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Former Hobby Lobby Employee Claims She Was Fired for Having a Kid

Former Hobby Lobby Employee Claims She Was Fired for Having a Kid

By Mary Emily O’Hara

July 30, 2014 | 2:00 pm

“When the Hobby Lobby store in Flowood, Mississippi, hired Felicia Allen in August 2010, she was excited about joining the company. But, within a short span of months, she suddenly found herself out of a job.

“When I first got hired I was feeling very sick, which I thought was because I have migraines,” Allen told VICE News. “I went to the doctor’s office and found out I was pregnant.”

Allen said she asked the store manager if the pregnancy would affect her job and was told that she would simply have to take medical leave. Yet when that time came the following January, the store manager informed Allen that her employment would have to be terminated.

Allen was shocked. She said that her fellow employees and friends outside the company told her about anti-discrimination laws against firing a woman for being pregnant. But the manager told her that she could reapply and get her job back soon after giving birth.

“I tried to come back to work two weeks after I had my child,” said Allen. “I got documentation showing that my doctor said I could go back to work. Who goes back to work that fast? I wanted to keep my job.”

When Allen reapplied, the manager snubbed her. With a newborn and two other children, Allen couldn’t afford to be out of a job. She consulted a lawyer and sued the company in early 2012 for violating federal discrimination law.

‘You caused me to lose my job because I had a child, and then you go and say you prefer that someone have a child.’

Allen’s lawsuit was thrown out, however. Nick Norris, one of her lawyers, told VICE News that Hobby Lobby makes its employees sign a binding arbitration agreement upon hire. Allen’s signature on this dense arbitration document took away her right to sue for just about anything.

Louis Watson, Norris’s partner, told VICE News that he didn’t know Allen had signed an arbitration agreement until it emerged in discovery after she had filed the suit. When the case was dismissed, he and Norris told Allen that they didn’t recommend bothering with arbitration.

“I’m in my tenth year of practice right now, and we just don’t pursue arbitration anymore,” Norris said. According to Norris, arbitration is designed to almost always work in favor of the company. He said that arbitrators are typically corporate defense lawyers who want to keep their clients happy. Those who rule in favor of employees are essentially blacklisted.

Allen told VICE News that she never realized arbitration was an option; she absorbed only that the suit was dismissed.

The Arbitration Fairness Act, introduced in the Senate last year, would end the forfeiture of a person’s right to sue. The bill asserts that the original 1925 Federal Arbitration Act was intended to settle disputes between two companies of similar size and power, and was never intended to apply to employment disputes or “supersede all other federal laws protecting consumers, workers, and small businesses.”

Under the proposed act, a company couldn’t pressure a worker to sign away their right to sue the day they are hired. It wouldn’t ban arbitration between companies and employees, but would give the employee the choice to agree to arbitration rather than be forced to commit to it because they want a job.

A January New York Times article detailed how unfair arbitration clauses were a key reason it took so long for American Apparel founder Dov Charney to be ousted from the company. Despite allegations of sexual harassment dating back at least ten years, heavily restrictive clauses prevented employees from being able to sue, talk to the media, or say anything negative about the company or the founder. American Apparel even made its models agree to arbitration, which is almost unheard of.

Hobby Lobby, a nationwide craft store chain with more than 5,000 employees, is best known for its recent Supreme Court victory. After a long battle, the court ruled in June that Hobby Lobby and other “closely held” corporations can cite religious beliefs that would exempt them from having to cover certain birth control drugs, like Plan B, through employee insurance plans.

But according to Allen’s story, which broke in an RH Reality Check investigative report on Tuesday, the company famous for its devotion to pro-life family values doesn’t seem to care much about pregnant employees. Allen said that when she tried to sue, the corporate office stepped in and lied, telling lawyers that she had refused maternity leave and wasn’t fired at all.

“I felt like she wanted to get rid of me,” Allen said of the Flowood manager. In November, Allen’s doctor advised that she take a week off during the busiest season of the year because the stress of work was causing her blood pressure to spike. Despite her impending birth, she said, the Hobby Lobby manager resented this. When she eventually filed for medical leave, she was informed that she was ineligible and lost her job.

Hobby Lobby’s lawyers and public relations firm did not respond to requests for comment.

The irony of Allen’s story is that throughout its highly publicized Supreme Court case, Hobby Lobby portrayed itself as an unusually friendly employer. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court case, “the Greens seek to honor God by ‘operating their company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.’ ”

“The Greens strive to apply the Christian teachings on respect and fairness to their employees, increasing the pay of Hobby Lobby’s full- and part-time hourly workers for four years in a row,” reads the Becket Fund description online. “Full-time hourly workers now start at 90 percent above the federal minimum wage.”

Allen works at Xerox now, but said that when Hobby Lobby was all over the news this spring she was surprised at the way the company was repeatedly described as having “Christian values.”

“I don’t think it’s a good company to work for — from the experience I had in Jackson, anyway,” Allen said.

“I think they’re contradicting themselves and being hypocritical. You caused me to lose my job because I had a child, and then you go and say you prefer that someone have a child,” she added. “It was totally opposite when it came to me.”

Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @MaryEmilyOHara


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Clothes Aren’t for Men or Women Anymore. They’re Just for People.

“Women aren’t the only ones who can wear ruffles and skirts these days. And men don’t have a monopoly on hooded vests and slouchy pants. The high-fashion runways have gone gender neutral.

