The train attracts kooks. There is no doubt about it. If you are a student of psychiatry or psychology you could hardly find a better case study than the dynamics of a thirty hour train ride between New Orleans and New York City. To begin with, both your city of origin and your destination are renowned kook magnets — they like to call themselves eccentrics, but they are kooks. And of course, prolonged confinement in a closed space can make kooks out of even the most level-headed people. And they sell alcohol on the train — did I mention that — in the lounge car, thus for those requiring a catalyst to become kooks, one is readily available if you can afford the stiff $5.00 a beer $7.00 for wine asking price. As well, kooks tend to occupy the margins of society; in New York City, the brutal financialization of the past thirty years has pushed them into the margins, whereas New Orleans is all margins and it is the sane and sober who are the eccentrics. Either way, those in the margins tend to have marginal funds, and marginal funds mean buses and trains. And while there are kooks on every form of public transportation, most others do not require a twenty to thirty hour exposure to them. Of course, kook is in the eye of the beholder (I’m sure many consider me a kook, and I do little to disabuse them of this notion), and to paraphrase, one man’s kook is another man’s spiritual leader.
While kook might be in the eye of the beholder, there is no question as to where kooks congregate: the lounge car. With its blue fake leather bench seats, formica covered table with the metal border that always seems to come unhinged and tears at your clothes, and its large, picturesque windows, it’s the perfect place to play a game of cards, view the scenery, read or get a little work done, or, as I found it mid-afternoon, to meet other true believers.
Coffee and alcohol are the twin elixirs of my life, and it was in search of the former that led me to the lounge car that afternoon. It was also my desire to sit by the window — it was eating me alive to have an aisle seat. When you enter the lounge car, the service area is the first thing you encounter, a small, salient trapezoid with a dispassionate yet surprisingly angry little man (at least on my train) attending coffee urns, low-boy refrigerators, microwaves, and a cash register. The food is the dismal, pre-prepared hash and assorted chips and candies that define American snack food. Having worked for years in the service industry, I am hardwired to be polite, but the attitude of the little man is trying my patience. His contemptuousness makes me irate, and I know from earlier experience that the coffee will not mollify me. Yet I tip him anyway. Im hardwired to tip. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think that maybe if I can improve his day somewhat I can change his attitude. It is a naive attitude, admittedly, and I am probably making it worse, but if my dollar keeps him from throwing himself off the train or somehow tampering with my food, it’s money well spent, a Pascal’s Wager of sorts.
Entering the lounge car I’m immediately upset to find that the tables I’d hoped to occupy are already taken. Part of my neurosis is a weird feng shui thing about how I orient myself in regards to other people in a room — I don’t like sitting with my back to the door anymore than I like it when another guy saddles up in the urinal next to me when he could obviously use one a few spaces down. I have a lot of rules: it’s a hard way to live. Thus, I found myself occupying a table all the way in the back by the door to the dining car, sitting backwards, opposite the locomotion of the train. Fortunately, I don’t get sick riding backwards, but it does change the way the slideshow is viewed. It’s like trying to watch a drive-in movie in the rearview mirror of the car; I find myself annoyed and disoriented and decide that I’ll read instead. I pull out my copy of Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” and locate the business card bookmark, but I’m not optimistic that I’ll get very far. The card game in the back has gotten contentious, and there are kids playing Candyland loudly a few benches up. I could easily tune these out, however, the table diagonally to my left is not so easy to ignore: kooks.
One of the interesting (and quite frankly, redeeming) quality of kooks is that they do not discriminate: age, race, gender, orientation means little to a kook looking for a willing or even unwilling-but-too-polite-to-walk-away ear to bend. The kooks in question in the lounge illustrated this mix, as a wan, feverish couple — junkiesque — talked animatedly with a wiry white haired old earth mother with large round eyeglasses and a Minnie Pearl hat. At first, they were just words, part of the general cacophony of the lounge car, and indistinguishable from the clamor of the card game or Candyland. But as they coalesced and became clear, it was soon apparent that I was dealing with some world-class crazies: a writer’s dream. I think the first words that made me sit up at attention were “Hypnotism, prayer, spells and imprecations are all different forms of the same thing: it is all about your relationship to the Godhead. Wiccanism is not a religion but a spiritual realization.” It was the wild-eyed towhead talking, the emaciated young man that bears the marks of a continuous bad trip. He self-identified as a Wiccan, I think, and was expounding on the faith wildly to the earth mother, who was in turn offering her own takes on organized religion, witchcraft, etc.: The well-fed girlfriend interrupted from time to time, usually to throw in something about the Egyptians and their alien providence. I couldn’t stop listening.
