Connecting with fellow passengers can make their day. And yours.
(This essay became the genesis of my second musical play, Tracks.)
BALANCING IN A TRAIN CAR aisle, I had often smiled down at children. But no child was ever as tiny or restless as the caged, bug-eyed rodent staring back one winter’s eve in 1993. Her nose twitched despite the calming hand of a portly black woman.
“Who’s your friend?” I inquired.
“Jenny,” she smiled. “She’s a ferret. I’m checking in to the hospital for surgery. I’ll be there a week. Jenny and I have no other family, so we’re going together.”
During the next three stops, I learned why the woman doted on Jenny and dreaded hospitals. But I neglected to learn her name, or that of her hospital. No name, no visit—no brains.
“You did plenty,” a compassionate colleague reassured me. “You went too far,” reproved another. In his reproachful eyes, I had invaded her space.
I confess: In the army of Space Invaders, I’m a five-star general. I can’t ride an elevator two floors without lobbing a pleasantry. I do it because riders invariably warm to my icebreakers, as a widow warms to a drop-in visitor, as the rider pressed at your shoulder may tingle when the breath of your nostrils warms her neck. We all need human contact.
City of strangers
Many train riders bury themselves behind headlines or headphones. To them I say: Read. Listen.
But find me one pair of lonely eyes.
♫ It’s a city of strangers—
Some come to work, some to play—
A city of strangers—
Some come to stare, some to stay,
And every day / The ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks,
Another hundred people just got off of the train. ♫
(“Another Hundred People,” ©1970 Stephen Sondheim, from Company)
In a train car crammed with silent strangers, a lonely rider feels frozen out by human icicles. Until one day she finds herself seated next to a human icebreaker. Like me.
Our conversations can be disarmingly intimate. A month before meeting the ferret lady, I struck up a tête à tête with a single woman of 37. She wanted a child but had all but given up on finding Mr. Right.
It’s amazing, the questions a strange man will ask you when he’ll never see you again. Questions like:
“Have you considered freezing your eggs?”
“You know,” she replied, “my girlfriends have been urging me to. Maybe I’ll look into it.”
An anthropologist from Mars
February 1993: Six weeks have passed since I met Jenny. I’m still cursing my dim wits for failing to visit her companion. As penance, I pass up the vacancy beside a Barbara Hershey look-alike. Instead I park beside an elderly white woman.
As I compose my icebreaker, we watch three teenage boys make a ruckus. “They must want an audience,” I smile.
“Youngsters will do most anything to assert dominance.”
Who is this woman? “Are you a psychologist?” I ask.
“Not exactly. I’m an anthropologist.”
“Of course,” I observe, studying her face. “You rather look and sound like Margaret Mead.”
“Actually,” she notes, “Mead was the other kind of anthropologist.”
“Ah!” I reply, remembering my college lessons. “Mead was a cultural anthropologist. That makes you a biological anthropologist.”
“Precisely!” she says, with obvious delight. “I work at the Smithsonian; 51 years, come June.”
“Why, you have the most interesting job in the world!” I exclaim. “May I ask you some questions?”
“Please do.” For ten minutes, it’s 1974, and I’m once again a freshman at the University of Chicago, feasting at a banquet of professors’ pearls. Do the two kinds of anthropologist agree on schemes for classifying? What have been the century’s greatest discoveries? What discoveries do you hope to see before you—before it’s too late?
The lines on her face melt away, as though bathed in Oil of Olay.
My wife suspects I’m just one genetic mutation removed from Steve Urkel, the nebbishy neighbor boy on the 1990s TV series Family Matters. In the episode “Christmas is Where the Heart Is,” long-suffering Carl Winslow and Urkel are stuck on a dark subway on Christmas Eve. Urkel tries to coax the spirit of Christmas into the grumpy riders. At first, they—and Carl—want to lynch him. By the time the lights come on, they’re caroling.
Far-fetched? Not to me, nor to MARTA train riders in Atlanta, Georgia. One night in 1998, after a Billy Joel concert, scores of fans were awaiting the train home. A young man pulled out a harmonica and began to play “Piano Man.” By the first chorus—“Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man”—a trainful of voices had joined in.
“Rockville Station, left door,” drones our conductor.
“This is my stop,” my gray-haired friend apologizes. She shuffles to the queue that’s forming at the door.
I can’t let her leave just like that. The way I left the ferret lady. I call out, “This has been the best part of my week!”
She turns and smiles: “Mine, too.”
Then six cars lurch to a stop, doors swing open, a chill wind rushes in, and another hundred people are reclaimed by a city of strangers, safe from unsung songs, untold tales, and unbidden love.
©2003 Paul Franklin Stregevsky