Sunday, September 18, 2005

A landmark decision

Overheard lately on the train:

(On a cell phone) “You two belong together. I always, always, thought that. I never told anybody, but I always thought it.”

(On a cell phone) “If you go to Delaware, you are going to get pregnant.”

(Man, to female companion) “I brought my favorite Star Trek episode to show you.” “Tribbles?” “No, no, this is Next Generation. It’s 'The Naked Now.'”

When I’m not eavesdropping on people’s conversations, it’s likely that I’m waiting for my train to arrive. In Baltimore, this is easy: there are really only two platforms – one for the commuter train, and one for Amtrak, a track going in each direction. In Penn Station, you have to be on your toes; they very craftily do not tell you what track your train is boarding at until it’s time to board, causing the crowd to rush for the escalators like a horde of wildebeest.

Last night, Saturday night, I was waiting to catch the last train from New York to Baltimore. The station was not as crowded as on Friday nights, but the last train is always packed. There’s one more train that goes as far as Philadelphia, but for anyone going further, this was it.

A woman was staring at the giant board hanging in the middle of the boarding area. She caught my eye and came over to me. “Can I ask you a stupid question?” she asked. She seemed nice, with smartly short-trimmed grey hair and blue eyes.

What she didn’t know was, I live to be asked stupid questions. Yes, please ask.

“I see the train listed there ... but no track. How do you know where to go?” I immediately launched into Helper Mode, telling her about how the track numbers are posted about five minutes before the train leaves, blah blah blah. I had noticed some people coming up the escalator from track 12 East, so my hunch was we would be boarding on 12 West. We kept chatting – she said she was up from Washington for a conference, something about educating people about historical landmarks. She asked if the MARC train came up to New York – the MARC train is the commuter train that runs between Baltimore and D.C. Sadly, it doesn’t run any farther than that. The trains are nice – doubledecker, plush seats. Much better than the Long Island Rail Road commuter trains. If I ever get appointed High Commissioner of Musical Theater and have to work in D.C., I will enjoy the commute.

She said she would be coming up several more times and was having a hard time finding places to stay for ten days at a time. I gave her some websites that might help her (oh, yes, I was helping ... helping! Delicious, delicious helping) and she dutifully scribbled them down. She asked what I do, and I told her. I asked her what sort of educational program she was working with. Then she told me. Not historical landmarks – she was involved in Landmark Education. “You’re probably too young to remember EST” “Oh, no, I know what that is...” “So this is more or less what EST has turned into.”

She went on. “It’s amazing – in the room there are all kinds of people – regular folks and CEOs. People from all over the world. I've never seen so many different people, I'm from Virginia. And they’re all in different places in their personal transformation.”

I had some friends that did “The Forum” about twelve or fifteen years ago. I’m all for personal development, and have read plenty of New-Age-y books which I have found helpful – which other people might find ludicrous or worthy of mockery. I’ve had many conversations with different friends about esoteric spiritual-development, so I’m no stranger to the whole thing. But suddenly, I got a bit nervous. My friends who had done “The Forum” – frankly, while they were involved with it, they were obnoxious. I mean, good for you, develop your self confidence, go! But do you have to play on other people’s politeness and desire to avoid confrontation?

So, suddenly they announced the track, and I was right – we were boarding on 12 West. A crowd materialized from nowhere and we were separated in the crush. I was a bit relieved. Once at the bottom of the escalator, I headed for the front of the train. Because I’d had to buy my ticket just a half hour before, all that was left was business class, and I was dying to get home to Baltimore that night – I was exhausted from producing a show, I had just gotten over a cold, but mostly I was missing David intensely. I trotted briskly along the track, past the coach cars, past the cafe car, up to business class. There was the usual Amtrak conductor there, helpfully booming out “Business class!” as I entered the car.

I went halfway down the car and found an empty seat. I discovered then that my new acquaintance was right behind me. “Oh, this looks good!” she said, settling into the seat behind me. I was struck by a strange combination of impulses – surely she must have heard the guy announcing that this was business class? So, she must have a business class ticket. If she didn’t, and had to move, she was unlikely to find a good seat once the rest of the train filled up. But it would be rude of me to ask her about it, wouldn’t it ... ? I decided that I had to do my best not to worry about it. I plugged in my laptop, grateful at least that she hadn’t decided we should be seatmates, too. I began reading. (This is when I heard the “This is my favorite Star Trek episode” comment noted above.)

The conductor came along, moving from the rear of the car to the front. He came to my new acquaintance’s seat.

“This is business class. You don’t have a business class ticket.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Yes. Coach cars are behind the cafe car.”

“Oh. I was following my travel buddy. I guess he misled me.”

“Coach cars are that way.”

“Can’t I stay here?”

“Not unless you want to pay extra.”

“Oh.” Pause. “I was just following my travel buddy.”

He then took my ticket. I could feel her gaze burning through the seat as she very, very, slowly began gathering her things. She spoke to me.

“Well, I guess I have to move.”

“Sorry about that, I, uh ... “

“Do you think I really have to move? Will he come back and make me move?”

“Well, yes, unfortunately he probably will.”


She had that weird expression and tone of voice that my Forum-going friends had once upon a time – like I was somehow responsible and should do something. She was pleasant on the surface, but she was beginning to freak me out.

I muttered something else about how business class was all that was left when I got my ticket and I didn’t know she was following me and uh and uh .... all that I could do was apologize. I felt badly but now all I wanted was for her to get the hell out of there. I mean, "my travel buddy misled me?"

I went back to the laptop. She finally had her things together, and stood next to my seat for a long, long time, looking at me. Then, she began to move down the aisle.

