The Train Ride

The Train Ride

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Train Ride

It was 9:30. I was sure I would miss my train, the last one for the evening. Getting to the depot had been an ordeal in its own right. Now, struggling through a crowded hallway in Los Angeles’ Union Station, I was battling slow-moving travelers, those who had managed to make it early enough to catch their trains and didn’t feel the need to move quickly.

Turning the corner toward the platform, I saw another obstacle. The stairs were blocked by a man who struggled with too many suitcases for one person to carry, especially if that person was handicapped, which this person was. His left arm hung uselessly by his side, and he had only partial use of his right arm. One of his legs was twisted inward. I watched him move each piece of luggage up one step, then return for the next. When he had successfully transferred all of the items up to the same step, he would repeat the process. He was on step number five, of about twenty.

He barked at a porter who offered assistance with the luggage, and glared at a fellow passenger who tried to help with a bag. Any effort on my part wouldn’t make a difference. While I appreciated his desire for independence, I had no intention of letting him delay me from my train. I had just experienced a particularly unpleasant week and returning home was the most important thing in the world to me. So when I saw my chance, I stepped over his bags, made it to the top of the stairs, and boarded the train.

Though I had planned to stretch out and relax, I was soon reminded of the adage, “Plans are useful, but don’t get attached to them.” Occupying the seats across the aisle from me were two little girls. They were very excited, very active and very, very loud. One look at their exhausted father and I knew my two brief hours of quiet introspection were about to be replaced with 120 lengthy minutes of chattering and giggling. When I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. The man from the stairway limped into the car, grunted at me to move my feet, and plopped himself down beside me.

Upon closer inspection, I realized his ailment affected not just his limbs but his face, which was twisted in a permanent scowl. He was the kind of figure little children would laugh at or run from if he got too close. His patience with the girls across the aisle was shorter than mine. After two minutes he growled at them, “Keep it down!”

My new travel companion was less than delightful. He took every opportunity to complain to the conductors about the temperature, the lighting, the slow service at the ticket counter, the noisy little girls (who hadn’t said a word since his chastisement), the stale peanuts he bought in the café car, and, oh yes, the little paper cups that didn’t give him enough water to swallow his pills. All this, and we had not been moving for more than fifteen minutes.

I’m normally a pretty nice guy, but the milk of human kindness was souring in my veins. I focused on my misfortune of having to sit next to this man whose heart seemed to be as twisted as his body. As I sat there feeling sorry for myself, my conscience decided to make an uninvited appearance. Perhaps, I thought, if I reach out with a simple kind word, I could be the catalyst to change his demeanor— maybe even his life.

I was tired, irritable and in no mood to leave my comfortable cocoon of silence and self-pity. So I fought that voice that told me to do the right thing, to be a friend to a stranger, and to help someone in need. The more I fought it, the louder it got. Though I had never met this man, I knew he was in pain and needed to talk to someone. As I sat pondering my dilemma, a person with much less self-interest took action.

It was a sweet voice, unmistakably innocent. “Hey mister, what’s the matter with you?”One of the girls across the aisle had stepped up in a way I had been unable to do. Her question was not new to the man, who responded, as he probably had hundreds of times throughout his life, that he had a disease that made his muscles not work right. Unsatisfied with the answer, she shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Why are you so mad at everybody?”

The man sat for a moment before uttering a choked response. “I guess I’m just mad at life. It hasn’t treated me very well.”

The little girl looked puzzled. “Maybe life would treat you better if you treated it better. I mean, I know you’re sick, but I bet you still have lots of stuff that could make you happy.”

The man turned toward the girl, and though I lost sight of his face, I knew he was not looking at her angrily. “You’re awfully young to think you know so much about life.”

It was her turn to pause. “I guess I learned a lot of things like that when my mommy went to heaven.” She sat back in her seat and looked away from the man. She didn’t want to talk anymore. That was okay. She had said enough.

The rest of the trip was quiet, as the girl eventually drifted off to sleep and the man seemed less eager to complain about things. I’ll never know what long-term effects the conversation had on him, but I was touched in a way I’ll not soon forget. Lately, I’ve been seeing my problems as a bit less traumatic, smiling at people a lot more, and appreciating the many gifts I have. And do you know something? Life seems to be treating me a little better every day.

David Murcott

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