My feet ached as I stood on the platform, waiting for the train in Chicago. I was going home to Kansas City after a two-week train trip with eight stops throughout the southeastern U.S. As a travel writer, these trips are often marathons of interviews and a schedule that runs from early morning to late at night. After bouncing from city to city, my reserves were waning. Chicago to Kansas City was the last leg of my trip, and quite simply, I just wanted to get home.
I spotted two seats together, a luxury on the Southwest Chief that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, and felt the tension I’d been holding in my shoulders start to release. At least I could stretch out — and maybe even nap a bit on the seven-hour ride — before arriving in Kansas City.
Just as I was spreading out, almost possessively making the public space my own — pillow against the window, book out even though I knew I wouldn’t get into more than a page before drifting off — a young man came bustling down the aisle to sit next to me, huffing from the quick dash he’d made before the train departed.
I moved my possessions out of his way to make room. As I did so, I took a better look: One side of his head was shaved, the rest of his curly hair was a shock of blonde and pink locks. His lips were pierced with studs and he was exceptionally large, both in height and width. And he had the worst cold I’ve seen in a long time — he was visibly congested, continually sneezing and coughing.
As he sat down beside me, I tried to make myself as small as possible to allow him, his bag, and his pillow to squeeze in. I wound up crunched against the window, listening to his hacking. I was unable to sleep due to being so cramped (he was half on top of me) and decided to head to the observation car for a bit and then eat dinner.
I sighed as I said Excuse me and tried to squeeze out of the seat. As I tried to escape, he softly said, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.”
I stumbled (because on a moving train you don’t saunter to the next car — you toss from side to side as the train jolts, grabbing seats for balance, sometimes lunging into fellow passengers’ laps) toward the café car. On the Southwest Chief, you have a choice of a white tablecloth dinner in the dining car or snack options in the café car. I felt grungy from two days of travel and opted for the low-key café.
As I settled in with a microwaved hotdog and a cheap half bottle of wine, I thought about the young man’s words. “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.” Such a poignant, gracious statement. And here I was running off to avoid being “uncomfortable.” His words touched my heart and I thought about it as I ate.
Every single time I have ridden on the train, I have met someone I connected with deeply. Its as if my seatmate is personally chosen to help me with a lesson I need to learn. On this same trip, while traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, I sat with an African American schoolteacher. I was a tad uncomfortable then, too, having to sleep next to a male stranger on an overnight trip in coach. But the next morning, after we both woke and had coffee, we started to chat. He explained landmarks as we passed — the Blues Highway, catfish farms, small-town folk sitting in plastic lawn chairs, waving at the train as it passed. By the time he detrained in Jackson, Mississippi, I thanked him and took his photo.
So I knew not to trust the initial uneasiness I sometimes felt with a fellow passenger. I wondered about the young man I’d just met. Why was he sitting by me? I don’t normally judge, so I wondered if my crankiness and eagerness to get home were affecting my discernment. I decided that this could not be different than any other trip: Either I needed to meet him, or he needed to meet me. So I (somewhat begrudgingly, I admit) went back to my seat instead of relaxing in one of the comfortable chairs in the observation car for the rest of the trip.
As I walked down the aisle toward my seat, I saw that he’d switched seats. When he offered to move back to the aisle, I told him to stay put as it would give me more room to have the aisle seat.
“I thought you wouldn’t come back,” he said.
My silence in reply hung in the air like mildewed laundry. It was stiff and obvious. Finally, after a long moment, I said, “What brings you to Kansas City?”
“My mom passed away and I’m going to live with my grandma in a suburb outside KC.” Only 16, a senior in high school, he was trying to decide what to do with his life.
His name was Jason, and after sharing such an intimate revelation, the talk became lighter, easier. My mother instincts woke up and we discussed interests that could lead to jobs, college options, and how to adjust to life with his grandmother. We chatted and joked the last several hours of the trip.
As we got ready to detrain, a woman sitting across the aisle who hadn’t spoken to us once throughout the trip, noticed our laughing and said, “You two are way too comfortable with each other. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d never have believed you just met a few hours ago.” And we were comfortable.
We walked together to the parking lot where our rides were waiting to take us home.
I hadn’t planned to share this story of my intolerance and initial judgment, but I keep thinking about Jason and his journey. The quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” comes to mind. We never know someone’s story — or where their heart lies — and we surely can’t deduce it from a first impression.
Traveling gives us the opportunity to expand our perceptions, meet like- and not-at-first visibly alike folk, and the chance to connect that we might not encounter at home in our comfort zones. And even though Jason was desperately craving the attention of a mother figure, I benefited from the connection as much as he did. That coincidental meeting, brought to us by the Southwest Chief, was meant for us both.