Whether it is the graffitied belly of a freight train's iron cars or the sleek silver carapace of an Amtrak Zephyr, there is something comforting in the rhythmic thrum of a train as it rattles along its track. Despite the cityscape over my left shoulder, the sounds of the rumbling behemoth bearing down on the Oak Park El stop transported me to Keokuk, Iowa - listening to the trains as they screeched along the river, announcing their presence in haunting tones of melancholy.
The car was near empty as I settled in, safe from the cold of the elevated train platform. The plastic seat offered little comfort, but was a place to rest my tired feet, so I accepted the hard surface gladly. As I glanced at the on-board advertising with relative disinterest, the fluorescently illuminated train hurtled into the night.
A few stops down the line, the pleasantly neutral voice of the automated conductor announced our location. I'd taken to gazing out the windows, identifying landmarks along the route, so I barely noticed when a young couple boarded the train, arm in arm. The girl, not more than twenty five, looked right at me as she commented to her arm-candy,
"Damn, there sure are a lot of white people on the green line."
To clarify, this woman, from all initial perceptions, was as Caucasian as Conan O'Brien. Her darker complected associate, upon hearing this derision-dripping epithet, recoiled from her as if she had just bitten him. Knowing full well that this statement was more than an observation, the gentleman scolded her as the couple sat across from me, then apologized to me for his racist girlfriend. Unsure of how to respond to this black man who was apologizing to me, a white man, for a racial slur, I laughed.
"I'm sure there's been much worse said. Anyway, it takes more than that to offend me. But thank you."
I spent the rest of the train ride trying to avoid listening in on the couples conversation. As we hurtled along the tracks, I instead attempted to conjure a scenario similar to the one I'd just experienced, with the racial roles reversed. I couldn't imagine such an interaction. As the bizarre situation sunk in, I could not help but feel grateful to the man for his ability to address a tense, racially charged situation, with poise and honor. Yes, the situation was comical, but were it a different Caucasian sitting in my uncomfortable plastic seat, the humor might have been lost and the situation much more tense.
Racial equality has come a long way in the last fifty years in our country. But as one who grew up in the monochromatic fields of Southeast Iowa, the ethnic panoply of Chicago is constantly tugging at ignorant stereotypes that inundated my past. This is one case where I am happy to say that those stereotypes were quelled.