#52 Strangers on Trains
A Few Nice Folks on Trains.
I learned to love trains when my family lived in Italy in 1969. But our family of 6 often had our own compartment, so there wasn't much mingling with strangers. Instead we often entertained ourselves with games like Botticelli and tic tac toe.
Or We Read Books
We always traveled with books. I was 11 and my 7 year old brother, David was a very good audience when I read to him from my Enid Blyton books!
But one time our family joined some friends on a train for a day trip to the seaside town of Viareggio. The 6 kids were in one compartment and the adults in another. We were headed for a festive pre-lent celebration which meant some of us were in costume and armed with confetti and plastic bats for bopping strangers. (With good humor) The kid compartment was pretty wound up and giddy by the time a policeman opened the door. Luckily he just wanted a seat. His presence subdued us for a while, but before long he was sharing our candy and allowing us to ask him silly questions with the help of an Italian dictionary. I don't remember his answers, but I do remember some questions. "Are you happy?" and "Do you swim in the bathtub?"
From Michigan to Missouri
On another winter day 7 years later, my younger brother and I once again traveled by train... and met strangers. This time we departed from the lovely old station in Ann Arbor and headed home to St. Louis after the Christmas holiday.
We boarded before dawn to find the train already jammed with holiday travelers. Every seat was taken and the aisles were crowded with luggage. David and I sat on our suitcases in the unheated space between train cars, until we realized there was a dining car with actual seats and tables! Not only was the snack bar area warm, but it was alive with the good spirits of travelers who all seemed to have upbeat attitudes about this ridiculous overcrowding. David and I were invited to squeeze into a booth with others and before long everyone was talking together. We sat beside some children playing "Battleship" and a sweet older woman who was eating her sack lunch. The children let us play their game when they were finished and the dear woman insisted we let her give us each a dollar. She had overheard us worrying over having only $10.00, since it looked like weather was going to cause a huge delay in Chicago. Dave and I ended up sharing a tangerine and candy bars with a painter from California and we discussed alligators, pollution and poodles with a man from Iowa. By the time we reached Chicago I remember feeling bonded to these travelers. I hated saying good bye.
Chicago to St. Louis
The storms didn't end up delaying our departure from Chicago. Dave and I boarded Amtrak and actually found two seats together. However there was no heat in our car and the temperature was in the teens. But at least we had seats for the last half of our 12 hour journey.
Thank you, Train Travelers!
It was a great experience sharing food, games and conversation with all of you. If I ever get stuck on a boat, train or plane with some kind of horrible problem like the Carnival Cruise Ship that made news recently...I hope I'm surrounded by strangers like all of you!
#51 Woman in a Scary House
This is not the scary house where the woman lived.
This is actually a dorm in St. Louis, Missouri. In the summer of 1977 I had a summer job as a recreational worker with teens living at Epworth Home for Girls. These young women were a difficult bunch and my job was to motivate and challenge them with engaging activities, projects and jobs. I was feeling pretty proud of myself one day when I was able to talk 4 of them into doing a house cleaning job. A worried husband had called Epworth looking for someone to help his sick wife clean house. The girls decided they were up for it, if they could use the earned money to go horseback riding.
This photo looks like the kind of house I remember. There was nothing scary about the outside as we approached it. The girls were relieved to know I had planned to stay with them for the afternoon of team cleaning. I prepped myself, knowing I would need to offer lots of encouragement, prodding, and reminding about their horseback riding goal... if they got lazy.
A Hoarding Issue
The fact that no one was coming to the door when we rang, made us begin to feel uneasy. Something didn't feel right, but we certainly didn't expect anything as bad as what greeted us when Mrs. Van Bray finally opened the door! There were no TV shows about hoarding in the 1970's to prepare us. Today if you Google hoarding, you'll get one hundred photos like the one above. If I had owned a cell phone back then I could have had my own collection of photos like this. Then again, I probably would have called our driver to come back and get us. But we were stuck. Our driver was not returning for 3 hours.
What We Saw
It wasn't easy following Mrs. V into the house because you couldn't even see the floor. The shades were pulled, so the dim living room appeared to be inhabited by eerie, looming creatures. It was really just the fact that every piece of furniture was heaped with trash and clutter. The smell was overwhelming in the small stuffy rooms. The thought of attempting to take on this horrifying chore would have terrified a professional cleaning crew and here I was with a group of already emotionally fragile girls. They looked at me with panic in their eyes and I tried to reassure them. "Just a few hours. We'll see what we can do."