Hot summer days have officially arrived in New York, and our apartment—which, like most old New York City apartments, has no air conditioning—felt like a swamp. “I wish I could wear a dress,” my husband sighed with envy as I breezed through our bedroom in a diaphanous cotton frock, while he struggled with a necktie before going to a Christening Sunday morning. “Well, you know, youcould,” I said. And though I knew my husband—a formidable 6’1” man with a full beard—would probably never wrap himself in a sarong or don a breezy caftan, I wasn’t entirely kidding.

Fashion has long played with gender stereotypes—from Coco Chanel, who, one critic groused, turned all of Paris’ women “into little boys” in the 1920s, to Jean Paul Gaultier, who has featured skirts and corsets on men’s runways since the 1990s. But recently, young designers have taken this concept to another level. At New York Fashion Week in February, cult streetwear label Hood by Air featured models whose genders were a mystery, thanks to long-haired wigs and unisex leather-laced bomber jackets, zipper-festooned jeans, and, yes, skirts and tunics. Baja East had its girls and boys switch clothes halfway through its presentation (their slouchy satin pants, hooded vests, and linen caftans looked equally cool on both sexes). In London, J.W. Anderson showed leather blouses adorned with ruffles, puff-sleeved sweaters, and floral jacquards for both his men’s and women’s lines. Even the Olsen Twins’ uber-ladylike The Row swaddled its models in body-obscuring cowl-necked sweaters and capes, worn with super roomy trousers, which you could imagine lots of guys appreciating, too. (Ditto Telfar Clemens’ equal-opportunity snuggies.)

“Clothing, fashion and adornment distinguish—they identify who you are. And one of the primary things we’ve identified, that we’ve wanted to identify, is our gender,” Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says. “But now, for a number of men and women, gender has become something that’s not so important for them to emphasize in their clothing. They feel there needs to be something that people can wear just as people.”

That’s what Rad Hourani had in mind when he launched his graphic, crisp, almost monastic-looking unisex haute couture seven years ago. “I realized that I don’t think of people in terms of gender or age or race or nationality, because these are all man-made constructs,” the Paris-based designer says. “If you look at history, men wore makeup and wigs and heels. The Romans wore skirts and jewelry. So who decided that a woman has to have makeup and a man not? We have enough limitations in life. That’s why it’s important for me to create something neutral, something that is free of any gender constraints or historical references. Something that reflects the way I want to live and dress today.” For Hourani, that means crisp white-collared shirts, black leather shorts, and minimalist structured black jackets in interesting shapes: clean, comfortable, almost monastic clothes that, when worn, don’t particularly look unisex, but fit both men and women equally well.

“…Terms like ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘borrowing from the boys’ just don’t apply to the way we wear clothes anymore.”

Same with Baja East, which designers John Targon and Scott Studenberg started after hearing so many of their female friends inquire about their clothing. “It’s our take on loose luxury: We’re rebelling against the tailored shirt and the designer dress,” says Targon of their fluid silk trenches and voluminous cashmeres. Instead of making everyone look the same, the gender-neutral garment can actually enhance the wearer’s individuality. “It takes on the attitude of who’s wearing it,” says Targon. “It’s made for you.”

J.W. Anderson, unlike Hourani or Targon and Studenberg, has separate menswear and womenswear lines, yet a splatter-painted tunic from one line can easily end up in the other. And his clothes, for men and women, play with the idea of traditionally feminine details, such as ruffles, juxtaposed with tough fabrics like leather or suede. “These sources of tension—exploring different forms on different body shapes—make fashion,” Katherine Bernard, a writer forVogue.com, says. “It’s exciting to see how a ruffle moves on a male body.”

And just as women have taken up oxfords and flat shoes, men are also incorporating previously “female” garments into their wardrobe. Take Kanye West, who wore a floral Celine tunic to Coachella a few years back; or Marc Jacobs, who for a good year was hardly seen in something other than a Comme des Garcons kilt; or A$AP Rocky, who has taken to wearing skirts by his friends at Hood by Air.

“Have I seen a J.W. Anderson ruffled shirt on the street? Probably not,” Bernard says. “But terms like ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘borrowing from the boys’ just don’t apply to the way we wear clothes anymore.”

Which is a reason why so many of these designers chafe at the term “unisex” or “postgender.” Unlike, say, Pierre Cardin or Rudi Gernreich—whose experiments with unisex dressing in the 1960s and ’70s had a radical, political edge—designers such as Targon and Studenberg and Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver are merely creating clothes that fit the lifestyles of the increasingly diverse people who wear them.

Indeed, take a look at Oliver’s runway, and you’ll realize that gender—as well as race and nationality—is not only fluid, but almost beside the point. Hood by Air’s presentations are by far the most diverse in the Fashion Week calendar: with African Americans, Asians, whites, mixed-race people, females, males, and transsexuals all represented—many of them close friends of the designer. (The hair-whipping vogue-ers he got to close his Fall 2014 show? High school buddies.) “Sexuality isn’t something to be held down by,” Oliver says. “We take what people know of masculine, feminine, and make them veer away from the structure of it being associated with a man or a woman and instead have it be associated with a feeling, a moment, a look. It’s about an attitude or a gesture rather than being male or female.””

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by | June 26, 2014 · 5:37 pm

If you look at …

If you look at the world and say “Yes, there are enough homes for people, yes, there is enough food for people, but if we give it away for free they won’t have earned it and the economy will collapse.” Then you have chosen money (a constructed medium of exchange) over living beings who only want to continue living in peace and safety.

And I have no qualms telling you, that is the wrong choice, and you have been brainwashed by this destructive, exploitative system.

