Andre and the Phoebe Snow
His name was Andre even though his accent was decidedly Indian. Manning the call center for this cheap-o-procure- airline -ticket-company, I imagined him sitting in a Bombay office, committed and upright at his desk, assuming his Western name with attempted dignity. I imagined his name might be Sunil. I whispered it inside my brain, Sunil. Somehow, I believed that companies who utilize folks from Asian countries to answer questions about the details of our first-world problems are forced to assume fake, Westernized names, so we, the callers, can feel comfortable and assured.
Did I make that up?
Poor Andre/Sunil. I instantly felt badly for him, yet despite my overactive empathy, I couldn’t understand key words in our communication. His accent was not of the “Andre” persuasion. I believe he told me that the airline tickets we had purchased for the weekend trip were for basic economy class, rather than standard economy class. Both probably shitty enough, I imagine, ours most likely the shittiest.
I made a decision not to be angry at Andre/Sunil, to not fume within my inability, now that I realize I am of the basic economy class rather than any other, to pick seats without paying (guess what?) more money. I made a decision to be a mindful adult and imagine this poor man doing his best in a language that was obviously not his own, to communicate with a privileged (me) first-world woman who wants only what she wants.
I made a decision.
I executed that decision approximately 82% successfully. By the end of our call, I recognized my building anxiety, my voice tightening, my annoyance at not realizing any of these details previously. Rather than lose myself down the slippery slope of privilege, I abruptly hung up, offering this man sitting probably thousands of miles away, doing his best, with a clipped and brusque good-bye.
A slippery slope, indeed. Even as I write this, I flush with potential political-incorrectness.
My thoughts wander, my face warmed.
I remember the Phoebe Snow.
It was the flagship train for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which ran between Scranton, Pa., my hometown and Hoboken, NJ. Although my parents worked hard for their money, both slaving (an intentional choice of words) seven days a week in my dad’s neighborhood grocery store, we went to New York City several memorable times during my childhood, riding on the Phoebe Snow.
The train ride is unforgettably imprinted into my cells. I adored it and it terrified, thrilled and awed me.
The frenzied excitement of running between train cars, with the accelerated noise and vibration shaking me even more alive.
The scary bathrooms, the insufficient lock on the door, the shaking toilet seat—I probably didn’t pee between Scranton and Hoboken, initiating a challenging life-long standing battle with public restrooms.
The meal car! We always had a meal, sitting around the uber-starched tablecloth, the silverware heavier than any I had ever seen. The super-heavy-silver water pitcher, the writing out our order, my mom carefully writing our choices on the enclosed form in her flowing and lovely script, all these lovely differences. And the Afro-American waiters, wearing coats whiter-than-white, more starched that God had ever intended for anything to ever be starched. They served us quietly with an unspoken acquiesce.
Did my parents talk to us about the waiters being “Negros”? I have no memory of that. I remember my shyness, my delighting in the privilege of The Meal Car, yet somehow, somewhere, feeling uncomfortable, feeling odd—knowing I had something, even though I really had nothing, since Audrey Hepburn had not yet committed her love to me. My family had nothing since they served the families of my friends; yet I had everything I could ever imagine. Nevertheless I had something these men did not have.
They were there to serve me.
I felt that slippery slope.
I ignored it in 1958, with both shame and silent delight.
Can I ignore it in 2018?
Can I afford to marginalize those who do not have what I might have?
Can I afford to make into “the other” someone whose life circumstance is different from mine?
Most of the people I know, most of the people I work with, are people just like me, who think and believe as I do. The privilege of that bubble is delicious; its limitations scare me today. Just a little bit, perhaps not enough, I am frightened by it.
How do we manage these divides? How do we live into our humanity all around the globe?
Yoga teaches us that you are just me over there, disguised as you.
How do we live into this truth? How do we practice the inspired truth of our oneness?
Please send on your responses. Hearing from you is a delight in my life. I’m off to pack lightly (ha!) for my trip in the basic economy class.