As I trudged into the train and out of the cold, snowy March evening, I found a seat alone, and settled in for the nearly 30 minute ride home.
Almost immediately, before I even removed my gloves and pulled the hood of my sweatshirt from my head, I was drawn in to the woman sitting three seats up, in the opposite aisle, facing both me and the person she was talking to.
Her drawl was unmistakable — she was from the south — and her looks told a tale that led me to think she might once have been in a pageant girl while growing up. I am type-casting her this way — I realize that; embellishing what I do not know as fact, perhaps — but she was a beauty whose journey through life was starting to leave wrinkles on her face, around her eyes and next to her lips when she smiled.
I never said a word to her the whole journey home. Instead, I just listened to her talk to the woman sitting a seat away, picking up bits and pieces of both women’s lives.
I could listen to a southern woman read the phone book and I know I’d fall in love with that accent by the time she read out the name “Abigail Anderson, 917-555-2723.” She was easy to listen to, so that’s what I did. I listened.
She came from the south — Mississippi, to be exact — but she was living in San Francisco, working for an insurance company that had pulled her from home to Hartford, Connecticut, for a two-week training seminar.
She had the weekend to herself and decided to visit relatives she hadn’t seen for a long time in New Jersey.
I assumed this family drove to Hartford and picked her up, taking her back across the George Washington Bridge for a weekend getaway from the papers and lectures of the insurance industry.
Listening to her to talk to the other woman, who was from Bridgeport, I came to learn the snowstorm which descended upon our region on Sunday — the one that came in much worse and much heavier than expected — left her on the verge of being stranded in New Jersey when she had to be back in Hartford by Monday morning.
A weekend in New Jersey is one thing. Any days beyond that and one might feel like they’ll be trapped forever, but the one thing made clear was the family wasn’t about to schlep their distant relative back to Hartford in a snowstorm.
Thus, she was on her own, quite likely undertaking a journey she’ll never forget in a region she didn’t really know.
She was profusely thanking the woman from Bridgeport, a middle-aged black woman with a 17-year-old daughter and two grown sons, and from what I gathered the southern woman from San Francisco was concerned about making this journey alone.
Of course, why wouldn’t she be?
Most of us in the tri-state area would look at a trip from New Jersey to Hartford as rather simple, routine even, be it by car, or by bus, or by train.
A lady alone from the West Coast, however, could certainly find it more daunting.
A train from Jersey into New York City’s Penn Station, a place that could overwhelm any traveler. Then there is a subway ride from Penn State to Grand Central — an underground journey through a foreign city — to an awaiting Metro North train that would take the visitor to New Haven.
It was somewhere in Grand Central — perhaps even on the train itself — the two had found each other and started sharing their stories.
The lady from San Francisco had no idea what she was getting herself into when she first boarded the first train of her journey. She was relying on her own instincts and the kindness of strangers, which in New York City can be like rolling a die and having just a “three” be the only good thing that can happen to you.
She rolled a three and found the woman from Bridgeport, who would guide her through the second phase of her journey — the one from Grand Central to New Haven, where a car was waiting for her to take her back to Hartford.
The black woman lived in Bridgeport, but worked in Portchester, N.Y.. Every day, she took the train — Bridgeport to Stamford, then switching trains to the local — so she could get off and walk to the nursing home where she earned her paycheck, the one that fed her kids and kept a roof over her family’s head.
The woman from San Francisco listened in fascination about a mother’s story of the daily commute her to job.
“I have my license, but I can’t afford a car,” the Bridgeport lady said.
“And it’s not just the car,” San Francisco added. “It’s gas, upkeep, insurance.”
They talked like old friends catching up on each others lives; though they were nothing more than two strangers brought together by happenstance.
As the stops rolled by — Westport, Greens Farms, Southport, Fairfield — I sat silently and eavesdropped on their conversation.
Both women decided a gentlemen sitting next to them had beautiful eyes and if I had been sitting in a bar, nursing a beer in my hand, I’d have sworn they were trying to pick him up.
But this was sincere. This was nice.
Lucky bastard with the nice eyes.
Finally, the train rolled into Bridgeport and it was time for the two of them to part ways.
“Thank you so much,” San Francisco said. “You really set my mind at ease.”
“You’re very welcome, dear,” came the reply. “You have a safe trip the rest of the way.”
She slipped out the door and into the snowy night, back to her daughter, her life, under the roof the commute to Portchester paid for.
The woman from San Francisco looked around the train to see who was left, catching my eye and offering me a smile before burying her face in her phone.
I smiled back and grabbed my gloves. My stop was next.
On my walk toward the door, I wanted to tell her it was always the people that makes a journey so great, but I didn’t.
She had found hers on this journey and didn’t need a second person to interject.
Just like on this short journey home, I had found my people to make it interesting — San Francisco and Bridgeport — two woman talking and making the smallest of differences in each others lives.