– Markus Bones

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by | June 11, 2014 · 1:15 am

Cell phone made me a theater vigilante

By Kevin D. Williamson, Special to CNN

updated 4:57 PM EDT, Fri May 17, 2013

“(CNN) — I have the great privilege of writing the theater column for The New Criterion, the arts-and-culture journal founded by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist Samuel Lipman in 1982. Some people have to be in an office at 8 a.m., but I get to be at the theater at 8 p.m. It is a pretty sweet gig.

The power of theater comes from its ability to surprise. Once or twice a season, I am treated to an unexpected discovery: While movies so often are cut, polished, CGI’d, and market-researched to death, even the most commercial piece of tourist-bait theater — lookin’ at you, “Evita” — contains within it an element of unpredictability.

The audiences, unfortunately, are drearily predictable. It’s the old one-in-every-family phenomenon: They will be late. They will talk. Their cell phones will ring, and some of them, by God, will answer them. They will text, and they may even play a few rounds of Words with Friends during the third act. They are the enemy. They are depressing not because their bad manners surprise us, but because they do not surprise us.

I found myself in the news this week after offering a surprise of my own at a New York theater: The woman seated next to me was on her phone throughout most of the show. (It was “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” in case you’re wondering, a musical based on “War and Peace.” You know what show you shouldn’t see in New York if you have the attention span of a goldfish? One based on “War and Peace.”) When she was not on her phone, she and her friends were engaged in a four-part imitation of a “Sex and the City” brunch conversation. I asked her nicely — more than once — but she did not respond to courtesy. She said: “Just don’t look.” So I took her phone from her and tossed it.

There was a moment of wonderful, shocked silence. She salvaged such self-respect as she could — which is to say, she slapped me — and then stalked off in search of her phone. A few minutes later, I was visited by an annoyed gentleman in a black suit and soon enough found myself out on the street.

Yes, it was worth it.

In part, I blame the theater managers. If you seat people who show up late, they will show up late. One or two high-profile ejections a month would go a long way toward beating some sense into the theater-going public.

But you can never design a perfect protocol. Audiences must behave. People are awful, of course — somebody once observed that every civilization faces a barbarian invasion every generation in the form of its children — and the Broadway and off-Broadway crowd is full of miscreants.

Theater is New York and New York is theater, and New York is not much like the rest of the country. (Shake Shack, a summertime favorite in Madison Square Park, has a menu for dogs.) New York is one of the world capitals of self-importance. And, with the possible exception of Washington, there is no city in the country where self-importance is more disconnected from actual importance. If I could buy New Yorkers for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth, I’d own Fifth Avenue from Saks to Harlem.

That guy whispering into his cell phone? He isn’t getting the news that little Timmy finally has a donor for his heart transplant — he’s just another schmuck having a schmuck conversation with schmucks elsewhere. That guy tapping away on his smartphone isn’t restructuring the derivatives markets — he’s playing “Angry Birds.” The lady to my right, I am willing to bet, was not receiving her orders from the Impossible Missions Force, and her phone did not self-destruct.

I destructed it. And I am not sorry.

I am advised that what I did was almost certainly a crime. And if the law, in its majesty, should decide that I need to spend a night in jail over this episode, then I will be happy to do so.

But I think of it as an act of criticism. Occasionally, a shocking gesture is called for, perhaps even a histrionic one. I may have met conventional-grade rudeness with thermonuclear counterforce, but I did it in the interests of civility, violating standards to preserve them.

Theater-goers on Twitter jokingly compared me to Batman: Not the hero Gotham deserves, the hero it needs. I don’t know about that: Grumpiness is not much of a superpower. But we will live in exactly as rude and coarse a world as we will tolerate, and I do not intend to tolerate very much.”

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Your Phone vs. Your Heart


Published: March 23, 2013

“CAN you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Kristian Hammerstad

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

Our ingrained habits change us. Neurons that fire together, wire together, neuroscientists like to say, reflecting the increasing evidence that experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.

Plasticity, the propensity to be shaped by experience, isn’t limited to the brain. You already know that when you lead a sedentary life, your muscles atrophy to diminish your physical strength. What you may not know is that your habits of social connection also leave their own physical imprint on you.

How much time do you typically spend with others? And when you do, how connected and attuned to them do you feel? Your answers to these simple questions may well reveal your biological capacity to connect.

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

To appreciate why this matters, here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. Subtle variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection, and as such, heart-rate variability provides an index of your vagal tone.

By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses.

Beyond these health effects, the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is far more plastic or amenable to change than most of us realize. The new field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is plastic, too, responsive to habitual experiences and actions.

Work in social genomics reveals that our personal histories of social connection or loneliness, for instance, alter how our genes are expressed within the cells of our immune system. New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.

If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

Barbara L. Fredrickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.””

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by | April 1, 2013 · 5:54 pm

Facebook Likes Predict Sexual Orientation, Religion, & More

Facebook Likes Predict Sexual Orientation, Religion, & More

Today at 11:44 am by Sarah Downey

“A new study takes the saying “what you like says a lot about you” to a whole new level. Researchers from Cambridge University analyzed 58,000 Facebook profiles and found that a person’s Facebook Likes, which are public by default, are highly accurate in predicting personal, sometimes sensitive details about him or her.

Simply analyzing a person’s Facebook Likes was 88% accurate in predicting whether a man is gay or straight, 95% accurate in predicting whether a person is Caucasian or African American, and 85% accurate in determining whether someone is a Democrat or a Republican.

