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Train to Nowhere: An Exercise in People Watching

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Train to Nowhere: An Exercise in People Watching

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Chris Dupuy shares a recent Amtrak train trip through upstate New York and the fellow passengers in his train car that he observes.


I sit on a train heading to a city in upstate New York that I’ve never been to before.

The scenery from my seat in the last car of the train is generally gray, yet surprisingly pretty. For the past half hour or so, there’s been a picturesque body of water to our left that I hadn’t expected and is a most pleasant surprise.

The conductor just informed us that Poughkeepsie, another city I’ve never been to, is the next stop. I’ve heard of Poughkeepsie, but never in a very flattering light, and I wonder why given the beauty of the river on my left flowing serenely alongside the gray shoreline.

On the train, sitting diagonally to my left and up a row is a young Asian man. My guess would be that he’s in his late-20s. He’s watching the movie American Psycho, starring Christian Bale, on his computer. American Psycho has been a personal favorite of mine for the better part of two decades (that’s probably sharing more than I should about the level of depravity running through me, but it is what it is …). The young man has enabled subtitles on his screen, and I wonder if Bale’s enthralling delivery of his lines, so critical to the film’s tone, is watered down as a result.

I also wonder if the subtitles mean that the young man doesn’t speak English? Maybe his second language? Or is it that his computer has poor audio? If he were closer to my own age, I might believe he’d accidentally hit a button causing the subtitles to appear and now has no idea how to turn them off, but because of his youthful appearance, I dismiss that possibility. I sigh since, in the greater scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter, and chances are I’ll never know the truth behind these and other mysteries of the Amtrak Universe.

Behind the young Asian man sits a young white woman, drifting back and forth between light sleep and a faraway gaze in the direction of the river. I’d place her in her mid-20s, and she’s wearing a pair of black, high-top Converse All-Stars. I have the very same pair in my closet at home and wonder if that is the extent of what the two of us have in common. In between sleepy gazes toward the water, the young woman picks up her phone and scrolls rapidly through some app or website containing dozens upon dozens of photos. Instagram, or perhaps TikTok, is my best guess as to what’s stealing her attention away from that fantastic landscape. I’m fairly certain it isn’t Facebook (she’s too young to fit the stereotypical Facebook profile).

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Both the young Asian man and the young white woman have masks on. So do I. The conductor insisted such precautions were mandatory as he came around scanning tickets, and it seemed pointless to object. COVID, you know.

In the row directly in front of me is a middle-aged woman with blonde hair. I wonder if she’d be offended by me referring to her as middle-aged? I decide that she would. She’s been on the phone for twenty minutes or so, speaking louder than necessary, given the fact that she’s on a train and surrounded by other humans with little to no interest in what she has to say.

I suspect her ongoing chatter may be the reason that the young woman wearing the black Converse to my left can’t stay asleep. But it is only a guess, as unwritten passenger protocols forbid me from asking her directly, or even from making eye contact for that matter.

Apparently, the middle-aged woman has recently accomplished something she is quite proud of. I didn’t catch the specifics of her triumph, but that’s really not important either; the reality is I’m neither happy nor unhappy for her and her enormous accomplishment. However, it does occur to me that the polite thing for her to do would be to allow whoever it is that she’s speaking with to be the one to lavish praise over what is clearly a life-changing (maybe even world-changing) feat, rather than the middle-aged woman doing so herself. I nod, secure in my mastery of proper train/cellphone/boasting etiquette. I wonder if the middle-aged woman’s friend on the other end of the conversation would agree with me? After thinking it through for a few seconds, I am confident she would.

There’s an hour and forty minutes to go before I reach my destination. I try to be introspective and ask myself if I’m merely engaged in the act of people watching, or am I being petty and judgmental? People watching feels significantly more positive and productive to me, so I go with that.

As I consider (not without just a touch of self-satisfaction) how different I am from those sitting closest to me on the train, I can’t help but also be struck by our similarities. For starters, in addition to our respective masks, we must all have something we need to do in upstate New York this Sunday afternoon.

What put us all on this train together? Random events playing out within separate life threads that just happened to intersect deep in the bowels of Penn Station on a March Sunday.

Maybe one of them is returning home? Or heading back to school? In case I’ve overshot my age estimate for the young Asian man, or the young white woman, which is entirely possible. An important aspect of people watching is taking a stab at the subject’s age, a skill I grow less confident in as my own age ascends more rapidly than our speeding train.

