Another View: Let laughter roll down like wine

By: Tricia Caspers, Columnist
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I’m a fan of big laughter. My dad always had the loudest laugh in the room, and I’ve been known to embarrass my children with a hearty guffaw now and again. So when my husband and I went on the Napa Wine Train last weekend, we heard a large group of women laughing boisterously at the front of the lounge car, and we said to each other, “Sounds like they’re having a good time,” and thought nothing more of it.

That evening we were shocked to hear that the laughing women – almost all of them Black, one of them an 83-year-old, according to reports – had been kicked off the train.

Because my husband and I were celebrating our tenth anniversary, because it was our first vacation away from our son in five years, because we rushed to Napa from the foothills, didn’t have breakfast and started our journey with a five-glass wine tasting flight each, we were in a blissful bubble and not paying too much attention to what was going on around us.

Since then, we’ve been following the story on social media and trying to piece together what we saw and heard.

When the host sat us in our section of the lounge car, he mentioned that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy two seats in front of one large window because the large group at the front of the car – he gestured to the laughing women – had a last-minute unexpected addition to their party. Though we were seated together, my husband sat in front of one window, and I sat in front of another, with wood paneling between them.

It was a bummer, but not a big deal, and we certainly didn’t blame the laughing women. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it if the host hadn’t mentioned it, but maybe that knowledge turned the other travelers’ sentiments against the party from the beginning.

Lisa Renee Johnson was one of the women kicked off the train, and according to her Facebook posts, one woman in a blue shirt complained to the Wine Train staff and started all the trouble.

My husband remembered, though, that a small party opposite from us asked if they could move to a different car. We don’t know why. When we all moved to the lunch car, I overheard a family (who happened to mention they were originally from India) tell their waitress that they didn’t enjoy their time in the lounge car. I don’t know whether or not that was because of the laughing women. It could have been because my big head was blocking their view of the vineyards.

About 15 minutes before we were all asked to adjourn to the lunch car, my husband and I stepped out to admire the view from the observation deck. We don’t know what went down in the lounge car while we were waving to passersby and chatting with other travelers, but upon returning we noticed that the party of laughing women was silent, and they didn’t join us in the lunch car. They did walk by us after we were seated at our lunch table, but I didn’t think anything of it because folks were always passing by, exploring the different cars. In fact, some of the wine train packages include exiting the train to visit wineries, so it didn’t seem unusual that a large party was gone. We thought it was odd that the trip was delayed by 30 minutes, but we’ve ridden trains before. That happens.

According to Johnson’s Facebook posts, while we were ordering our lunch, her group – a book club, it turns out – was escorted off the train where a host of police officers met them and took them to a bus where they were shuttled back to their cars.

This is the part that makes me feel sick. I was enjoying my ahi tuna, shrimp and crème brulee while the wait staff pretended there was nothing amiss, and we all went about having a fine time, learning the history of the wine country while a group of women were being humiliated just outside.

If I had been seated on the opposite side of the train where I might have seen the no- longer-laughing women and the police cars; if I hadn’t been on the observation deck when they were told they had to get off the train – what would I have done?

I like to think I would have walked off the train with them.

I told my friend this story, and my friend pointed out that I don’t know what happened when the laughing women were asked to quiet down. Maybe they became belligerent, and that’s why they were asked to leave. Maybe.

But I didn’t see any reason to ask the laughing women to pipe down in the first place. They were not drunk or crude, and I certainly would have been annoyed – angry, even – if my large, wine-drinking party had been asked to stop laughing. A train is small, but it’s not a movie theater where silence is required, and travelers should expect to bump against the eccentricities of strangers. That’s what makes it a journey.

So, Lisa Renee Johnson, I want you to know that I’m very sorry this happened to you and your friends, and I wish your book club a future full of raucous belly laughter. 

Tricia Caspers-Ross is an award-winning poet and reporter for the Auburn Journal. She tweets at @patriciacaspers.