The southern heat hit me as I got off the train. It must have been 115 degrees. A wet 115 degrees. Northerners like me don’t do that kind of heat. It felt like the sun was visiting Virginia and came via the sewer.
I was down there for business a few days ago. A small town. Real small. When I got off the train I didn’t know which direction to walk. I spotted a man sitting on the bench inside the station. I call it a station but it’s not really a station. It’s more like they put a roof on top of the place where the train stops.
The man I asked for directions had a big belly, perfectly parted gray hair, and a furry mustache. If you were making a movie about an old time Southern lawyer, this was your guy. He looked out the window for a moment and then gave me perfect directions. I mean, he didn’t just tell me how to get to the street. He told me about the street. Everything he knew about it. And he told me everything about the things that if I saw, it would mean I’d gone too far. And then in case I did go too far he gave me directions from the possible places where I might get lost.
He offered to walk me over but I refused. I guess, being a Northerner, I figured anyone being this nice was selling something. I left him sitting there.
I found my destination easily and was pretty happy, mainly because it was an air conditioned office. Did I mention it was hot outside? It was like practice for Hell kind of hot.
The meeting went well and I was back at the train station fifteen minutes early for my train. I sat down on the bench outside, took out a book, and listened for the sound of a train. I waited. And waited.
There were about nine other people waiting on the two benches inside, under the air condition that whirred to life at random moments. There was a woman using a walker who’d just returned from her brother’s funeral, her husband, a Russian woman continuously snapping photos of her son who was excited about taking his first train ride, and a father waiting for his son.
I didn’t want to take up any room on the benches in the slightly air conditioned station so I stood outside on the platform. Soon, my friend with the mustache and the perfectly parted hair returned. He asked me how my meeting went. I said fine.
“Fine” is pretty much my standard response. Being from the north, it is actually impolite to give a real answer. No one wants to know. The question itself is just a polite acknowledgment that you are taking up the space near them. So I always answer “fine.” I honestly could be holding my severed foot in my arms and I’d say “fine” if you asked me how I was doing. It’s not an answer. It’s a response. There’s a difference.
But my clever response didn’t deter my new Southern friend. He asked me where I was from. I told him Philadelphia and he informed me it was a terrible place and he’d been to football games there and Philadelphians are just nasty people, present company excepted, of course. He asked me if I was married. Kids? How many? What I did? Where I went to college?
I think at some point he was all questioned out so he asked me what train I was waiting for. I told him I was waiting for the 4:46. Oh, he said.
And that’s when he told me that the train was delayed. Not just delayed. But DELAYED!!! He said he’d heard someone say it was delayed at least four hours due to some chemical spill a few towns over.
Oh nooooo. Four hours? Did I mention it was hot?
Then he started telling me that I might need to know that if the train didn’t come until after 9 p.m. the doors to the station locked automatically so one of us should make sure to stay inside to make sure all the other nice people waiting for the train didn’t get locked outside.
“What time is your train?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said. “That depends.” And then he told me that he’d come into town for his high school reunion from South Carolina the week before. Not only did he not know anyone there but shortly after, he suffered a heart attack. His tenth. Yup. His tenth. He joked that his gravestone would read, “It’s about time.”
By the time he was released from the hospital he missed his train and he couldn’t do anything with his non-refundable ticket. He had no money and had to wait until next week when a check he was expecting would clear. So he’d been living in, near, and around the station for a week waiting for a check to clear.
He called his sister who said she couldn’t afford to send him a check because her dog had worms. “If he’s got worms, take him fishing” he told her. “I’m your kin.” I’m guessing she didn’t think that was funny. And then he got off the phone quickly. He said he was afraid of “cussing at her” if he didn’t.
I asked him when the last time he ate and he said, “a while.” So I tried to give him ten dollars but he refused, saying three dollars would do him fine. He told me Virginia law’s stated that if you had money in your pocket you weren’t loitering. So he thanked me for helping him not be a lawbreaker and off he went. About an hour later he returned.
Within twenty minutes he had everyone talking. He talked about his time as an choir singer in college, he told us that Luciano Pavarotti had a heckuva voice but he was meaner than a cornered cat, he told us that the water off the Gulf was so clear that it made fishing so easy you felt you were cheating. The woman from Russia told us trains there were never late. A man originally from India said trains were always late there. And everyone offered condolences for the passing of that woman’s brother. There was more talk of “better places” and heaven than I’ve heard at half the homilies in my life.
Soon, everyone in the train station was talking like they’d known each other since the second grade. And I wouldn’t have been more uncomfortable if I was lying on a picket fence. I’m just not a sharer.
At around 9 p.m. and with no train in sight, my friend taught everyone how to close the station door while making sure the lock didn’t catch so nobody would get locked out. Then he started swallowing his medicines at the water fountain and he told everyone his story about his heart attack and he told them that the nurse had to stick him four times before she could find blood and then she had the gall to blame him.
About then a man walked into the station. He was pretty filthy and he looked like he’d cut his own hair. His clothes hung off him, way too big for him. He looked surprised to see us all there and he walked up to my train station bff and thanked him quietly for buying him a hotdog earlier. My friend kinda’ snuck a peek at me and told the other man not to worry about it. He said we’re here to help each other. When the man left, my friend leaned toward me and said that when he got to the store he saw that man and thought he’d help him out a bit. He said that he’d talked with him and it turned out he needed a hot dog a little more than he did.
He had three dollars and he bought another man a hot dog. That blew me away. Truly blew me away. And I thought to myself that while I may mean well by others, unless I actually talk to people I’ll never know if anyone needs help. Aren’t we always told about welcoming strangers because you might be entertaining angels. Well, I wonder how many angels I’ve walked by. Or how many angels I told I was fine.
Silence can sometimes mean selfishness.
My friend suddenly checked his phone, turned around, and told the room that his sister texted him that she’d Western Union the money sometime the next day. And then we joked about who would get on a train first.
About an hour later, my train came. Everyone in this little practice for Hell hot room shook hands and said, “God bless” as they got on the train. As I got to the door, I gave my friend the money I had in my pocket. He said it was too much and I told him to say nice things about Philadelphians in the future. He agreed that he would. And I believe he will. To anyone he comes in contact with.
As I got on the train I saw him laughing with the cleaning crew who came in every night around ten. I watched two men help to lift the lady with the walker onto the train. The Russian woman snapped photos of her son boarding the train. And as I got on the train, a man putting his three year old son to sleep on the seat across the aisle from me, asked me how was the wait. I started to say “fine” but I didn’t. I told him.
And now I’m telling you.