Where to Begin?
I tried to remind the girls that Mrs. V was sick. She'd had leukemia for a year. Her eyes looked glassy and she winced as she moved her large body in slow motion. She told me to bring her rocking chair into the kitchen so she could supervise. And put it where? I asked Mrs. V if she had any trash bags, but she fretted over what I might be thinking of throwing away. I obviously didn't understand the mental illness she also suffered from. The only things she allowed us to pitch were some moldy half eaten Big Macs, but not the Styrofoam boxes holding them. We spent 2 hours climbing over and squeezing around heaps, while we "organized" and restacked and sorted through Mrs. V's clothing, cans, TV Guides, jar lids, dishes, clothespins, knickknacks and trash. It was very clear that we would make no noticeable dent in 3 hours.
Mrs. V began to grow agitated, telling the girls to work faster. "This house needs to be clean by the time my husband gets home!" I gently explained that we couldn't possibly finish, but we would do what we could. I continued encouraging the girls with whispers and gestures until Mrs. V began to cry. I was ready to give up. The girls and I were queasy from being in this filthy mess and we seemed to be causing Mrs. V more frustration than relief. I asked to use the phone and called my supervisor at Epworth. I gently explained the situation and asked for her to speak with Mrs. V. Mrs. V ranted for a minute before slamming the phone down.
Even though we had "worked" in our bewildered state until we were picked up, Mrs. V refused to pay us anything. By the time we dragged our weary, sweaty, filthy bodies into the school station wagon a new energy had washed over my group. As the car AC blasted, 4 furious voices, hollered out the hellish details of our afternoon. Before long the car was filled with squeals and laughter.
Thanks Mrs. V
You taught my girls (and me) a valuable lesson that summer. When we first got in the car we were enraged that you didn't appreciate how we had tried to help at all. But by the time we finished ranting and laughing, we each had a word or 2 to share about your sad state. It was painful to imagine living a life like that. We felt totally trapped in that world for 3 hours, but that was the life that you lived every day. Your sad situation bonded us in a most unusual way. We needed no Outward Bound experience to challenge us to work like a team. Your house was our mounatin and I think we ended up feeling stronger about ourselves because we faced that challenge.
I think I would have handled things differently now. I'm sad to say, we probably wouldn't have even gone in your home. It would have been clear you needed a different kind of help, than ours. But I would have sent you some flowers. I wish you could have known that we really did care about you.
#50 Guillermo, the Museum Guard
Menil Collection in Houston
I must have learned as a child to fear museum guards. They always seemed so suspicious. They tapped shoulders and glared and reprimanded when you even thought about standing too close to a piece of art.
However my opinion of museum guards changed last year when I had a relaxed visit to the lovely Menil Museum.
An Exhibit of Nigerian Statues
I was impressed by the expressions and poses I saw in a collection of Nigerian statues. I found myself making the same expressions as I studied the poses, through the glass. Who were the people, who inspired these statues? I realized a guard was watching and cringed that I could have looked like I was making fun. But he chuckled and we ended up chatting. It turns out he was in fact from Nigeria and we ended up having a wonderful food conversation, because I had recently visited a Nigerian restaurant.
My Favorite Guard
But my favorite guard at the Menil was working in a separate building. There were no other visitors in the quiet space, but my friend and I could hear the somewhat shy guard talking softly.
He was talking to his friend just outside the door...a squirrel!
Guillermo said he fed the squirrel every day. He dropped a peanut outside the door and watched the little guy race over to fetch his treat before a greedy bird could steal it!
You reminded me that museum guards can be kind human beings! I think that little squirrel thanks you, too!
#49 Kenny and his Junkyard
Curious Encounter in 1977
Kenny was 52 years old when we met in 1977. I was exploring an area in the Missouri Ozarks with some college classmates when we came upon what appeared to be a dump in the middle of the woods.
I can't recall when we first laid eyes on this jovial hermit, but I still have some notes and photos that bring back this interesting character.