A few minutes later, the guy in the seat across from me got up and leaned over me. “What were you apologizing to that lady for?” I hesitated, trying to figure out how to explain it all briefly. I said that she asked me a question in the waiting area, and that she just followed me up here and I assumed she must have had a business class ticket, but she didn't. He nodded, “Okay.”

I looked down the car to see if she was gone. “You know what, this sounds terrible, but I’m glad. She was a little freaky.”

He nodded again. “Yeah. She was.”

Oh yeah. She was.


Blogger David said...

What do I always tell you? Don't Talk to Strangers. Don't HELP them. Strangers are crazy, and it's an even bet they voted for George Bush.

She's probably the one who arranged for you to burn those onions and cut your finger.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anna said...

ohmigosh, I've so been there! The catch-22 of being nice and unwittingly becoming single-handedly responsible for someone's existence or not getting the 2 second smugness of exhibiting superior knowledge and Cooooool. Yeeps.

you're a giver, my dear.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Rindy said...

If only the Star Trek guy had brought along a better episode..."Darmok," maybe, or "The Best of Both Worlds" parts 1 and 2. As it is, my fledgling crush on him is OVER. Do you hear me, anonymous Star Trek guy on the train? OVER!

8:46 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm new to your site. I can always tell when I've found a new blog that I like because there is that frisson of recognition: of a similar sense of humor, interest or experience. So when I read that your "travel buddy" was involved in Landmark Education I may have physically twitched. I did The Forum, the Advanced Course, the SELP (don't ask) and two seminars. And then I knew it was time to leave. There is indeed a lot of good to be gotten from these programs, but the group-think can eventually get stifling. I could picture your travel companion perfectly. I've met dozens like her. Thanks for that stroll down memory lane.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jason Rohrblogger said...

Without over-stating it: your blog rocks beyond all blogs that have ever rocked in the history of the blogosphere.

Your writing is so evocative. You evoke real life.

I had an ex-girlfriend join The Forum. She accused me of being in a "shame spiral." Wasn't that a line from the Simpsons? Here's my point: isn't it time for a freaky-cult musical? You, know, a funny thing happened to me on the way to The Forum..."

I love me some public transportation. Especially since a tank of gas costs more than a nice pair of shoes. The only problem is all of the freaks. And here in L.A., we get the racial tension occasionally. Always makes for a pleasant ride...

6:53 PM  
Blogger Rindy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Rindy said...

Sorry, hit post too soon.

Here's my point: isn't it time for a freaky-cult musical?

What rhymes with Landmark Education?

And what about Schmienschmology?

7:56 PM  
Blogger crumblord said...

Jason: I think it would have to be "I visualized a transformative experience on the way to 'The Forum' -- it didn't JUST HAPPEN!"

Rindy: Let's see ... rhymes ...
"A fake apology"
"Brian Small, A.G."

That's all I got.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

I'm so glad that all I have is a 3 1/2 mile work commute in my own little car! :)

9:06 AM  
Blogger Knottyboy said...

OMG!!! My heart is really racing I'm sure she wasn't a heart eating psycho but Christ on a buttered muffin, wtf?!? I've been nice to many, many peeps in my travels and business dealings and have never encountered anything like this. The talons digging into your back, the unwillingness to release. OY! Get off it already.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Licketysplit said...

There are some people who will always make everything your fault. I like to cut to the chase and make everything my fault before they do. Many times I'll walk away from giving someone directions and think "Oh! If only I'd said [someone undoubtedly easier route]...."

I hope your travel buddy enjoyed complaining about you at the next cult meeting.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

I thought one of the central tenants of the Forum was that the only person responsible for you was yourself (ie, no blame-shifting on why your life is a mess). How ironic.

I had a girlfriend once who did the Forum thingy and wanted me to do it. Suffice to say, I didn't, and we didn't stay together long (of course, it was not the Forum's fault). However, I found the salesmanship aspect of it kind of repulsive. People in the Forum are constantly encouraged to get other people to commit to the Forum and, subsequently, hundreds and hundreds of dollars. And they won't take no for an answer, at the expensive of friendship sometimes.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Great blog!

And I have had this happen many times- you give someone a little help and then you end up having to babysit them forever! Uhg!

7:03 AM  
Anonymous mkf said...

there are two women i tend to avoid at work, because whenever i run into one in the hall, or the other stops by my desk, we exchange pleasantries and then, when the encounter has reached its natural end and it's time to turn away and move on, they just continue to stand there, half-smiling expectantly, obviously waiting for...something from me. it's creepy and unnerving, and i'm invariably at a loss as to how to deal with it gracefully. only recently did i find out that they're both scientologists, which, in some weird way, explained everything. (now, if only we had business class at the office....)

7:58 PM  
Blogger Zenchick said...

the Forum, Landmark "education", whatever you want to call it, is a cult. EST was a cult. And it was SOLD to the guy that re-named it Landmark.
A franchised cult.
I am a licensed mental health professional, and practitioner of many esoteric practices. There is a categorical difference between grounded spiritual practice, and, well...cults.
And her behavior on the train certainly validated that, eh?

10:05 PM  
Blogger Shephard said...

Great blog. Really engaging read.

I have a friend who seems to have gotten some good stuff from Landmark. I think it's people who stay there that become freaky. Just a guess. They cling on, needing The Forum as a crutch.

Oh... and if you ever become High Commissioner of Musical Theatre, can I be Grand Pooba of Opening Nights? ~S

3:48 PM  
Blogger charles said...

rob, thanks for a fun blog!! your travels with the landmark-lady. :)

i am a participant in landmark education; completed the forum and am taking the advanced course next week.

the education has been good. has helped a lot.

oh, and to the "licensed mental health professional" -- ring, ring, clue phone, answer quickly please. dude, it's no cult! at landmark, they give you the info and you do with it as you wish. at a cult, they give you the info and they tell you what to do. quack, quack.

6:40 PM  

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