The time: Summer, early twenty-first century. The place: The Sacramento Amtrak station. This is not one of the huge, glorious, echoing, cathedral-sized, major American railroad temples of the sort that you find in L.A., Chicago, New York, or Washington D.C., but it’s not bad. The scale and the appointments are exactly right for a town sometimes referred to by people who live there as “Sack o’tomatoes.” It’s about the size of a biggish old-time movie theater. One wall is a classic WPA-style mural commemorating Industry, Transportation, Progress—sturdy folk, horses, wagons, steamships, locomotives. The floor is marble and the benches are smooth curved wood, the kind that have disappeared from a lot of other stations because they’re too easy to sleep on. There’s a big ornate chandelier, but no ceiling art. There are vending machines, a little coffee shop and a ticket counter, and that’s about it. If it were any bigger or any smaller, it would not have been the perfect spontaneous Theater of Life that it was that day, accommodating its cast of characters perfectly and putting them in exactly the right proximity to one another so that an ever-so-American, unscripted, but keen and subtle little only-in-a-train-station human drama could unfold.
Most of us are waiting for the eastbound train out of Oakland, which is, of course, late. The wooden benches are in two groups, on each side of a wide central aisle where people line up for the ticket counter. The man behind the counter is openly, proudly, up-front gay, his style not at all cramped by his dowdy blue uniform; he’s radiating some Truman Capote-type authority. He’s friendly and archly funny with everyone who comes up to buy a ticket or ask a question.
A big group of twenty-five or thirty Amish occupy most of the benches to the right of the ticket counter: Husbands, wives, children, old men and old ladies. The men and boys wear hats and suspenders, the women and girls long dresses, capes, caps and bonnets. They are intently watchful of the rest of us, and talk softly among themselves, so that it is impossible for the casual eavesdropper to tell whether they’re speaking English or German. The men are fit and tan from hard outdoor work.
Farther back, in an open space near the main entrance to the station, another group of people gathers: There are white canes, dark glasses, wheelchairs, scooters, braces, prostheses. The man in charge of the group has only one arm.
There are five or six impressively fat people, not associated with one another, here and there in the station. One of them, a middle-aged white woman, wears shorts, a metallic silver fabric baseball cap and an Oakland Raiders tee-shirt stretched tight over the hill and dale of her enormous bosom. A tall young black man, more than a little overweight but a little less than obese, has glistening oiled dreadlocks that erupt from his head and cascade down his back and shoulders. He wears two earrings, huge overalls, and no shirt, and it’s plain from his gestures and speech that he, like the ticket guy, with whom he talks and laughs loudly, is openly, authoritatively gay. Many Amish eyes are upon him as he moves majestically about.
A non-Amish woman appears, wearing an ankle-length denim skirt, dark stockings and shoes. On her way to the ticket counter, she passes in front of two Amish women, one very young and the other very old and wearing a black 19th-century bonnet. The old lady nudges the younger one and they both watch her with little smiles. A couple of the Amish men step outside the big glass front door for a smoke, and thoughtfully regard another smoker, a skinny grizzled white guy with no teeth, a long ponytail, a cutoff tank top and a bare tattooed midriff.
A young woman in an elaborate electric wheelchair approaches the ticket counter. Her body is twisted and wasted, her head held in a padded stainless steel support that wraps halfway around her temples. She operates the chair with the fingertips of her left hand on a tiny console. The space-age chair moves, turns and stops nimbly and gracefully, Mars Rover-like, under her command on its four small solid tires. The Amish women simply stare openly as she glides directly in front of them. She talks with great difficulty, but it’s clear that her intelligence is completely intact. The gay ticket guy comes out from behind the counter to speak to her. He’s kind, gallant and humorous. The tall guy with the dreadlocks and the overalls watches, along with most of the Amish, as she finishes with the ticket guy, turns and glides back toward her group.
Then a new expression replaces the pensiveness on all those faces. Now they look like people squinting into the sun.
A woman has entered the station through the front door and moves toward them. She’s young, black and very beautiful, but that’s not all. She wears a long scarlet silk gown and an embroidered turquoise silk jacket. The skirt of her gown is pleated on each side so that it flashes brilliant yellow with each step. Her hair is done in a thousand long tiny braids with gold thread in each one. There’s Egyptian makeup lining her eyes, and she wears not exactly a hat, but what begins as a brilliant yellow band around her head and expands upward into a Nefertiti headdress of scarlet and yellow with vertical stripes of iridescent red, blue, green and gold feathers. It’s about 11:00 in the morning.
The heads of everyone in the station—the man in the overalls, the ticket taker, the tattooed toothless guy, the disabled, me, the Plain People—rotate phototropically as she moves diagonally past us across the floor to the door that leads to the platform. The woman in the electric wheelchair has not reached her group yet, is still out on the open floor. She cannot move her head, but the entire chair swings around like a compass needle so that she can see what it is people are looking at. Nefertiti pauses when she reaches the woman in the chair, smiles radiantly, leans in, says a few words to her that no one else can hear, and walks on—scarlet, yellow, scarlet, yellow, scarlet, yellow.