Fleeting Moments With Strangers

Union Station, Chicago.

For as long as I can remember, strangers have engaged me in conversations. Location was irrelevant. I could wind up hearing the intimate details of someone’s life while in line at a grocery store or in the waiting room at a hospital. Even waiters at restaurants sometimes seemed to forget I was a customer, hanging around my table to share all kinds of personal information. I honestly don’t know what kind of signals I send out that invite this kind of exchange. I don’t think I’m that much more friendly than anyone else. Why me? People talk to me everywhere. After knowing me for awhile, every time we were going anywhere where there might be substantial numbers of people, my husband would say, “don’t make eye contact with anyone. We have things to do and I don’t feel like getting stuck, listening to someone telling you a life story.” I remember being at crowded airport gates, when within minutes, I’d be hearing sad tales from a random individual who seemed to instinctively know I would listen, while watching Michael sigh and slump resignedly into a chair, knowing my attention would be elsewhere for awhile. Most of the time his natural curiosity made him a good sport but he also found these delays in our plans to be pretty annoying. These days, when I’m on my own, especially when traveling, I feel like I’m emitting signals which let people know that I’m a good option as a listener. And I’ll readily admit that being alone, observing the behaviors of people around me and engaging with individuals I’ll only “know” for a short time is thought-provoking and interesting. Being away from my usual routine always brings surprises at how life works outside my little sphere. A fresh perspective is a good thing.

Last week I boarded a train in my hometown for the first leg of a journey that took me to beautiful Union Station in Chicago and then on to Colorado for a visit with my recently re-located son and his family. As I stood in line on the platform waiting for that initial train, I was behind two people, one of whom was a blind man and the other, a woman who seemed to be his friend, guiding him by the elbow as we snaked toward the doors. But as the line broke apart, with passengers heading to the train cars based on where they were exiting, the man went one way, while the woman went the other. Ultimately, she and I entered the same compartment. When the train pulled away, she immediately asked me if I’d keep an eye on her things as she needed to get her morning coffee. She leaned down and said with a tone of confidentiality, “you don’t even want to know me before I’ve had my coffee.” I knew that as soon as she returned, she would begin a conversation. And so she did. Before that two and a half hour ride was over, I knew both hers and her husband’s professions, how many homes they owned and all about their only child, a financially successful son living in San Francisco. He was handsome and athletic with lots of friends, but single. She then said she really wasn’t certain about his sexuality and felt rebuffed when she told him how much she really wanted a grandchild. Then the train pulled into the station with me going my way and she going hers. Somewhere in the middle of all that she did give me a recommendation about squirrel-proof bird feeders which I made note of in my phone. I also know where she lives because her house in our mutual hometown is a relatively new one in an older neighborhood. I spent decades as an assessment official, meaning I know a lot about real estate and had actually measured her home after it was built. And that was that. I don’t know her name and she doesn’t know mine. Will our paths cross again one day? Who knows?

The Metropolitan Lounge in Union Station

I grabbed a quick lunch in the food court at the station, always a good place to people-watch. Sometimes sad-looking characters wander through that area. There are men who shuffle along, looking confused and aimless, women with swollen feet and ankles, talking to no one in particular about nothing in particular. A reminder of how lucky I am to still feel relatively healthy and purposeful in my actions. Then I headed to the Metropolitan Lounge, a waiting area for passengers holding sleeper car tickets.

A woman started talking to me in that lounge as we were both between trains. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her Colorado, she relayed the following story. Two years ago, she made train reservations to visit a friend in Colorado Springs. A month before her departure, she received a phone call from Amtrak telling her that the car to which she was assigned was disabled. Would she like to reschedule her trip or get her money back? Huh? She then asked the caller to make a three-way conference call so her friend could hear what happened and thus would not think she was fabricating the story because she really didn’t want to visit. Okay…why in the world did she feel compelled to share this odd tale with me. I had no clue. I simply wished her a safe journey, wherever she was going this time. She never did tell me her current destination.

Departure line outside the Lounge.

Next, a woman and her husband, both appearing to be in their early 70’s, entered the lounge. The woman was very unsteady on her feet, bent forward at her waist, as if her upper body weight could randomly cause her to tip over. She asked if she could join me at the table where I’d parked myself until departure time. I immediately replied in the affirmative. I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t have a walker when she looked so delicate in an upright position. After sitting for about twenty minutes, an Amtrak employee announced that it was time for everyone boarding the #3 train, the Southwest Chief, to line up against the wall with their baggage so we could be led through the labyrinth-like underground part of the station to our departure track. She also announced that anyone requiring special assistance could be driven to the train on an elaborate golf cart-like vehicle. I scrambled around with my suitcase and backpack and eventually found myself lined up, surprisingly behind the wobbly woman and her husband, both of whom were steering extra large blue suitcases, each with four wheels. I was astonished that they hadn’t availed themselves of a ride to the train.

As we filed our way through the tunnel-like curves, dodging people and carts, I became increasingly concerned, as every ten feet or so, the woman would stumble, her body leaning forward at a precarious angle. I could tell that the weight of the suitcase, often rolling slightly downhill, was setting a quick pace which she couldn’t control. Every now and then, her husband grabbed her elbow but he too was busy maneuvering his own cumbersome case. She managed to catch herself three or four times. Finally we entered the last stretch when we were closing in on boarding the train.

The dangerous concrete pillar.

I grew more alarmed, as the episodes of the woman stumbling forward were increasing in frequency. Suddenly she bent almost in half, her rolling suitcase propelling her ahead until she landed, face first, on one of the concrete pillars that supports the ceiling of the station. She sank slowly to the ground. I reached her almost as quickly as her husband who pulled her up to a standing position, blood pouring from her nose. I asked what I could do to help. All he asked for was a tissue to help mop up the blood. I was mostly incredulous, thinking that they could just continue, dragging their bags, climbing aboard this cross-country train with her in such a vulnerable condition. But that’s what they did. Was this a vacation? I couldn’t make sense of it. No one asked for my opinion, nor did I offer one. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how a few simple steps could have made her experience avoidable. What were they thinking? Or not thinking?

My roomette on the train.

Finally I was on the train, and settled into my berth. Loading time takes awhile and it’s common to keep your privacy doors open until everyone is aboard. Across the narrow hall was a couple about my age who started a casual conversation about how warm our little rooms were. From there they told me that they’d gotten on this train in Cincinnati and were taking it all the way to Los Angeles where they’d get off for eight hours to explore the city before boarding another train to go home. Evidently they’d spent a similar amount of time in Chicago. Hmm…they had three giant suitcases. I couldn’t understand why they needed so much luggage when they were spending most of their time just riding. But that’s just my opinion. Then the conversation turned more serious. The woman, whose name I never learned, told me that her 32 year old son died of Covid a year and a half ago. He was engaged at the time of his death. A scant two months later, his fiancée married someone else. She was pregnant. She and her husband sued her for a paternity test in case the baby was their grandchild. What a dreadfully painful story. After we slid our doors closed for the night, I never saw them again until they departed their berth for breakfast as I was pulling into my final destination. Although I’ll never see them again, I think I’ll always remember their sad story, losing their only son and spending their days, riding trains up and back across the country.

Sunset through the train window.

Less than 24 hours of travel and oh, the things you hear and see out in the big world. Shared moments with total strangers, everyone with a their own backstories. Travel certainly is an eye-opening experience. There’s so much happening, parallel to us and often invisible as we make our way through life. A lot to ponder on a rumbling train in the night. And later, too.

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