The researchers concluded that Facebook Likes, these “relatively basic digital records of human behavior,” “can be used to automatically and accurately estimate a wide range of personal attributes that people would typically assume to be private.”

Most Likes that serve as predictors of other attributes, including whether a person is in a relationship or a substance abuser, aren’t obvious–it’s not as if single people Like pages called “I like being single” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Instead, Likes that have seemingly no connection to certain personality traits are surprisingly linked. The researchers gave a few good examples:

The best predictors of high intelligence include “Thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report,” “Science,” and “Curly Fries,” whereas low intelligence was indicated by “Sephora,” “I Love Being A Mom,” “Harley Davidson,” and “Lady Antebellum.” Good predictors of male homosexuality included “No H8 Campaign,” “Mac Cosmetics,” and “Wicked The Musical,” whereas strong predictors of male heterosexuality included “Wu-Tang Clan,” “Shaq,” and “Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps.”

7.4 million websites have Facebook Like buttons on them (not to mention the buttons all over Facebook itself), and that number is growing. Users can Like almost anything: photos, comments, musicians, brands, celebrities, and pages. As we’ve written about extensively, social buttons like Facebook’s Like button aren’t just for sharing: they’re trackers. Unless you’re using a tool like DoNotTrackMe to block them, they know which sites you visit and what you do on a website, even if you never click them. The mere fact that they’re present on a page means they’re tracking you.

This study illustrates how the little things you do online add up to create a highly detailed picture of who you are. You may not think that a Like here and there says anything about you, but they all add up–especially with Facebook’s new Graph Search that displays all your Likes with a single search…and those searches can be incriminating, embarrassing, or even dangerous (“Men in Iran who are interested in other men,” for example). Plus the long list of people with whom Facebook shares data includes advertisers, app developers, law enforcement, and other companies.

Even if you’re trying to be discreet by leaving personal information out of your profile, others can figure it out through your public Likes. If researchers with a limited budget can learn this much about a person through their Facebook Likes, imagine how big companies, advertisers, or governments could use–or misuse–that data. Are you the type of person who takes risks? Maybe an insurance company will hike up your rates. Are you politically conservative? Maybe a potential employer will pass on hiring you because of it. Are you someone who loves coffee? Maybe online retailers will charge you more for it than someone else (Google filed a patent for price discrimination based on online social data).

Your past Facebook Likes are listed chronologically in your Activity Log.

The only solution Facebook offers is using your Facebook Activity Log to un-like things one by one, but for many users with hundreds or thousands of Likes, this process will take hours. Be wary of third-party apps that say they’ll let you delete all your Likes at once; search for reviews to learn more about whether they’re legitimate. We advise you to rethink every Like you click, knowing that all of them can come back to bite you.”

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by | March 12, 2013 · 6:42 pm

How to Spend 47 Hours on a Train and Not Go Crazy

  • Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
  • Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
  • Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
  • Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
  • Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times


Published: February 28, 2013

“Vickie, Alice, Lisa, Debbie, Barbara, Chris, Clair and Cootz boarded the Los Angeles-bound Sunset Limited in Schriever, La., and immediately took residence in the glass-sheathed Sightseer Lounge car. The eight women squeezed into two booths on either side of the aisle and began to scream with laughter.

With a quiet, pneumatic exhalation, the Sunset Limited left the station; it was 90 minutes into its journey, with 45 hours and 5 minutes to go. After leaving New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, its point of departure, the seven-car train had rumbled first alongside the New Orleans Arena, where the Hornets play basketball, and then alongside the empty open-air courts, separated from the tracks by chain-link fence and concertina wire, where inmates at Orleans Parish Prison play basketball. It climbed steadily for two miles before passing over the dizzyingly narrow span of the Huey P. Long Bridge. From up there, 145 feet above the Mississippi River, the river’s full double turn, like a lowercase m written in a lazy cursive, was visible; you could see why they called New Orleans the Crescent City.

Wheezing out of Schriever, the train rattled and jerked, and when I entered the lounge car, I had to grab onto the back of a booth to prevent myself from falling facedown in Clair’s lap.

“Woo!” screamed the eight ladies, as if cheering on a toreador. “Hey-ey!” “Choo-choo!” They dissolved into hysterics. It was a little past 10 a.m. They had told each other that they wouldn’t dip into their vodka until noon.

Cootz was 52 years and 364 days old, and they were celebrating. “We wanted to take a long train ride together,” she said, “but we weren’t sure how long we could last. This is a trial run.” They left their husbands at home in Thibodaux (“They’re happy to let us go,” Lisa said) and were traveling to Lake Charles, a five-hour ride, where they would check into L’Auberge Casino Resort. After gambling for two days, they would return. If everything went well, they might make it an annual trip. Why, they could go to Memphis (8 hours, 15 minutes), Houston (9 hours, 18 minutes), even San Antonio (15 hours, 5 minutes). They were dressed smartly in pearls, dark sunglasses, shawls, silver bracelets, silver watches and silver medallions with lapis lazuli. Most of the women appeared to have styled their hair especially for the excursion. Alice possessed a vaporous cloud of wavy brown hair — her husband called it “big, sexy hair.” Barbara had what she described as a gray dome. She said that when the eight of them got together, it was only so long before someone started catching the wall.

“Someone show that boy how to catch the wall!”

