By the time we boarded the California Zephyr at Omaha, some of the passengers had already been traveling for two days and two nights. Omaha to Chicago would be the final leg, and the train was running late (I’ve been told by an industry insider that passenger trains still take precedence over freight trains IF (and that’s a big IF) the former is on-time. If not, the freight can’t wait). What I’ve often found on Amtrak, as opposed to other forms of travel, is that people remain civil–even polite–despite delays. This politeness, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean good hygiene. After a couple of days without a shower, some folks could really use one.
In general, people on trains are much more open to conversation than they would be elsewhere. To be sure, there are plenty of folk who are tethered to computers, tablets, and phones. But the dining car is an example of how train travel is different. They seat you with people–people whom you’ve never met before! For some this may be a nightmare, but I found it fascinating to hear people from vastly diverse demographics getting to know one another. Sharing more than just the weather–sharing themselves.
In the observation car, I sat next to a woman from Wheaton, Illinois (When I mentioned that Wheaton is home to some of the best-roasted coffee on the planet, we discovered that we both know Pete Leonard, the entrepreneurial artisan roastmaster at I Have a Bean. Her children had participated in some of the junior high activities Pete and his wife led at their church. Small world!). She asked where and why I was traveling, and I told her a little bit about Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh.
Part of my story with I&S:WMF involves a conscious choice to try to meet people with an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment. The woman in the observation car responded with a great example of each: on the one hand, she believes that people who are on economic assistance programs should not be getting tattoos. Together, we noted that this is a judgmental statement; a sweeping, abstract comment about a large group of people. While the judgment may or not be fair or correct, it’s a statement that is unconnected to a face and/or a story. Secondly, she shared about someone she knew who chose to have a phoenix tattoo to represent the life she was leading – a life filled with recovery from difficult circumstances. Here was an example of a real person with a real story, represented by a tattoo that symbolized the real life she was living.
While we were still talking, an older gentleman and his wife sat next to us. Noting the tattoo on his arm, I said, “That looks like it’s been there for awhile.” He agreed, and then shared that he had served in all four branches of the military, including some time in the Korean War. He showed me several other tattoos, which represented these different branches of service, along with his name.
Judgment doesn’t get us to the story, but curiosity opens the door to hear who the other person truly is. Judgments categorize, but curiosity can catalyze a conversation that goes deeper than skin. “I like your ink – is there a story?”