Luckily Kenny wasn't bothered that we'd come upon his secret world. He shared a toothless grin and offered to show us his home. First he took us to his main home, a converted school bus. We walked past an old round washing machine and onto a sagging roofless porch and climbed the stairs into his home.
We stepped inside a cluttered, filthy space with a sagging mattress in the corner and kitchen counters built beside the windows. It was hard to imagine children sitting in this bus once. Kenny opened up a tiny refrigerator (I don't recall how this bus was powered) and offered us some of his brew that filled a large, chipped crock. Kenny used a mug to scoop out a sample of the beverage made from brown sugar, yeast and rice. I declined politely. I have a feeling this brew was the key to Kenny's good spirits.
The Saddest Part
Kenny didn't act like someone who wanted to be pitied. In his somewhat tipsy state, he seemed pretty proud to be tour guide. When I asked how long he'd lived there, he pointed to a tree through the window. "I ate a pear once and now there's a tree." I'm not sure I believed that, but I did believe that at one point Kenny had made this bus his "home". There were signs of attempts long ago to decorate. There were curtains on a back window and photos tucked above the side windows. There was one photo of a young Kenny with what I presume was a wife and children. I was haunted by that photo for a very long time. He had been a surprisingly good looking man, with a family.
Next door to the bus was a trailer. I don't remember if we even went inside, but I remember we said good-bye at the door.
We promised Kenny we would come back and visit.
We did return the next winter when there was snow on the ground. Kenny didn't offer us any brew and I remember he seemed sober. Maybe it was just the fact that he had on more clothes, but I like to think he was healthier.
You didn't run us off with a shot gun or hide inside to keep us wondering. You shared a little of yourself and we respected you for that. Maybe you really were content living that life, but I selfishly hope your life got a little better.
#48 Cowboy on a Plane
Flying with Kids
A recent stranger write up, reminded me about enjoying my kids at the airport. That reminded me of another memory involving my kids and an airplane. I have always enj0yed my kids, even on trips. But when my husband offered to sit with our 2 young kids on a flight, I grabbed the isolated seat and pulled out a book. Ahh! 2 hours of reading ahead!
Sitting beside me was a long legged man in cowboy boots. He fiddled with the cowboy hat in his lap. I bumped him as I got settled, he smiled when I apologized. I sensed this man was a talker, but I so wanted to read. I hurried to get started on my book.
I must have reread the same paragraph 4 times because I was so distracted by his sniffling. Why did I have to be seated by someone with a cold? Why doesn't he have a Kleenex? Is he expecting me to offer him one? I shrunk tinier in my seat as he fidgeted and fumbled. Was he wiping his nose on his sleeve?
Then I reached for my purse and offered him a tissue. He made full eye contact as he thanked me and I could suddenly see his eyes were watery. "I'm sorry." The cowboy apologized. "I'm sort of in a state. I'm heading to my grandmother's funeral." The moment he uttered those words, the image I had of this big, tough guy just melted.
My book stayed closed on my lap for the rest of the flight, while my new friend told me stories about his grandmother. I don't remember the details, I just remember how touched I was to witness this change in character. He hadn't changed, but my view of him had.
Thanks, Cowboy Friend.
You taught me a lesson about first impressions. I saw your boots and hat and expected you to be an armrest hog at the very least. You became a person I never expected. You were kind and thoughtful and best of all you didn't try to hide your vulnerability. When my grandmother died a few years later, I thought of you. You must have been a wonderful grandson!
#47 Curious Couple at the Airport
St. Louis Airport
I remember the airport being just this empty when I took my kids late at night to pick up their dad. He had been away on business for nearly 2 weeks and it was hard to tell who was the most excited for him to come home.
At the Gate
It was about a decade before 9-11, so we were free to walk to the gate to wait for the flight's arrival. Best of all, Southwest Airlines had recently installed some plastic climbing toys! At ages 2 and 4, Scott and Heidi were giddy to see the lonely equipment waiting just for them.
They clomped all over the slide and climber for a while, then began giggling as they used me as a climber. Their eager energy shook the whole row of seats and I knew their high spirits could easily crumble if that plane didn't hurry up.
I calmed them for a while with a little "I Spy" and a few silly songs...then some face making contests and guessing games about what Daddy would be wearing. Where was that plane?