“The Egyptians were building geometrically perfect temples while the rest of the world barely had fire… how else do you explain it,” she chimed in.
“It’s like Machu Pichu,” earth mother added.
“It all goes back to the Gnostics. The Gnostics are the only faith that all of the other major religions tried to destroy! The Jews, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Muslims! They all tried to destroy the Gnostics. They don’t realize that David and King Solomon were Gnostic priests. Moses too. Gnostics had the power to control the weather, the power of alchemy, the healing of the sick, and of everlasting life. Somehow Jesus learned these teachings. He wasn’t the messiah but the last of the Gnostics.”
The young man was almost apoplectic now. His eyes blue eyes bulged while the rest of his table sat rapt. He had a sheen, a detoxic sweat, that is astounding considering the lounge car could not have been more than 65 degrees. It is freezing in here. I tried to avoid eye contact at all costs, but out of the corner of my eye I could not help but notice the amazing resemblance the itinerant preacher of lounge car number 2 bore to Tom Cruise’s Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. It’s unnerving, really, an I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental. By the time they get to the ancient texts as outlined in The Origins of the Sumerians and the burial mounds of the Celts, I reach my limit. It isn’t the discussion as much as the volume and unhinged presentation and the bitter cold of the lounge car that drives me back to car number 3. That and the fact that the wiry white haired old earth mother just agrees with everything and adds nothing interesting except that certain patchouli old lady smell of aging hippiedom. The bottom line, with kooks as with other people, is that they’re lonely.
In truth, I think most people are lonely on some level: I know I am. It is the reason we form communities, churches, belief systems, teams, political parties, etc. We want to mitigate our loneliness and reinforce the correctness of our own beliefs. It is that rare person that can really go it alone, and for as much time as I spend by myself, I don’t really think I’m that guy. I like people, but more in abstraction than reality, it seems. I even like the kooks on some level. Their beliefs are no stranger than my own. I even admire the way they try to combine science and mysticism on some level: Gnostics indeed. The word gnostic means “learned” in Greek. And everyone is seeking the knowledge that exceeds all knowledge, the organizing principle, the linchpin that orders and explains the universe. It is where science and mysticism collide, despite the disdain for the methodology of the other. Because on some levels, we are all kooks: the girl reading the Bible next to me. The wild-eyed vampire. The earth mother. The conspiracy theorist. The dogmatists and demagogues. I think the danger is the influence and ability some kooks have to push and advance their agendas.
It is a mystery to me why some belief systems catch hold and become truth to their believers and others become cults. I guess it’s the expectations of the leadership as defined against the “norms” that pushes some to the fringe: do they expect you to drink the Flavor-Aid (poor Kool-Aid is ignominiously tagged: he just encouraged childhood obesity, diabetes, cavities, and the destruction of masonry — never mass suicide). Despite what Americans will have you believe, we don’t, as a group, really want to work that hard. Any religion that requires too great a commitment becomes work and hence a cult. It also has to do with the missionary zeal of the faithful. As much as people like being part of a community, it is distinctly uncomfortable and Un-American to have community and belief forced upon you. It’s the reason political arguments never go well on Facebook.
It is getting dark on the train. The eery glow of the fluorescent lights give the blue seats a putrescent green glow: a dull nausea. My immediate companion is asleep, still loosely holding her student Bible. It’s amazing the ability some have to hold onto things as they sleep. There is still lots of time left, many hours before I sleep, and I wonder what car Lestat and Drusilla are in. It will be dark soon, and their diurnal urges will soon become lunar urges… lunacy… and I’m in an aisle seat… easy pickings indeed…