Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Guilt Trip On The Acela Express

So there I am earlier today in Union Station in Washington, D.C., sitting on the three p.m. Acela Express train and watching the car fill up with passengers, when who of all people--but wait, I'm not telling the story correctly.

I'm sitting there, you see, in the window seat I usually favor, and because this is a full train all the empty seats are getting taken one by one. And after a minute or two, a tall, slender youngish man with short hair and a nice dark suit and overcoat pauses in the aisle and points to the empty seat next to me and asks, "Is this taken?"

No, no, I reply, and I scooch over a trifle to indicate my willingness to accept him as my neighbor, and the young man opens up the luggage bin overhead and sticks his overcoat there along with a blue canvas bag that I notice has a big official-looking seal printed on it along with the name of some government agency, I can't catch the name but I think I see the words MISSILE and DEFENSE and so I conclude that this fellow is some sort of Pentagon employee or maybe someone who does business with the Pentagon, like an arms contractor. But he seems perfectly nice otherwise and I certainly can't object to sharing a seat with him for the two-hour-forty-five-minute trip to New York.

So Mr. Missile Defense takes the seat next to me, and the car is continuing to fill up, when a very frail old man with a familiar face comes shambling up the aisle and stops near us.

"Daniel Schorr!" I say out loud, for it is none other than he, the tart-tongued, tough old political commentator who is one of the very few actual liberals ever encountered in the so-called liberal news media. "One of my heroes!"

Of course, he turns and gives me a little smile and willingly shakes my proferred hand, and then he goes back to peering down the aisle. "Are you looking for a seat?" I ask.

"I'm looking for two seats," he replied, "My wife Lisbeth is with me." And he keeps peering and looking around, and I realize that the car is so full there is scarcely even one seat available for Dan Schorr let alone two seats in which he and his wife can sit together.

But I am so impressed to be next to Daniel Schorr that I have so say something else, and now that I see how frail he looks, all I can think of to say is, "I hope you'll be able to keep on reporting for a bunch more years, because we need you." And he replies, genially, "I hope so, too."

And in a moment Mrs. Schorr appears, looking younger and spryer than her husband, and they debate what they should do--try to find two separate seats? Try the next car? Wait for the next train? And Mrs. Schorr looks a little concerned about how her 91-year-old hubby will negotiate the wobbly connection between cars.

In fact, I am thinking about offering him my seat--partly because he is Daniel Schorr, but mainly because he is an old man who really looks as though he needs to be sitting down. But of course I only have one seat to offer, and then what will his wife do?

So I am pondering this small dilemma, and the Schorrs have begun to wander vaguely down the aisle, trying to decide what their options are, when Mr. Missile Agency turns to me, a mildly puzzled look on his face, and asks me, "Is that fellow in the media?"

"Yes," I reply, "He's Daniel Schorr. He used to be on CBS, now I hear him mainly on PBS. He's one of the grand old men of the news business." I want to go on and talk about how Daniel Schorr was a colleague of Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner and so on, but Mr. Agency says, "If you want, we can give them our seats. I'm sure we can find a couple of others."

And this idea excites and pleases me. "Mr. Schorr!" I call out. "Here are two seats for you and your wife." And Mr. Agency and I get up and start clearing our things from the overhead bin.

Well, the faces of Dan Schorr and his wife light up and they are effusive in their gratitude. He asks me my name and shakes my hand again, and Lisbeth Schorr keeps saying things like, "Aren't you nice!" and even "We'll remember you in our will!" which is a sweet thing to say although I don't think I will count on it. And I am all smiles and so pleased to be able to help, and in a moment the Schorrs are settled in their seats and I am on my way up the aisle with my bag and coat, heading to the next car where I will of course find a single seat to occupy on the trip to New York.

But then as I am crossing from one car to the next I suddenly remember that offering our seats to the Schorrs was really the idea of Mr. Missile Agency (who meanwhile has quietly vanished with his things) and that we wouldn't have done it if he hadn't suggested it. And that when the Schorrs were effusively thanking me, I should have said, "Actually it was his idea," and introduced Mr. Agency. But that didn't even occur to me until too late--with the train already under way and Mr. Agency in his new seat in a car somewhere at the opposite end of the train (since I never did see him or his blue bag again).

And of course the fact that Mr. Agency wanted to do the nice thing for the old couple despite never having heard of Daniel Schorr and despite the strong possibility that he (Mr. Agency) vehemently disagrees with all the liberal beliefs Daniel Schorr avows makes my self-centered readiness to accept the undeserved praise even more egregious.

And so the whole episode leaves me feeling a little ashamed of myself, which unfortunately is how a lot of the more interesting episodes in my life have ended up making me feel.

Although I must say it was still very nice to see Daniel Schorr on the Acela Express--nicer than seeing of all people Karl Rove, who it turns out was also on the same train . . .


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