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Why my dislike of new Caltrain cars makes me so American

“It’s because you’re American,” he tells me when I explain why I prefer riding the old Caltrain cars over the fancy, bright newer ones. I should add that I’m insulted by this statement. I have never thought of myself as living by American ideals and tend to deplore how individualistic, capitalistic, consumer-driven, car-centric, puritanical, conservative, I could go on, the US can seem (obviously painting in gigantic strokes here.)

So when he tells me I’m “so American” I retort with the logical argument of “nuh-uh!” and a whiny “whyyy?”

My reason for not liking the newer cars isn’t the design in itself, which is an improvement, but rather when each style car runs. The new cars tend to run during commute times. When I used to commute from San Francisco to Menlo Park I would gallop down Potrero Hill in the morning dew and arrive at the station rosy-cheeked, eyes tearing, and nose running – a hot mess, one might say. Then we all clamored into the new cars where I had to sit knee to knee, literally touching knees, across from a stranger with my backpack on my lap (for some reason it never fit under the seat). The new trains are quieter and brighter, so I had to look at this person while sniffling, fixing my face, and feeling like I was on a stage for all to witness my grotesque morning appearance.

In the comfort of the old cars, I could slink down in an old seat, throw my backpack under my feet and sniffle to my heart’s content way below the din of the shaky cars.

These old trains are used on the weekend, non-rush hour times, or between stations with less traffic. I often see friends or families traveling together at night to a baseball or hockey game that have to sit apart from each other because most of the seats in the old cars go two-by-two. Why not use the new cars with clusters of four seats for after-hour and weekend routes to accommodate these folks traveling together? Then leave the individual commuters facing the isolating, hard plastic of the seat in front of them, so they can engage in their newspapers, emails, or face-fixing in peace?

This sense of needing my private space, not enjoying sitting between the crotch of a stranger or wanting to look at strangers as I do my “toilette” apparently makes me “so American.” Which is why, he claims, America has such horrible public transit. Because I, just like my fellow Americans, prefer to travel by myself even when in public.

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