Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stories on the Train

A day-long train ride lay ahead of me to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was headed for a visit to an old friend.  I was prepared to enjoy lots of quiet time with my books and my journal, and I did, and more.  I’m always struck by how cordial everyone is in train travel, smiling, nodding, talking, with an ease absent from the stress-filled world of plane travel.  My first encounter reflected that, exchanging pleasantries with the woman next to me in the Union Station as she made preparations to board her severely epileptic daughter. 

Once on board, I plunked myself down in my assigned seat. Within 15 minutes my seatmate, Linda, and I had had that amazing instant connection and sharing of life stories that women often have, each subsequent layer of revealing changing our initial perceptions of one another.  She was safeguarding in the rack above us a huge bag of bagels from Zabar’s that she was bringing from her home, New York City, to her children living near Raleigh where she had grown up.  We talked about how we both love trees, about my growing up in Massachusetts, about her idyllic youthful vacations with a lover on Cape Cod.  She related how when she decided to leave Raleigh in her early 20s in the late 1960s, she’d gone to stay with her brother who lived in New York.  Her parents had hoped he would keep an eye on her, but it was futile.  “I had fun!” she laughed.  Pink-tipped curls against her chocolate brown face peeked from beneath a purple scarf, a purple pashmina in her lap over black jeans and tee. Her wrist was covered with silver bracelets her former husband got her because, she said, as if it were evident, “he knew I loved silver.”  We compared our tastes in books and magazines.  She talked about how she was weaning herself off TV, and we discussed needing a quiet space and time in our days to remember who we really are.  We companionably offered one another the bits of the food we’d brought in our carry-ons for our long rides.  Hours later, we were sad to say goodbye, and laughed as she carried so much stuff she had to disembark into the down-South heat wearing her up-North down jacket.

As Linda had slept, snoring quietly, for part of the ride, I enjoyed people-watching.  A few bored-looking teens sitting next to their parents listened to iPods and texted.   A ‘tween helped her considerably shorter mother get several bags down from the rack above with one hand , the other hand and her attention engaged elsewhere, on her cell phone inside her hoodie dispensing advice to a lovelorn girlfriend.  A middle-aged woman’s elegant attire contrasted with the grocery bag from which she periodically pulled out and knitted a never-ending ugly scarf.  A cute 30-something woman earnestly did paperwork, until her craving for chocolate derailed her and sent her to the café car for a bag of M&Ms, after which she never quite got back to work.

A friendly younger man and I chatted as we got off midday at one of the proclaimed smoke/stretch breaks offered.  Moving past the cluster of smokers we basked in the sun and I did stretches on the railings on the platform. 

After Linda left, an elderly woman from Wilson, N.C. sat down.  She was visiting family in Charlotte, carrying barbecue in a cooler that seemed heavier than she was.  When I asked incredulously if they didn’t have barbecue in Charlotte, she replied matter-of-factly, “yes, but they don’t make it like they do in Wilson.” (My friend later confirmed this.)  We discussed a mutual love of water aerobics and how much we were “not morning people.”  She was delighted when I shared my decadent mint truffles.   We reassured one another when the train was delayed with switch problems and to save fuel the lights were turned off.  One of the engineers broke the tension by joking, “I’m going to be lighting candles for you all in a minute here,” as he walked through our car.

No cards were exchanged or phone numbers keyed into BlackBerrys, but comforting connections were made among strangers on a train.

Finally disembarking close to 11 p.m., as we walked down ramps from two sides of the platform that merged into one entrance, I saw a vision before me.  A young woman with sky blue hair and ringlets around her face and a jaunty black bow, wearing a jazzy black and white print blouse with cap sleeves, over a very short, poufy, shimmery beaded black skirt, atop black and white fishnets and a pair of chunky, short black boots with heels, their black bows complementing the one atop her head.  She was perfect, totally at ease with herself.   I entered the station with an ear-to-ear grin.

[Author’s note:   This summer I’ll be mixing original posts with some reader favorites from my “Grace in the Gray Areas” column in Washington Woman magazine. This post originally appeared in that column.]


  1. What an amusing story. Now I want to take a train trip. I wonder if I can get a train from Toronto to DC? I think I spotted the girl you mention at the end of your piece over at the local book shop yesterday! :)

  2. Karen you remind me that I don't hate everyone. Everyone deserves a little more time, a little less distance and a loving gaze. Thanks for glueing and posting that scene for us. I was the woman ISO the M&Ms.

  3. Well, Dana, you really said a mouthful--in a lot more succinct but far more eloquent way than I. That's beautiful. Leslie Jane--I've only gone as far north as Stowe, Vermont on Amtrak but I bet Toronto would be a great trip!