Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Club Members Thrown Off Napa Valley Wine Train

Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club
In case you missed this story. Last Saturday 11 members of a book club were thrown off the Napa Valley Wine Train for being noisy and disturbing the other passengers. A few words about the train. First, it's very noisy. It's a vintage train that rattles and rolls as it heads up and down the valley. One needs to speak loudly if one is to be heard. Because the train is narrow, seating as a group is spread out. Second, for those not familiar with the Wine Train, it is not a commuter train. It's a social train where couples and groups come to dine, drink wine, and talk. The fact that a group of book club women were literally thrown off, met by police after being forced to disembark, and escorted in vans back to the starting point of the train is pretty outrageous no matter how you look at it. Worse, of course, is how the Napa Valley Wine Train chose to address the issue--first with a notice on their Facebook page (now removed) and later by hiring an outside publicist to deal with the incident. Damage done. It has been alleged that the incident was racially motivated (10 of the 11 women were African American). Accounts and pictures of the episode have been spreading across social media, hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack, while the women involved have questioned whether they would have been treated differently if they were not African American.

I know that our Book Club has gotten a bit loud in the past. Booklovers are passionate about their feelings and opinions of  books--and other subjects when together. I don't know if the women were discussing a book or if they were just out for a good time, but I can't seem to get around the way they were treated. I have been on the wine train several times. The book club members were seated in the rearmost of six Pullman cars--four women sat at each of two tables on either side of the aisle, while three others occupied seats just ahead. So the women were seated on both sides of the aisle (it's a narrow train) and having fun. One has to speak loudly to be heard over the roar of the engines and clanking of the rails, especially if you're in a large group.

The 11 women of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club were asked to lower their voices a few times before a staff member gave them a choice: "Pipe down, or get off at the next station." They were then marched through several cars of the train in order to disembark in St Helena. 

Lisa Johnson, who documented the trip on her Facebook page, said the club members, 10 black women and one white woman all dressed in matching T-shirts, were indeed noisy, but “normal for a group of 11 people communicating, laughing and enjoying themselves.” The book club has been together for 17 years, she said, with members ranging in age from their late 30s to 85. The club often does social events, sometimes at upscale restaurants, and has never been disciplined for noise, Ms. Johnson said.

After several miles of “chitchatting” among the club members, Johnson said, the train’s maître d’hotel told the group, “Your noise level is a little loud, and you have to tone it down so we don’t make others uncomfortable."

“We thought the purpose of the Wine Train was to have a good time and enjoy being with a large group. No one told us of any noise ordinance. If you get a group of 11 women talking and laughing, it’s going to be loud,” Johnson said.

Later, the maître d’hotel came by a second time, warning the women they would be ordered off the train if they didn’t quiet down, Johnson said.

“She said people were complaining, and I said, ‘Who’s complaining?’ And she said, ‘Well, people’s faces are uncomfortable,'” said Johnson. “At that point, one passenger nearby said, 'Well, this is not a bar.' We reacted, 'Yes, it is a bar, a bar on wheels.'"

A Facebook post from the company written after the incident obliquely referenced the book club’s ouster and accused the women of “verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff.” The post was later taken down, but not before Johnson took a screenshot and posted it online. Sam Singer speaking for the Napa Valley Train told the New York Times that the post, written by a junior staff member, was wrong — the women had not been abusive — which is why it was taken down. He added that the incident could have been handled better — the group, which included an 83-year-old woman, didn’t need to be paraded through all six cars of the train, and perhaps the women could have been set up in another area. If the staff members had been being more considerate, he said, “they would have thought of another way to get them off the train.” 

The expelled book club members will soon decide on their next steps, said Johnson, including whether to pursue a lawsuit or civil rights complaint against the Wine Train.

So here are links to several different reports. The women in the book group did post on Facebook and other social media throughout the incident--and after, as did fellow passengers.

Washington Post

New York Times

Los Angeles Times 

Napa Valley Register 

San Francisco Chronicle

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