Barbara pulled out her phone and showed videos of friends catching the wall. There are three steps to catching the wall. First, you go down on your hands and knees on the floor, facing away from a wall. Then you jog your legs up the wall, one at a time, until you’re halfway to a headstand. Finally, with your palms planted on the ground, your feet planted on the wall and your butt sticking up in the air, you jiggle. “My stomach hurts because we laugh so much,” Barbara said between laughing fits. “It’s like an aerobic exercise. We’ll all have six-packs by the time we get off the train.”

The women were playing Pedro (“PEE-dro”), a card game popular in Cajun country, something of a cross between bridge and spades. For their trip, Cootz printed out special scorecards on which she had typed her friends’ names. They had played Pedro as long as they could remember; it was not uncommon for them to play for 12 hours at a time. While they played, they sang. Lisa led the group in a round of “Gas-Food-Lodging,” a song she wrote when she was 7. Her friends knew all the words.

Six of the women had been teachers; Clair is an office manager; and Barbara was a secretary — a “sexy-tery,” she clarified. Four were the exact same age. Debbie’s and Chris’s husbands worked together. Alice, Vickie and Cootz taught together at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School. Chris had been Alice’s second-grade teacher. (“She was extremely stylish, with her brown suede boots,” Alice said. “She’s the reason I wear boots today.”) Vickie, Lisa, Clair and Cootz attended E. D. White high school. All eight women attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. Vickie, Debbie and Chris were sorority sisters. Lisa Ford Ray and Clair Ford Lee were cousins.

Half the women were a Toups or related to one. Debbie was Debbie Toups. Chris, who married a twin Toups brother, was Chris Toups. Vickie, who was born a Toups and married the other Toups brother, was Vickie Toups Toups. The most reliable way to tell the twin Toups brothers apart was by counting their nipples. Charlie had three. (Technically, one was a birthmark.) Alice grew up in the same town as the twins, “but I have only two nipples,” she said.

“Yes,” Cootz said, “but are they same size?”




Long-distance-train passengers tend to belong to one of four categories. The first, perhaps most obvious category is occupied by people who refuse to fly, whether because of religious beliefs, fear or health reasons, but there are fewer of these than you might expect. The second category belongs to train buffs, known less commonly as rail fans, GERFs (glassy-eyed rail fans), or foamers, a term coined by railroad employees to refer to people who became so excited by trains that they seem to foam at the mouth like rabies victims.

In the United States, there are more than 100,000 train watchers, according to one estimate, a number that includes a 70-year-old retiree from Germantown, Md., named Steve King, whose first job, in 1959, was to serve as an operator for B & O Railroad. Though King identifies himself as a “transportation geek,” he doesn’t look the part: he has the crew cut, hulking build and piercing gaze of a former military man, the type of fellow who doesn’t suffer fools or Amtrak disparagers gladly. But he turns avuncular and garrulous whenever his favorite subject comes up in conversation. His train obsession has expanded his world, leading him to develop complementary interests in photography, American history and a field he calls “industrial archaeology.”

King wrote two books for publishers that specialize in train literature, including “19 East, Copy Three,” about the timetable system used to govern train traffic before computers. He collects Official Railway Guides, large, bound volumes, published between 1868 and 1995, that contain passenger-railroad schedules in the United States and Canada; his oldest edition dates from 1910. In 2002 he traveled with seven friends to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia to photograph one of the last fleet of steam locomotives still being used on major rail lines. He went in January because “the steam exhausted by the locomotives in the cold air is more photogenic.”

It was now 11 a.m. on Wednesday. King had traveled roughly 72 hours of a 120-hour trip. He began by boarding the Cardinal, which runs from Washington’s Union Station to Chicago’s Union Station in approximately 24 hours. Upon arrival, he took a suburban Metra train to Schaumburg, where he visited his daughter for lunch — his nominal excuse for stopping in Chicago — and then took a Metra to Big Timber Road station and visited a friend for lemon meringue pie. He returned to Union Station in time to board the 8 p.m. City of New Orleans, which arrived at its destination the following afternoon. After spending the night in a New Orleans hotel, he boarded the Sunset Limited on Wednesday, at 9 a.m. In Los Angeles, he would hop the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego. He was planning to visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

Shortly after boarding the train in New Orleans, King found a forward-facing seat several booths ahead of the Thibodaux 8. He looked out of the window, train schedule in hand, and in that position he remained for much of the next 46 hours and 35 minutes. He paused only for sleep — he had reserved a roomette — and for meals in the dining car, during which he spoke with great passion about how unfairly the federal government treated trains. “Sure,” he said gruffly, “Amtrak is subsidized by taxpayers. It wouldn’t exist otherwise. But Amtrak gets maligned because its subsidy is a line item in the annual budget. Airlines and highways are subsidized even more heavily and in hundreds of different ways — it’s just that those subsidies are buried.”

This, in part, is why it is often cheaper to fly than to take the train, especially over longer distances. (A round-trip ticket from New Orleans to Los Angeles can be had for $320. A plane ticket can cost slightly more but saves about 85 hours.) The financial calculus can shift if you have to buy a one-way ticket at the last minute, which is why a surprisingly high percentage of long-distance-train passengers are escaping something.

Belonging to this, the third category of train passengers, was Michelle Love, who was a week shy of her 21st birthday. She had never taken a train before and was paralyzed with terror. “Trains scare me way more than airplanes,” she said. She was thinking about the “Final Destination” horror movies, in which trains kill characters by derailing, colliding with automobiles, running into each other, smacking into walls, tumbling over and splitting apart. In a scene from the first “Final Destination,” a train runs over a piece of metal, causing it to spin like a boomerang and decapitate a young Seann William Scott. “I’m having terrible acid reflux,” Michelle said, adding that death by train “was one of the worst ways to die.”

