the man at penn station

I can’t stop thinking about the young man at Penn Station who surprised me in my welcome solitude with, “Where’s the train for North Carolina? Will it be hot there?” On an Amtrak trek across North America from his home state of California, his next stop was somewhere in North Carolina (Charlotte, according to the board). In this young man’s green, environmentally friendly mesh bag was a bottle of wine from Vermont he has yet to drink, and the train ride through Albany, he thinks, is the most beautiful trip he’s ever taken. I learned all of this before I had a chance to notice the man behind the mouth. I’m not a morning person (just ask anyone who’s woken me up), as I believe most people will admit, nor am I fond of meaningless chatter, so the possibility of making small talk with this stranger began to burn any bit of energy I might have been saving to board my train. I could feel the heat of frustration developing and for the first time in my “I’m a nice person” life hoped this stranger would sense that frustration on my face and with my one-word answers. But he began to engage with questions in succession that required full-blown sentences for my answers, and I couldn’t just turn away: “I guess I’ll eat my bagel now. What are you doing in Albany? What were you doing in New York City, or was it just a stop? What kind of work do you do? Did you know that billboards are illegal in Vermont? Have you ever been to Montreal? What about the something something (he spoke French here)? It means something of God, so it’s easy to remember.” (I forgot what the something was; see how easy that was to remember?) I couldn’t tell him to “beat it, punk.” My mama didn’t raise an inconsiderate daughter, but she also didn’t raise a fool. I’ve been around the block. What if this was a scam? Some sweet, unassuming kid chats up a traveler, then bam – all your bags are gone. I don’t know. It can happen. I’ve seen movies. I pulled my backpack closer to me and sat atop my overnight bag. (An impenetrable fortress of baggage security, no doubt.) But then I looked into his eyes and knew. This was no scam artist. This is a lonely, socially awkward young man whose mom, somewhere in California, reluctantly agreed to let her boy make this trip. Right now, she’s likely praying her boy is safe. Praying he meets nice people. Praying he doesn’t talk to the wrong man. Praying he just makes it home in one piece. (Did he have a cell phone to call home? I hope so.) As he ate his bagel, I began to take notice. He wore a lighter wash of blue jean shorts, sneakers, a blue, almost tie-dyed shirt with some sort of graphics that reminded me of the wolves howling at the moon, two necklaces inevitably bought on his travels (one made of thick brown beads, the other I can’t recall) and non-descript wireframe glasses. He never really stopped talking to chew, so with every bite I watched as cream cheese made its way to his innocent, trusting face, just inside that barely-there hint of a mustache. My curiosity peaked. My sleepiness began to fade. I finally began to let down my jaded guard and find interest in this brave young soul, when he interrupted my gaze with, “Oh. That’s my train. Gotta go.” I said more words to him at that moment he packed up his things strewn in the middle of a walkway than I had the entire 10 minutes we were in each other’s presence, “Have a safe trip. Enjoy the Carolinas. Hope it’s not too hot. Bye!” What’s wrong with me, I thought? People come in and out of our lives every day for various reasons. This kind, gentle young man saw me and felt safe enough to make my acquaintance. Why couldn’t I oblige sooner? What would have been the harm? I don’t have the capacity to answer that somewhat rhetorical question today. For now, I’ll just spend my day feeling horrible that I never got his name. But the worst feeling in all of this is knowing this won’t be the last time my quiet personality as of late turns down a friendly conversation.

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One response to “the man at penn station

  1. corksandcaftans

    now that I've learned how to publish, I need to rewrite this comment as well. I think I know just how you felt. My kindest words to strangers come out when they leave–like relief. But don't worry. He made an impression on you; what a gift. And he chose you—speaks volumes. 🙂

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