Strangers on a Train

The Daily Bart started well, on this Friday the 13th. Even tho I opted for the later train, I was still able to score a parking spot in my prime area on the first floor of the parking deck. Since I didn’t need to spend time hunting down a parking spot, I had plenty of time to make my way to the platform, and meandered through the garage and down the stairs. A white Mercedes Benz threatened to run me over, not once but twice as it raced through the garage.

In the covered alley between the garage and the Bart station, my favorite Religious zealot stood waiting. Dressed warmly in his usual well-dressed way, this elderly gentleman who vaguely reminded me of my father was staring at his cell phone, smiling, while still clutching his religious propaganda, and he didn’t see me approach. It tickled me to see him distracted from his mission by modern technology. I wondered what he was reading or who he was texting that was making him smile.

“Good morning!” I called out to get his attention. Normally it is he who hails me from afar, the minute I enter the alley. Today he looked up suddenly at my beckoning, and still holding his phone, he waved sheephishly at me.

“Hi!” he said recognizing me, surprised he hadn’t seen me first. I gave him a big smile, moved on to the turnstile, and slid my Clipper card across the reader. Passing through the gates, I started up the stairs, continuing my morning aerobics. This trek from parked car to platform is a 15-minute workout that includes walking — sometimes running– and the real version of the stair master. Every morning, I descend two flights of stairs, ascend two flights of stairs, and then ascend another three flights of stairs. In the evening, I get the reverse workout. This is why every Bart station has an elevator, for those who can’t handle the Bart stair master.

Less breathless than usual since there was no need to rush up the stairs this morning, I crested the final stairway triumphantly and stood on the chilly platform, a blast of fresh morning air in my face. A glance at the digital announcement sign told me I had 11 minutes to wait for the train, which isn’t optimal, especially when it’s cold outside. I stood at the back of the platform and took out my cell phone, to continue reading “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart.

Unfortunately my phone immediately alerted me that the battery had drained to 4% power, which meant it was going to shut down imminently. I started to read anyway.

Exactly one minute later, a man approached me and asked: “Excuse me. Would you mind calling my boss for me?” I was so engrossed in my reading that he startled me. Looking up I saw someone who closely resembled a homeless person, with dark brown, long tangled hair and a scruffy long beard you could build bird’s nests in. He wore a heavy oversized coat that rendered him basically shapeless and carried a huge worn backpack. I looked away, making a snap decision to avoid him – another beggar, I thought.  But it was too late: he’d caught my eye and went on. “I could repay you for your trouble,” he said eagerly. This was a scam I was not familiar with.

Dealing with homeless and handouts is a daily ordeal here in the Bay area, more so than in other parts of the country. If I gave to every beggar I encountered during the week, I’d have little left of my paycheck. One has to be very discerning about one’s charity on the streets of San Francisco.

Now this man was unkempt, large, and a little wild-eyed. This was a request I had never received from a stranger and made me immediately suspect. And the fact was, I knew my phone probably didn’t have enough battery life left to make a phone call. So I used that as my excuse.

I’m sorry,” I stammered while looking away,”but my battery only has 4% and would probably die.”

The man smirked at me in disgust and moved on to the next fellow he saw using a cell phone, a well-dressed African American businessman, who did actually place some kind of call for him. I felt a little guilty about it, but what can you do? You make your choices.

The Universal Language of Tissues

Minutes later, the train arrived and I boarded. There was one vacant seat, in the four-square, against the window. The four-square is set up for families or friends, who can ride together and easily converse: Two seats facing two opposite seats with a narrow path between. It’s a great idea for friends and families, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to find yourself face to face with a stranger for the duration of your ride. On Bart, sometimes strangers are very strange indeed.

This morning, there were three large men sitting in the four-square with one vacant seat that I wanted.

“Excuse me,” I said assertively to the large guys sitting in the outside seats facing each other. They were so large, their knees were literally touching. I needed to squeeze past both of them to get to the empty seat. Obligingly they moved their knees ever so slightly and I pushed past. I sat down and looked up to see the large man sitting opposite me giving me a a bit of a flirtatious smile so I glanced away. I pulled out my cell phone only to find it had finally died, so I closed my eyes to rest or meditate, but mainly to avoid having to look at the man across from me, and drifted off into my own thoughts.

A couple of stops later, the man sitting diagonally from me exited the train and a well-dressed Asian woman entered the train and took his seat. I didn’t see her sit down, but I heard her phone ring and the quick string of Chinese that she uttered, followed by what sounded like laughter. When I looked up to see what was so funny, I realized that she wasn’t laughing – she was sobbing. Suddenly and uncontrollably sobbing. She must have just gotten some very bad news on the phone. I closed my eyes again to spare her any embarrassment but her sobs continued and I looked at her again. Tears were flowing down her face as she desperately tried to control them. As a woman, I know that feeling: Needing to sob your heart out, but trying to stuff the sobs until you are alone. Clearly, she couldn’t stop. I reached into my purse and pulled out a clean tissue, leaned over, and handed it to her. She eagerly took the tissue from me and squeezed my fingers tightly in thanks, in a gesture that relayed clearly how bad the news was she had just received. She needed help.

Our two male companions in the four square were clearly uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do. Anyone nearby could see her distress, but what to do on a train with a stranger who suddenly breaks down emotionally? I longed to put my arms around her and offer comfort but it was just too awkward, both physically and emotionally — if I had tried, I would have fallen on my butt at the first lurch of the train. The tissue was the best I could do.

Quickly she got off the phone, saying something in Chinese that I took to mean, “I can’t talk now, I’ll call you later.” I stayed alert to her as she kept trying to calm down but each time she seemed to take a steady breath, the waves of tears returned and she kept wiping her face with my little now crumpled tissue.

Both men were literally squirming in their seat. I could practially hear them thinking: “Why are women always crying? I wish she would stop that. What am I supposed to do?” What a conundrum: give up a prized Bart seat on a long train ride, or endure the sobbing of a woman in great distress? They both chose to sit tight and “ride it out.”

It’s amazing how much you can sense about someone when you pay attention. The woman wasn’t given to public displays of emotion, no drama queen here. She was mortified that she was sobbing in front of strangers and desperately wanted to stop. She was well-dressed, intelligent, heading off to work just like the rest of us. She seemed like a very nice lady. But something horrible had just happened in her life–on the Bart train, in front of strangers.

She removed her glasses to wipe away tears, even as they steadily fell down her face. Several train stops went by. I tried to silently send her love and comfort.

Then came her stop and she reached across for my hand. “Thank you,” she said fervently and she squeezed my hand so hard it hurt. She got up and left, and we all looked around at each other knowing that we had witnessed someone’s personal tragedy: heads shook, deep breaths were taken, eyes were wet, including mine. I watched her cross the platform, still shaking with sobs.

Thank goodness I had tissues in my bag. The tissue I gave her was the last one in the pack. Always make sure you have tissues. You never know when you might need to give one to someone in distress.

This entry was posted in The Daily Bart. Bookmark the permalink.