She calmed herself down by looking out the window. Trains often go through land that is rarely seen by anyone except passengers on trains. Approaching the Texas border, the Sunset Limited passed beside, or perhaps within, a petrochemical plant that looked like an alien settlement, with smokestacks coughing white smoke, platforms of intricate latticed scaffolding, blue silos and complex networks of pipes orange from rust. The ground was black sand.

Michelle’s terror of trains had one consolation — it distracted her from thinking about the reason she was on the train in the first place. A year ago, she moved from Ocean Springs, Miss., to Hollygrove, the New Orleans neighborhood where Lil Wayne grew up. Since then, she said, four people on her block had been shot to death, most recently a neighbor named Booger. Michelle was sitting on her couch one weekday afternoon when she heard the sound of fireworks. She ran outside to witness the celebration, she said, only to find a man lying face down in the street. Another man was screaming: “Booger’s dead! Booger’s dead!” Michelle said that she bought a pet rat and named it Booger.

She didn’t decide to leave, however, until several months later, after she discovered that one of her roommates had a crack problem. He stole the rent at the end of the month, and they were evicted. In a stroke of good fortune, a childhood friend invited Michelle to move to Houston. The friend’s parents owned a furniture store; Michelle could make $400 for every three days of work. “It sounded too good to be true,” Michelle said, but she didn’t really have an alternative. She bought an Amtrak ticket, which did not please her boyfriend of more than a year.

“He’s very opposed to this,” said Michelle, whose real last name is Davis. Her friends started calling her Love because she reminded them of Courtney Love. She is stuck between vampy and childish, with dyed dark-red hair and eyebrows, black cat’s-eye makeup and 10 tattoos, including a gramophone on her right bicep and an image on her hip that says “Fragile.” “Life is for yourself,” she said. “Not for your friends, for yourself. I have to do this for myself.”

She planned to spend a month in Houston; if it went well, she would stay for good. She wouldn’t cheat on her boyfriend, unless she met the “love of my life,” in which case she would drop him without hesitation. But the main reason she was moving to Houston was to achieve her dream: “To become successful without doing college.”

“How do you define success?”

She laughed as if it were the dumbest question she ever heard. “Happiness,” she said. “As in, having money.”

Houston was a “trial run,” she said. Even if the furniture store was a bust, she figured that she could find work elsewhere, because she had one highly marketable skill: airbrushing. You could airbrush T-shirts, tattoos and wood. “Airbrush,” she said, “is never going to go out of style.”

Three rows behind Michelle sat Scott Dupree, an artist from Atlanta, and his live-in muse, model and marketing agent, Suzy Lanza, who were on their way to visit Scott’s parents in Houston. Several days earlier, within three hours, each learned of a death. A friend of Scott’s in Charlotte died unexpectedly of liver failure at 36. Suzy’s friend, Adam Griffiths, 46, was on a vacation with his fiancée and several friends in Kauai. While hiking along the rocky coastline, a rogue wave dragged Griffiths’s best friend, Brian Baker, into the sea. Griffiths jumped in after him. Griffiths’s fiancée, standing on the shore, watched as they drowned. Suzy hoped the train ride would allow herself and Scott to “decompress.”

Suzy and Scott first met at Burning Man festival, where they were introduced by a man called Chicken John. Suzy worked at various nonprofit organizations, but upon meeting Scott and seeing his work — he specializes in paintings of men wearing old-fashioned costumes, standing in figurines of antiquated gondolas, racecars and dirigibles — Suzy moved to Atlanta and became Scott’s promoter, personal assistant and girlfriend. While Scott, bearded and dour, sat in silence, Suzy spoke enthusiastically about his work and her plans for it. (Later Scott chastised her, in a sulky whisper, for telling her “life story” to strangers.) “It’s the life I’ve wanted for a while,” she said.

“How long do you plan on living it?”

“I don’t have a backup plan right now,” Suzy said. “You could say I’m impulsive.”

On the platform in Beaumont, Tex., where the train stopped for 10 minutes, Michelle Love hungrily smoked her last two cigarettes. She lifted her shirt to show an upside-down leopard-print cross that was tattooed on her ribs. It was a St. Peter’s cross, and it signified that “we’re not as worthy as God.”

“I’m not the crazy chick I look like I am,” she said. “I just don’t want to be like those older people who didn’t do anything with their lives. I want to have stories.” By the time the train left Houston, after having sat in the station for an hour, Michelle was still waiting on the curb next to her luggage.

Traveling coach on Amtrak is not exactly luxurious, but amenities are superior to business class on many American airlines. A person seated in coach on a Superliner — the double-decker train used on the Sunset Limited route — has access to a dining room with white tablecloths and waiter service and to seats with 15 inches or so more legroom than those in some first-class airplane cabins, as well as access to electrical outlets. But playing video games or watching movies on a phone or computer tends only to distract for several hours, and there is no Wi-Fi, so most passengers turn to a more traditional form of entertainment: conversation.

The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind. There are several reasons for this. While it might be socially uncomfortable to speak with a stranger during a short trip, the scale seems to tip for trips longer than six hours, at which point it becomes significantly more awkward not to speak to your fellow passengers. Besides, if you’re taking a 47-hour train ride in 2013, you probably have an unusual reason for doing so. Train stories are much richer, more emotionally pitched, than airplane stories. And the train offers the possibility of cheap therapy: there’s ample time to relate your entire life story to a stranger, and you can do so in confidentiality, because you’ll never see the stranger again.

