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Dangerous Compassions

restroom token from a train station in the Central Valley

When I was traveling by train and bus, sometimes I was at a station in the Central Valley of California.  I remember large rooms with lots of chairs for waiting.  People on their cellphones, people with luggage, adults trying to entertain bored kids, the tv screens that said when what bus or train was arriving and departing.  A weird robot voice announcing.

I was traveling alone between Sacramento and my parents’ house.  I felt a little anxious, a little excited, alert, awkward, self-sufficient.  A lot of people take buses and trains by themselves, in this world.  I could get the tickets, make the connections, wait somewhere, figure out what time to be on what platform.

There was a challenge to it, but it gave me a competent feeling.  I was part of the family of humanity.  All these people all over the world could do this, and I could too.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the family of humanity.  All my feelings about belonging or lack of belonging.  How we get set apart or set ourselves apart.

But I have this little token.  It’s brass and about the size of a dime.  On one side is says Restroom Token, and on the other side is says Help keep our restrooms clean.  You have to ask for a token at the window, to use the bathroom, so I asked for the token, but then I didn’t need it because someone held open the door for me on their way out.

I didn’t know what to do with the token and left it in my backpack.  I thought I would make that trip  a lot.  Sometimes the line for the window was long, so it might come in handy so I wouldn’t have to ask.

But I think I was never in that station again.  Yesterday I emptied out my backpack to give to Ming to replace the backpack he had stolen.  My backpack isn’t fancy at all–it’s a student jansport, not the special kind Ming had stolen that’s waterproof and has a place for your ice ax.   But he needs a backpack for dayhikes now, mundane carrying.

The bathroom token is here on my desk.  I should have left it on a chair in the station waiting room.  I had no way of knowing things would change and I wouldn’t be at the station again.

The Central Valley is weird.  Tons of agriculture, lots of Mexican-American people, some Punjabi people also and white people, a very important valley for growing food, but the population seems sparse some places, and it gets really hot in the summer.  I think of pesticides, oppression, migrants, undocumentedness, the time I watched fieldworkers in a vineyard burning big papers.  Lots of poverty.

Most people traveling through that valley probably want to get from here to there.  It’s a route between Sacramento and LA, not a place to linger.  So being there can feel like limbo.  An undesirable place, somewhere just to pass through.  But it’s really big, so you can’t close your eyes and ignore it.

It’s beautiful and sacred to me.  A very special food growing place.  A land that’s feeding us but spurned, somehow.  I remember long drives through the Central Valley, being bored by fields and fields.  There’s a crop duster spraying pesticides.  There’s a bunch of people picking something.  Looking at their cars by the field, feeling something like guilt that I haven’t worked that hard in a long time.  I haven’t worked that hard ever.

I have an aunt and uncle in the Central Valley who are Mexican-American.  I used to think they were strange to put up with that heat, but now I know what heat is.  And how when a place is your home, you might not want to leave.  They have a house, and their kids and grandkids are there.

I was having a fantasy about mailing this token to the station.  What a waste of 55 cents.  They must buy more tokens periodically to replace the ones that people take, or maybe they have a different system now.

Ming is eating grapes in the kitchen.  He usually gets green grapes, but these are the dark purple ones.  He washes some at the sink and stands there eating them, a breakfast component.  He says they’re yummy.

“Where are those grapes from?” I asked him.

He looked at the label.  “USA.”

“It doesn’t say where in USA?”

“No.”

Sometimes I see produce comes from my hometown.  I get excited–strawberries, veg.  It’s like I’m famous, though I never worked in the fields.  But my parents did.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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