The four men ahead and across are holding a loud conversation in Arabic. One of them makes gestures with the hand motions of a flamenco dancer, and it is difficult to tell if he is arguing or just telling a story. On the table, in front of the man, are a pack of cigarettes and a cardboard box of opened Sprite and Coca Cola cans that seem to resist all our lurching and swaying. He and his friends wear different colors of the same cheap plaid, a common dress I've seen in the orchards.
I can pretend we are on a ship: there is nothing but blue water on the right, blue water that could be an entire ocean, its sky keener, larger than our own summer sky, pale and subdued between mountain ranges. But the next stop is Modesto, where the men across, no doubt, will get off for a few minutes and stub half-smoked cigarettes when the conductor calls.
The blue of the bay is gone. I watch the green lines of crops, the white-skinned eucalyptus trees, the solitary oaks move past in slow motion. A row ahead of the men, a group of high school girls with glossy hair and spaghetti straps plays a clapping game that does not seem to annoy the other passengers. There is a lull in the Arabic, and I can hear a child singing in Spanish from across the aisle.
"Senora, " says a male voice. "Would your daughter like a soda?" The child's mother, a pretty girl in drab polyester, smiles without showing her teeth, shakes her head "no ."
Then again, this time in Spanish: "Senora, what is your daughter's name?"
"Mercedes," the woman answers and turns her attention back to the little girl, who is coloring with a pen on a notepad. The sun is starting to set, turning cloud wisps neon red in the dimming light.
"Senora. Why are you so sad?" I put down my magazine to look between seats for the Spanish speaker. It is the Arab with flamenco hands. He pronounces his words like a native, and if it were not for his body language, he could pass for a Latino. I notice he has a goatee and a blue Lakers cap. His companions doze.
"You speak Spanish," the little girl's mother says without evident surprise.
"I am 50 percent Arab, 50 percent Mexican."
"I am Pancho."
"Pancho?" The woman's politeness hides her disbelief. "Is your mother or your father from Mexico?"
"I lived there."
She seems to consider this for a while and then asks, "Where is life more difficult?"
I cannot hear the answer because "Modesto" blares through the loudspeaker. The man called Pancho rouses his sleeping friends. As they move off to share their cigarette pack, the electrical system abruptly shuts down, the fluorescence of sunset our only light. A sudden silence has replaced the air conditioning's white noise; it is as if the train were holding its breath.
When the lights finally flutter on and the train resumes its own sounds, the windows are black. A passenger moves down to grab the vacated table across from the Arabs, who are filing back in, smelling of ash and smoke. They watch idly as the other passenger installs a black instrument case, slaps a San Francisco Chronicle on her table and sets down a fast-food bag. She is in a plain t-shirt and dark leather vest. Her hair is white and shorn, and she has three silver rings in each eyebrow.
The train's gaining momentum rocks us all into silence. I doze a few miles before registering the voice of the woman with an instrument case.
"Punk rock. My stepson's the lead singer."
"Oh yeah? I play too." It is Pancho's voice again, this time in an elastic English: he sounds almost American.
"Acoustic or classical?" she asks. I wonder to myself if those are discreet categories.
"I play with Buck Owens."
The high school girls have stopped their clapping game and are pretending to speak in Spanish between laughing fits. The Mexican mother is patiently braiding her little girl's hair. The Arab leans over, flicks the edge of the punk rock musician's opened Chronicle.
"Can I see the sports section? I have to know about the Lakers."
"You need to wait until I'm done," she says, not raising her head.
"Man, that's messed up," he mutters. The woman starts humming.
Outside the Valley is invisible. I cannot see the farms, the steep canals, the trailers, the the muted gold of dry stretches. I have spent the day in a fabled place more distant than a train ride away, a well-lit world under a brighter sky, with Nobel Laureate parking spaces and catacombs lined with books. Distending my backpack is a thick folder with a schedule for Orientation sessions on academics, financial aid, tours, and a period entitled, "Conviviality." What happens in that time slot, people there wondered: a panel on dorm life, clubs, drinking on campus?
"I was majoring in law, getting a doctorate in law at Stanislaus State," the musician is telling Pancho. He nods. Then she hands him a photograph.
"Their eyes are-- " .
"My ex-husband's Japanese," she explains. "He's just a sperm donor."
"I got a nice lady."
"You live together?"
"We thought about getting married. You think it'd be legal in California, but there's too much chaos in the Bay Area . . .too much stigma. . . ."
"There's a bar in Bakersfield. Man, that place is packed!" says Pancho.
"I don't go for that shit."
I look back down at an article in El Andar. I bought the Latino magazine last week at a Valley bookstore; its cover photo is one of a pair of eyes staring through a rectangle cut in black fabric. When I was paying for the magazine, a blond girl behind the bank of registers pointed to the cover with interest. She found it amazing that women in the Middle East could live with their faces covered. That's actually Subcomandante Marcos, I pointed out. Yeah, she went on, addressing her customer, it's just so incredible that these women insist on being hidden no matter how much you might try to help them. I guess it's just how you're raised, she shrugged. The customer, taking her credit card, nodded knowingly: you just can't impose your culture on other peoples.
The young Mexican mother is buckling sandals on her little daughter's feet, smoothing down her clothes as the loudspeaker comes alive. The Arab called Pancho looks pointedly at his companions, who sit, weary, noncommital, suppressing smiles. The punk rock musician is humming again over her newspaper. Now and then she reads a word out loud.
The tracks' irregularities are more pronounced as we slow. I zip El Andar in my purse and stand to sling on the backpack, avoiding eye contact, spotting on the floor a few extra Orientation hand-outs with the day's schedule of sessions. I remember that at the end of one of those sessions, a student counselor with a tongue stud sat on a table taking questions. She confessed that the "Conviviality" segment on our itinerary was a mystery to counselors and participants alike. "None of us knew what it meant," she admitted. But "Conviviality," she explained, is "just a scheduled social time" - an opportunity for people to meet and talk. Someone from out-of-state had told her that day that "conviviality" is commonly heard where she lives. "I've moved all around California my whole life," said the counselor, "and I've never used it."