Maybe they’re visiting friends? Or heading north for a job interview? I realize the possibilities are endless, so I cut myself off from further speculation. Instead, I choose to focus on the here and now—how, in our own ways, we are all just killing time between here and there, and everywhere.

The young Asian man and I have a movie in common, and from that single data point perhaps there is more? Are we both Christian Bale fans? (It is highly possible—if the young fellow wasn’t a fan before watching American Psycho, I’ll lay odds he is by the time the movie is over?) Do we share psychological thrillers that are also graphicly violent? That one seems like a strong affirmative because I simply can’t imagine anyone sitting through American Psycho in its entirety, with or without subtitles, who doesn’t share my passion for disturbing films.

And the young white woman with the affinity for cool, retro sneaks? Who has decided, as I have, that the black high-tops are the gold standard when it comes to timeless Converse sneakers? I wonder if she is also amused and mildly annoyed by the middle-aged white woman who continues to drone on in self-adulation one row in front of us. I’m imagining another strong affirmative heading my way from across the aisle on that one.

But what about this self-absorbed, middle-aged white woman? I crane my neck, trying not to be too obvious while looking to see if there’s a wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand. Such a small detail would help me complete the mental profile that is central to all people watching activities. Alas, I can’t get a clear look. Now she’s reeling off a list of Broadway plays she’s recently attended. I suspect that the friend on the other end of the line doesn’t often get to Broadway plays, based on the undertone of superiority in the middle-aged woman’s voice as she ticks off the names of the plays, one by one.

Then again, if I’m honest, there’s been more than a couple of occasions where I’ve deftly steered a conversation in a direction where I could expound upon my experience or knowledge in a slightly superior way. And hell, I’m nothing if not middle-aged (shit, maybe even on the other side of middle-aged at this point, as much as such an admission pains me). So yeah, the middle-aged woman and I share some common ground, too. At least as much as I do with the younger passengers seated across the aisle.

The silhouette of a stunning, hazy purple mountain range has emerged on the other side of the river. It really is a beautiful countryside to enjoy while passing time on a Sunday afternoon.

The silhouette of a stunning, hazy purple mountain range has emerged on the other side of the river. It really is a beautiful countryside to enjoy while passing time on a Sunday afternoon.

The young Asian man is nearing the end of American Psycho, and I’m curious as to how he will interpret the movie’s conclusion. Will he engage in the same spirited, mental debate that I fall victim to on every viewing, following the hundred minutes or so he’s just spent alternately laughing, wincing, and shuddering?

Awake and engrossed in her phone, I wonder if the young white woman has other pairs of Converse All-Stars in her closet at home, or is this her only pair? Maybe she’s decided to make Converse high-tops her thing. A subtle wardrobe choice that distinguishes her from the other girls in her friend group, with a pair for every color in the rainbow organized neatly in a corner of her room?

Will the middle-aged white woman in front of me exit the train and head back to a mundane existence, lost in some center-hall colonial, deep-in-a-pod community in upstate suburbia? A life offering little excitement or deviation from the day-to-day norm, which creates an undying need to embellish even the slightest of personal achievements to old friends in a desperate effort to remain relevant and stave off feelings of melancholy and depression? I can practically smell her waiting glass of chardonnay from my seat in the row behind her.

What put us all on this train together? Random events playing out within separate life threads that just happened to intersect deep in the bowels of Penn Station on a March Sunday. And any minute now, those threads will untangle and continue on their separate paths after being entwined for a fleeting couple of hours on a cylindrical tube snaking its way through upstate New York.

Each of us passengers on a train to nowhere. Nothing at all alike, yet still connected as brothers and sisters of a relentless and often intimidating humanity. Doing our damnedest just to keep putting one foot in front of the other along our respective paths.

In that respect, we really are all alike, aren’t we? Hurtling together at breakneck speed into an unknown future. Blind to, and bracing for, all that is yet to come. Out the window, we can only watch as the past unfolds into a landscape left behind us.


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Chris Dupuy

Chris Dupuy is a reformed Wall Street lifer currently residing in the Bay Area. He is passionate about music and all things related to the world of sports. More of his writing can be found at SportsAttic.blog, a site he created in an effort to better cope with the travails of rooting for hopeless and broken New York sports franchises.