Last Sunday afternoon, when I boarded a Northstar railroad car in Minneapolis, I thought for a split second I’d entered a railroad time machine from The Twilight Zone.
As I walked down the aisle of the nearly empty car, there in front of me sat a man reading a newspaper with a big front-page headline about Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated.
“What?!” I thought, stopping in my tracks. A second later, I noticed the discolored newsprint. The man said to me, “Hello, why don’t you sit down here and read these papers with me?”
I sat down. I noticed he had two newspapers, both from 1968, the San Francisco Examiner about King’s murder, the other the Oakland Tribune, which screamed with bold headlines about another assassination, Robert Kennedy’s.
We introduced ourselves.
Steve Berkness and his teen son, Jon, had just returned from a trip to San Francisco for a visit to his eldest daughter. After taking the rail link from the airport, they’d transferred to the Northstar bound for Elk River.
The newspapers, I learned, he’d bought at a garage sale in California. Apparently, someone had saved them for posterity because of the momentous but tragic news they contained. For a few minutes, we both perused those papers. Glancing at the movie page, I smiled when I saw an ad for that great comedy, The Graduate, which I’d seen in 1968 and several times since.
We put the papers down and began to talk: about the Civil Rights era, about too many kids lacking discipline these days, about our jobs. He works in a group home for troubled young people. One of them, a muscular hot head, attacked Steve one day and punched him repeatedly with such force his shoulders were dislocated, requiring two surgeries.
Steve’s son, Jon, who was in another train seat, then came over to join our conversation. We razzed Jon, of course.
“Oh, what do these kids know?” I said.
“Yeah, they don’t know much, that’s for sure,” Steve agreed.
Jon, grinning with a scoff, tossed jabs right back in a game of verbal tennis.
I learned that Jon, in fact, is bright and responsible for his age (16), that he knows how to resist peer pressure and that he wants to become a cop.
From the moving Northstar train a lot of spray-paint graffiti can be seen on bridges, on tunnels, on rusted debris in junk lots, on the butt-ends of decrepit brick buildings.
“Why,” I asked, “don’t these graffiti spray-painters use their talents for some other kind of art form, like canvas paintings?”
Just then, a young man sitting behind us popped up like a jumping jack and sat across the aisle from us.
“They’re not called graffiti spray-painters anymore,” he told us two old-timers. “Now they’re called taggers, and I’m one. I’m a tagger.”
Besides being a tagger and a Honda motorcycle mechanic, the young man, Ethan Allbrink, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, was wounded and now has a titanium right knee. He had travelled all through Europe, working on farms here and there. His tagging is another kind of adventure. He assured us he doesn’t deface private property. Most of his work is commissioned from people who want to see outdoor artwork here or there. Artistic talent runs in his family, and he does many forms of art, but he doesn’t want to stop tagging. It’s a challenge and, what’s more, it pays for itself, including all the cans of spray paint he buys at Home Depot.
Ethan lives in North Minneapolis and was on his way to visit his mother in Elk River.
The four of us had so much fun talking and laughing, it was a sudden disappointment when the train came to its Elk River stop, and the three of them, with hasty goodbyes to me, had to leave.
I’ve had fun conversations like that so often when riding trains. Why is it that strangers can be so conversationally interesting? It might have something to do with knowing you’ll never meet again and so you relate to one another here and now, in the moment, breezily, briefly, with no long-winded stories, with no regard for the future beyond the next train stop.
Sunday was my first time on Northstar. I took it from Big Lake to Minneapolis to see the magnificent Matisse exhibit at the Institute of Art. It cost me only $3.50 round-trip. Heckuva deal, and I didn’t have to worry about my directional dyslexia while driving in the big city.
I recommend everybody take a ride on the Northstar, at least once. It’s a relaxing ride, and you just might happen into a spirited conversation up or down that line.