Alexander McCall Smith: What I learned on the train to Watergate

Alexander McCall Smith reflects on the moral complexities of life after a train journey from New York’s Penn Station to Washington and the Watergate Hotel.

Passengers board an Amtrak train at Penn Station in New York City, but do they have the correct ticket? (Picture: Joe Raedle/Gettyimages)
Passengers board an Amtrak train at Penn Station in New York City, but do they have the correct ticket? (Picture: Joe Raedle/Gettyimages)

Last week I travelled from New York to Washington by train. The train is called the Acela Express, and boarding it at Penn Station is rather more complicated than catching a train in the UK. Reservations are essential and you are marshalled in line before being allowed to descend by escalator to the appointed platform. There are also porters – redcaps – whose equivalents have long since disappeared from British stations. They are a colourful group, straight from central casting, and I suspect that their licences, like many such lucrative positions in New York, are passed down the generations on an hereditary basis.

I was shown to my place on the train and had barely settled down when another passenger appeared and enquired whether I was in the right seat. I produced my ticket and pointed, with an air of injured innocence, to the reservation section. Sure enough, it said Seat 4F, and that was exactly the seat I was occupying. The other passenger, who remained polite throughout this encounter, then called the conductor, a man who, like so many conductors on American trains, had a deep bass voice, most suitable for calling out the names of approaching stations as if they were part of an operatic libretto. The conductor looked at both tickets and shook his head. It was, he said, the computer up to its old tricks, but he would find a seat for the other man.

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The Watergate Hotel in Washington has been associated with political scandal since the downfall of Richard Nixon as president (Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I sat back with the satisfaction of knowing that since I had been there first, I was entitled to prevail in any case of double-booking. Across the aisle, a fellow passenger smiled at me, conveying the information that she agreed that I was in the right and should now sit back and enjoy the trip.

Half an hour later, as the train made its way down the coast, the ticket inspector came to examine tickets. He tried to scan mine into his device, but discovered that it would not be entered. There was more shaking of heads and then, as he scrutinised the details, he realised that my ticket – and reservation – was for the previous day. I had been given – through nobody’s fault – the wrong ticket and was therefore sitting in the seat that morally belonged to the passenger who had been placed elsewhere. The inspector could have asked me to leave the train, or charged me a fresh fare, but he did not. There are deep wells of kindness in the United States, and I had just drawn on one of them.

Wrong when we think we’re right

As the train made its way down the coast, through a landscape of deserted and decaying factories, I reflected on the moral issues revealed by this incident. We can be in the wrong even when we think we are in the right. That is a proposition worth remembering and, if generalised, may make us a whole lot less sure of our positions. Which might not be a bad thing, especially in times of disagreement and division (in other words, today). It might also make one think of how the things to which we think we are entitled may actually belong to another. And again, those of us who have, might reflect on how much of what we have was actually obtained by dispossessing or exploiting the have-nots.

And then I thought of another recent experience that had caused me to engage in further moral reflection. Some months ago I made a purchase in Scotland. The young man serving me rounded down the price appreciably. “Let’s call it x,” he said, cutting the price by over twenty pounds. I did not think the matter through and simply nodded and paid. Then a few hours later I realised how wrong that was. It was not for him, as an employee, to adjust the price. He had effectively robbed his employer of twenty pounds. But what could I do? I felt obliged to make up the shortfall, but if I went to the manager of the concern and handed over the sum in question I would be causing a lot of difficulty for the young man. He could lose his job and I would be the whistle-blower. And yet being a whistle-blower is an honourable thing to be. I decided to send the money anonymously to the firm. But then I thought: is it ever right to write an anonymous letter?

These reflections lasted for a good part of the journey to Washington. Once out of the station, I was driven to my hotel, the Watergate Hotel. Now there’s a story of moral complexity. In the lobby of the hotel, the man in front of me was offered the hotel’s Scandal Suite, which costs an extra three hundred dollars. You get a whole lot of Nixon memorabilia for that – photographs of the burglars on the walls and so on.

A much-loved politician

I stayed in an ordinary room, with no Nixonian associations. Later that day I went to give a talk at the Library of Congress. The Capitol Building itself was barricaded off, as a much loved African American congressman was lying in state that day. I read in the paper the next day that he represented a deprived area of Baltimore and that his life had not been easy. This gave me further cause to reflect and, later that evening, to write a short poem entitled Library of Congress. It begins by referring to the images that adorn the Library’s entrance hall:

“The frescoes here proclaim

Good government and the truth,

And the dangers of those things

That impede the proper living

Of the democratic life …”

And it ends by referring to the late congressman, and to his courtesy:

“To those who slighted him he said:

Come down and see me, come

And see us, see how people live.”

I was late back at the Watergate Hotel. The kitchen was closed because of gas repairs, and they referred me to an outside restaurant by the side of the river. There I had one of the worst meals I have had for years, in which even the Caprese salad was inedible.

Morally, the restaurant should have given me my money back when they saw my unfinished plate.

But it was late, and none of it was the waiter’s fault, or even the chef’s (he, I imagine had to make do with what he was given, and so the blame lay elsewhere). That gave me something to think about on the walk back to the Watergate Hotel. Life is rarely simple.