Some time back I boarded an Amtrak train for my first long-distance U.S. train ride. At this point I should mention that the romanticizing of events, especially travel-related ones, comes quite easily and naturally to me so this train ride was not thought of as a mere form of transit from point A to point B, but imagined instead as possessing 40’s jazz-era glamor, i.e. champagne in the dining car, men in fedoras, etc. The seat-mate I dreamt for myself would be thoughtful and intelligent, adept at the rhythm and sway of conversational dance with a stranger and the hours and scenery would while away with pleasant engagement.
Once I boarded the train it became clear my imagination had “gone off the rails” and that reality not only didn’t favor my naive romanticism, but would set me back on track with indifferent bluntness. There wouldn’t be any men deftly pulling the chain of a pocket watch from their waistcoat to check the time or women in pencil skirts audibly clicking shut their handbags with elegantly gloved hands.
When I got to my assigned seat I found my real-life seat-mate sleeping with her hands tucked deeply down the front of her pants and our conversation consisted of little more than her saying “sorry” when she jostled me while lifting her shirt all the way up to apply deodorant right there in the seat next to me. It was at that point I wanted to weep into my imaginary lacey-veiled pillbox hat but focused instead on enjoying the live movie provided by the passing scenery set to the rail rhythms. Fast forward to the return trip which originated amidst the crowds and chaos of New York’s Penn Station. When you purchase your ticket from Amtrak it is sold as a “reserved seat”, and indeed, when I departed Virginia, one of the conductors gave me the golden ticket assigned seat which landed me next to Miss Hygeina Inappropria. In New York though, once the platform was announced an entire train’s worth of people carting their luggage swarmed en masse to the too-small staircase leading to the train and once on board it resembled something like a carnival game of cake walk. The train seemed fairly full but I finally managed to secure a window seat and was surprised when the seat next to me remained empty as we pulled out of the station. The first stop was in New Jersey and the platform seemed to have relatively few passengers awaiting our train. Then sounds of the air click and whoosh of the door opening and the boarding commotion as a porter toting luggage came up the aisle in search of a seat for an elderly gentlemen who was making his way up the aisle using a walker. They stopped at the available aisle seat next to me and as the stop was a short one the porter quickly stashed the man’s bag above and exited the train. The gentleman was somewhat flustered as the porter had left before he had been settled into his seat and now his folded walker was half hooked over his armrest but falling into the aisle. The train pulled out of the station and a conductor came by then to check the gentleman’s ticket and thankfully, stow the walker as well. As the gentleman retrieved the ticket from his coat pocket he asked what time the train would arrive to Washington D.C. as his original train had been delayed by a few hours until he was finally told at the last moment to board this train. The conductor gave him an ETA but was anxious to move on and away from the man’s tale of the tardy train. The conductor departed and the gentleman then turned to me to relay his frustration about his travel day so far and his concern over arriving late into Washington. My dashed seat-mate hopes on the outbound journey had kept my expectations for the return trip low but I honestly was hoping he wasn’t going to be a mopey grumbler the whole way. He then realized he needed to update the party that was picking him up with his new arrival time so he pulled out his phone and made a call. His face lit up when his party answered and his entire countenance changed. Gone was the furrowed brow and tightened lip of a long-delayed traveler replaced by sparkly eyes and a wide smile, his phone call had reassured both of us in different ways! He hung up and introduced himself. His name was David and he had just gotten off the phone with his daughter who would be picking him up. He told me he was 91 years old and the reason he was traveling to Washington was to attend his great-granddaughter’s 1st birthday party, which is why he was so upset at being delayed but his daughter had reassured him the party would await his arrival. We chatted for a bit until he excused himself in order to eat a sandwich he had brought along.
The train ride clacked along with us both absorbed in our own thoughts until finally he turned to me and asked where I was headed. I explained I had been in NY for work but that my husband and I lived about an hour outside of DC. He eventually asked my name, and when I gave it to him he began to sing one of the several songs about my name in a lovely voice. When I complimented him on his singing he went on to sing me beautiful bits of different operas in the language they were written. When I marveled at that it opened another door to further discussion with this amazing man, who spoke several languages fluently and had traveled the globe for his business. Now fully engaged with one another we were both turned in our seats to more fully smile, laugh and converse with one another.
Thinking on the experience of my wonderful seat-mate now I wonder how often we are too quick to judge the stranger in our midst, and how much richer our lives would be if instead of always racing to our destination so frantically we could occasionally meander off course and take the time to appreciate each others life stories, charm, foibles and all. (Maybe deodorant-girl had a fascinating tale of her own to tell. Then again…nah.)
P.S. Sorry for the wonkadonk layout…think I tried everything short of taking a sledgehammer to my laptop so….