This kind of encounter is further encouraged by the tendency of Amtrak conductors to seat long-distance passengers next to each other, even if the next car contains 20 rows of empty seats. This policy is designed to keep rows open for passengers who board at later stops, but sometimes those anticipated passengers never materialize. The two communal cars also tend to encourage interaction: the Sightseer Lounge has open seating and is especially busy after lunch, and in the dining car, the host will combine any groups smaller than four people with strangers in order to fill every booth. Groups also coalesce at stations like Beaumont and El Paso in Texas and Tucson and Maricopa in Arizona, where the train stops for cigarette breaks. And at longer stops, like the nearly three-hour wait in San Antonio, passengers often venture out into the city together, heading to Denny’s for a midnight meal or to Alibis’ Sports and Spirits bar. Nobody on a long-distance train is ever really alone.

And so it was that Matthew Carr, who limped down the aisle to the seat that had been vacated by Suzy Lanza, found himself amid people in similar circumstances. Carr, 32, was a striking figure; a Marine veteran with strong shoulders, wary eyes and a sweep of whitish blond hair that fell across his forehead. Sitting in front of him were a 2-year-old boy, Sincere Prince Hernandez, and Sincere’s 28-year-old mother, Selena Hernandez, a large, attractive woman, six feet tall, with a round beaming smile and a royal blue kerchief tied around her head. Like Carr, Selena and Sincere were headed home, and like Carr, Selena knew that when she arrived, her home would no longer feel like home. Carr and Selena therefore belonged to the fourth, most fragile category of long-distance traveler: people who are starting over.

The previous week, Selena kicked her husband out of her house; she suspected that he was unfaithful and demanded a divorce. She feared that he would take their three children. He would stand outside on the street at odd hours, she said, watching the house. Selena decided to drop her older children with relatives and drove with Sincere and her grandmother to New Orleans to stay with family there. “Don’t mess with nobody from Belize,” said Selena, whose husband was Belizean. “For that matter no Haitians, no Panamanians, no Africans, no Dominicans. Puerto Ricans, you can work with.”

But soon after she arrived in New Orleans, Selena realized she couldn’t stay — her aunt had little patience for a 2-year-old’s antics. Then Selena’s grandmother, without warning, drove off with the car. There was nothing to do but take the train back to Los Angeles, even though Serena worried that her husband would be waiting for her. “My house might well be trashed,” she said, watching her son as he explored the darkened train car, racing up and down the aisle. Sincere, trusting and curious, was adopted by his fellow passengers, including Carr. He occupied himself for long stretches of time by serving as the train’s janitor, collecting gum wrappers, empty plastic cups and crumpled tinfoil and depositing them in the garbage basket.

At the San Antonio station, the train was connected to the newly arrived Texas Eagle, which originated in Chicago. Two passengers got off the train and went to a bar; when they returned, one was bleeding from the face. San Antonio Police arrived and escorted the men to jail.

After 2 a.m., the Rodriguez and Escamilla families boarded. There were eight of them — aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents of a boy who was celebrating his 1st birthday in Phoenix. After the child’s party, they planned to head straight to Las Vegas to gamble. They chatted loudly, laughing, oblivious or indifferent to the fact that Sincere was writhing exhaustedly in his mother’s lap and Matthew Carr was trying to find the position in which he could sleep with minimal pain.

The Sunset Limited was inaugurated in 1894, but its name comes from a pre-Civil War route: a train that departed Harrisburg, Tex., at sunrise would arrive at the route’s terminus in Columbus, 80 miles away, at sunset. Today it takes two sunsets, and two sunrises, for the Sunset Limited to reach its destination — provided there aren’t delays. When the sun set in Houston, the train was still in the South; by sunrise it had unmistakably entered the West. The bayous and flooded forests of southern Louisiana were replaced by a vast, sandy expanse interrupted by the occasional exclamation of a yucca plant, its pinkish flowers rising from an asterisk of spiky leaves. Rough dirt roads led to stables with horses dappled the same colors as the landscape: dark brown, cream, chestnut. In the distance marched a succession of flat-topped, sloped and nippled buttes. A canoe lay overturned in the dirt next to the track. The Sunset Limited had been in Texas for 16 hours; the New Mexican border was still more than 6 hours away.

The Rio Grande, which marks the border with Mexico, was now less than a mile from the train’s south-facing windows, and it was to Mexico that Carr had planned to move shortly after he returned home to Tucson. He was a mechanic by training and had made preparations to open a hydraulic shop in Agua Prieta, right across the border from Douglas, Ariz., where he planned to repair mining equipment. “The E.P.A.,” he said, “is not big down there.” But in Houston, where he spent the previous week at the V.A. Medical Center, he received bad news. A doctor told him that the femur bones in both of his legs were “dead” and beginning to “collapse.”

A year ago, while trying to lift a giant block of wood, Carr tore a disc in his back. Doctors at the Houston veterans hospital gave him a prescription for steroids, but the pain intensified, and one morning several months later, he awoke unable to walk. Three Tucson hospitals were mystified. It was not until he saw a doctor in Houston that Carr’s condition was diagnosed as avascular necrosis, a condition caused when blood is unable to reach bone tissue, which he suspected was related to the steroids. The day before he boarded the Sunset Limited, his doctor informed him that his femurs were beyond salvaging. He needed double hip surgery and, he was told, 20 to 30 years from now, both of his legs might need to be amputated. The longer he put off the surgery, the longer he would have use of his legs, but meanwhile the pain was constant and nearly unbearable.

