Apaches or anything — although once he did say it hit a buffalo — but rockslides, grass fires, washed-out bridges and such like, were all fair game. Amtrak was happy, the passengers were happy (relatively) and — most importantly — my friend Daniel kept his job.
What does this have to do with anything? Not much. It’s just that sometimes when events are out of control — in Tucson, or any other place for that matter — it’s good to have people like Daniel explaining things to us. It’s good to have a reason why things went wrong. It doesn’t have to be true. We don’t need the truth; we just need to understand. We need a simple, sensible explanation so we don’t feel helpless.
Tucson, Arizona is a nice town, and people don’t get killed there for no reason. Maybe it’s wicked politics or an insane lack of gun controls. Maybe it’s the culture of the Wild West or American culture itself, but somewhere there has to be a reason. I’m sure my friend Daniel might be persuaded to come up with one for us.