On my way to New York Penn Station last weekend, I noticed some movement behind the sliding doors that separated different cars of the train. Suddenly, the doors split open and a thin black lady stormed into the middle area where I was standing, leaving behind a muttering black man. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the compartment was extremely crowded. I was standing awkwardly close to two teenagers, and could see a British couple with a few suitcases across from me, the man reading Mansfield Park. This woman slid into place directly behind me. I could faintly hear her saying something over the AP US History flashcards that were playing on my iPod, so I pressed pause.
The woman was absolutely furious at the man, who I later realized was her husband. She ranted for five minutes, probably ample curses to rail against her husband. “I’m homeless too,” she fumed, “I beg on the streets. Why can’t he?” Everyone standing or sitting could hear her, but no one acknowledged her presence. Maybe the impeccably-dressed girl listening to her iPod shifted slightly, or raised her eyebrows the tiniest bit, but otherwise nothing changed except the silence in the car.
After raging for a few moments, the lady started speaking to a Czech traveller. I finally turned around so that I could see both of them. She wore a beanie hat and a worn out black leather jacket, walking with an awkward lilt. The man was on the stocky side, with a streak of bright blond running straight through the rest of his cropped brown spiked hair. He was formally dressed, carrying many suitcases.
“How are you today?” she asked suddenly, breaking off her rant.
He smiled faintly but kept his eyes blank, answering that he was fine.
“Where are you from?”
“Czechoslovakia,” he replied, with a distinct blurred accent.
“Oh,” she shuddered, “It’s freezing up there, right? It’s gotta be co-o-old. Man, it’s like winter all the time!”
“No, not really,” he said awkwardly. “It’s like it is here.”
“Oh god, it’s not freezing there? Where is the coldest place you’ve been?”
“Moscow,” he replied. Then, “Moscow, Russia,” to clarify.
“Are you heading home now?” she asked.
He was. When he told her that he was flying back to Czechoslovakia, she immediately deflated.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. I’ve never been on a plane, you know that? I’m homeless.” She was talking to herself now. “Even when I was little, even when I was a kid at school. All the other kids been on planes, not me. I just only recently started riding the train coming from Jersey.”
Like all of us, the man was unsure about how to react. He smiled uncomfortably and nodded, looking away.
“I live in New Jersey, but I come all the way to the cancer walk every year. You know the cancer walk?” She paused, not looking up to see if he acknowledged her. “I do that walk every year, the whole thing. It’s for my mother, she died of cancer. She my guardian angel, my mother.”
More distant nods from him.
Then, “You single?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Oh.” She gripped the railing behind my head and shifted slightly. “You’ll find someone one day.”
“No,” he sighed, “I’m happy being single.” This was the most engaged in the conversation that he was at any point. He made eye contact.
“Well, have a safe trip, honey,” she wished him. “Next time, don’t leave me here, okay? Don’t leave me here…Take me with you next time, okay? Will you take me in your suitcase next time?”
He laughed slightly, awkward again, and moved towards the door. We were approaching the stop.
“God bless you,” she said, over and over. “God bless you, have a good trip. Take me with you next time.”