“There’s nothing they can do,” he said, in a tone of disbelief. “My life’s over as I knew it.”

Sincere, staring up at Carr from the aisle, addressed him unintelligibly, with great feeling. Carr shook his head. He doubted whether he could start his new business. He had horrific visions of a legless future.

“You can get prosthetics,” Selena said. “They make really good ones now.”

Carr shrugged. He doubted any woman would want to have kids with a double amputee.

“Psh,” Selena said, laughing. “Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t mind a stump.”

They were interrupted by the sight of two pretty, pale-faced young women and one much older woman advancing down the aisle. The three women wore nearly identical full-length, hand-stitched cotton dresses, buttoned from neck to waist, in checkered patterns of blue and white, with matching aprons and capes that hung over their shoulders. Each woman kept her hair up in a bun, which she covered with a sheer white cap that tied in a bow beneath her chin with a ribbon. The only pieces of clothing they had not made themselves were their black sneakers. The two younger women blushed pink when they noticed the stares. “People talk to us because we look different,” said Sharon Douglas, who at 31 was the older of the two sisters. “And we do look different.”

In the lounge car they claimed the booth in front of Steve King, who was still gazing out the window, train schedule in hand. On the other side of them was a somewhat menacing-looking lone male traveler, in a black tank top, with an athletic build, shaved head and tattoos on his arms, chest and face. He called himself Mark and said that he was 37 and that he had fit all of his worldly possessions into a single carry-on bag. Mark was starting over: upon arriving in Tucson, he would walk into the desert, where nobody would bother him, and make camp. He was reading a copy of the Bible, which he raised in the direction of the caped women; they nodded and blushed. A middle-aged couple asked the women whether they were Amish or Mennonite.

“We’re German Baptist,” Sharon said, looking up from an old hardcover novel. “We have similar values but different beliefs.” Her community values self-sufficiency and eschews most conveniences of modern life, including electricity. Sharon, her sister Lynn and their grandmother lived outside of Dayton, in a small community of German Baptists. The women of the community all wore similar handmade dresses; the men wore broadfall pants, suspenders and straw hats. Sharon operated a rug loom and sewed caps and bonnets; during the summer she worked on a farm, harvesting sweet corn and melon. They use horses and buggies for transportation, though a dispensation has been made for tractors, buses and trains. They are permitted to ride in an automobile if necessary, provided that they do not themselves drive; the Douglases had paid a boy they knew in town to drive them to the train station in Indianapolis.

“German Baptist — that mean you’re of German descent?” I asked.

Sharon smiled uncertainly. “We feel,” she said at last, “that we’re descended from Jesus.”

In some sense, the German Baptists overlapped with each of the four dominant categories of long-distance train passengers. They didn’t fly for religious reasons; they were not quite obsessed with trains, but they were fascinated by sights of a country otherwise invisible to them; like the Thibodaux 8, they were escaping home while knowing that they would soon return to their looms and their sweet corn. Like everyone else on a long-distance train, they were in-betweeners — in transit, in other words.

The train left the El Paso station, skirting the chain-link fence that traced the Mexican border; to the right were glass office buildings and parking lots; to the left, sloping downward, were Juarez’s sandy roads and its orange, lime green and white shacks with laundry hanging from clotheslines over dirt yards. Lynn and her grandmother played the card game Set, which has its own set of cards — they forswore standard decks in order to avoid the temptation of gambling. At the end of the car, the Rodriguezes and Escamillas were betting on hands of poker — five-card stud, Follow the Queen, No Peek — in the same two booths where, 24 hours earlier, the Thibodaux Toups played Pedro.

The German Baptist sisters were visiting relatives in Benson, Ariz. Their grandmother would stay there, but they would return to Ohio, taking the long route in order to see more of the country: the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight to Seattle, the Empire Builder to Chicago and the Cardinal back to Indianapolis. Lynn, six years Sharon’s junior, was engaged. Upon returning to Ohio, she would be married. Sharon was single.

“It must be difficult to find a suitable match in such a small community,” I said.

“Not really,” Sharon said. “There are 40 other young people in our community. More than half of those are male.”

She returned, blushing, to her book. It was a first-edition hardcover copy of a 1951 novel, Argye M. Briggs’s “Hem of His Garment.” Sharon’s mother gave it to her for the journey. Sharon didn’t find the novel particularly exciting. It was about a young woman whose religious devotion was tested by a difficult marriage and the tribulations of rural life. The heroine’s name was Sharon.

Sharon was soon distracted by the scenery outside the train. The Sunset Limited was approaching its second sunset; it had traversed the Continental Divide and the Arizona border. The desert was reddish and brown; the Dragoon Mountains scraped the underbelly of gray clouds. Sharon didn’t want to miss anything — train travel was her only opportunity to see the country, after all, and when the sun rose, the train would be in Union Station.

Sharon and Lynn had a four-hour layover in Los Angeles, and they already knew how they were going to use it. They would catch the Big Blue Bus’s Rapid 10 line, which ran express to Santa Monica. They would debark at the last stop and walk together to the end of the Santa Monica pier so that they could see the Pacific Ocean. And there they would remain, standing at the edge of the continent, staring at the sea, until it was time to get back on the Big Blue Bus, which would take them to the Coast Starlight, which would take them to the Empire Builder, which would take them to the Cardinal, which would take them to Indianapolis, where a boy with a car would be waiting to take them home.”

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by | March 3, 2013 · 5:53 pm