I spend a lot of time on the Acela.
So too do other people I have encountered in the quiet car over the last year or so: Tony Fauci, Matt Gaetz, Charlie Gibson, John King, Elise Stefanik, Karine Jean-Pierre, Joe Walsh, and Dan Goldman.
In some cases, such as with Gaetz or Stefanik, I have had to suppress the urge to give them a piece of my mind.
“Congresswoman Stefanik”, I want to say, “you should be ashamed of yourself. Particularly because you know better.”
But I resist this urge. After all, I don’t want to be that troll captured on a cell phone recording that goes viral.
Even when I am favorably disposed, I give the person his/her space. It seems cruel to approach someone who, trapped in his/her seat, is powerless to avoid the encounter.
I made an exception for Tony Fauci. But even then I waited until he had gotten off the train in D.C. and was surrounded by his security detail. Only then did I thank him for his service.
Everyone seems so much smaller, so much more ordinary, in person. I have also noticed this phenomenon when encountering judges off the bench. They are not nearly as impressive or as formidable without the robe, away from the formality of the courtroom.
Although Stefanik and Goldman were both traveling with congressional staff when I encountered them, Matt Gaetz seemed to be traveling on his own.
I was walking back to my seat from the bathroom when I saw someone who looked very familiar. With things out of context, it took me a second to realize who he was. At first I thought he might be one of my colleagues from D.C. Superior Court and I hesitated for just a moment to see if I should say hello.
Gaetz glanced up to find me looking at him, and, as our eyes locked, he must have seen my face sour the instant I realized who he was.
Because at that moment, looking at me out of the corner of his eye as I continued on my way past, his was not the smug, sneering face I had seen on T.V.
Instead he looked small and vulnerable. Maybe scared. Certainly very human.
I had a similar impression coming face-to-face with Karine Jean-Pierre as we were getting off the train at Union Station. Although I didn’t say anything to her, she could clearly tell that I not only recognized her but also felt kindly towards her. We smiled and nodded at each other before we both went on our way.
Following her down the platform until she disappeared into the crowd, I thought: Here is the primary spokesperson for the most powerful man on earth. And, apart from her very distinctive hair and make-up, there was nothing to distinguish her from the thousands of other commuters walking into the station.
And then I thought: This is who we are, mere human beings, complete with all of our failings.
While growing up, it was reassuring to assume that the major decisions affecting our country were being made by smart and self-less adults. Up until 2016 I still thought that was largely true.
Today I cannot help thinking how our government is a mere conglomeration of people just like Matt Gaetz and Karine Jean-Pierre, people good and bad, people ordinary and flawed and not any smarter than the rest of us, people whom fate has temporarily blessed with an opportunity to change the trajectory of our country. For better or for worse.
And this, I have to say, is a very sobering thought.