No Longer Alone
The kids began to yawn and curl up next to me when I noticed the first person we had seen since we arrived at the gate. She was a young woman, smiling as she approached. "Could I ask you a question?" She asked. Then she turned and pointed to a somewhat embarrassed looking young man across the way. "We've been watching you and the kids and I'm thinking you are their mother. But my boyfriend says that's impossible." I laughed and told her they were my kids. She grinned and shook her head. "I was right! He said you couldn't be the mom because you were having too much fun."
Thanks Curious Girl! You have no idea how often I've recalled that brief encounter. You could have just wondered and never spoken. But sharing the funny thoughts you and your boyfriend discussed, gave me a terrific boost. I hadn't noticed you watching us. I'm glad your observations determined what I've always known, that I enjoy my kids!
#46 Dunkin' Donut Mom
A Mom and Her Kids
My memory is from about 1976, sitting at the counter of a St. Louis Dunkin' Donut shop. My brother and I, both teens at the time, were treating our mom to a donut stop. It was Mom's birthday and David and I were finding clever ways to celebrate without spending too much money. At home we had performed a silly Baroque version of Happy Birthday and presented her with a handful of oddball gifts. And then we headed off on a day of whimsical exploration, which was Mom's favorite kind of celebration.
As we sat chatting over coffee, I became a little distracted by a mother and 2 kids at the other end of the counter. They seemed familiar. The brother and sister were swiveling back and forth on the bar stools, joking. The mother seemed genuinely amused by her kids and joined in with a few of her own jokes. At a glance this happy little trio reminded me of younger version of us. But closer observation made it clear they were very different.
A Sad Story
The mother wore a shabby coat over rumpled clothes. The children's clothes were faded and well worn. When the mother turned on her stool I could see she had bruises around her eyes and mouth. I wondered.
A truck driver entered and sat at the counter. He asked the woman what happened to her. I quietly sipped my coffee, straining to hear her reply. She was very matter of fact as she described how she had been beaten and held 9 hours by a man outside a hamburger joint. The mom seemed disconnected from the story she was telling until she neared the end. Then her face suddenly matched her words. "When he stopped beating me, I was in shock. I didn't really know I was hurt, until I felt the blood..."
There was hardly a pause before one of the kids jumped in, bringing the conversation back to humor. "Hey Mom! Look at you now. Your bruises are starting to match the color of your coat!" And they all laughed awkwardly.
Thank you, Dear Mom in the Donut Shop.
Your story jolted me. It was hard to believe I was sitting near a mother, who had recently been assaulted. As I sat at the end of the counter with my mother and brother, I was reminded of some difficulties we had dealt with during the year and how we had often coped with humor. You and my mother may have been worlds apart, but I'm pretty sure you had a few things in common. Resilience, good humor and somewhat protective kids.
#45 Boy in the Lagoon
Art Hill - St. Louis, 1977
We had some pretty white winters during my college years in St. Louis. And Art
Hill was the place to go to make use!
You could often spot a couple of lunch tray and garbage bag riders. And now and then you you might see 2 sisters, squealing down the hill on one pair of cross country skis! (my only photo)
A Quiet Afternoon
I met my little friend one afternoon when I was alone skiing. The hill was empty that day so I took advantage to practice some telemark turns...happy to have no audience. I had made my way to the bottom of the hill, when I heard a whimpering from the lagoon.
I turned to see the face and arms of a young boy, surrounded by a thin layer of broken ice. The boy clutched the cement edge of the lagoon, his eyes were locked on mine as I left my skis and rushed towards him. I dropped to my knees and the boy reached around my neck. I struggled to lift him, but his water logged snow suit fought to stay under water. I finally won and felt the suction release.
I held the dripping, crying child and looked for a parent. At the very top of the hill, I could see 2 unaware figures, gesturing as if in conversation. I began the journey up, stumbling and huffing and puffing. The little boy clung to me, sobbing and shivering the whole way up. By the time I reached the top, the mother spotted us and had began to yell. She was furious with her child who had stupidly aimed his saucer towards the water. And where was his other boot?! In the lagoon?! She sputtered and fumed and never said thank you. I headed back down to get my skis and poles and headed for my car...shaken.
Thank you, Little Boy.
Your close call, made me a more cautious parent in later years. And your mother taught me some lessons, too.
I wish I could go back and redo that "rescue". I would have learned your name and I wouldn't have handed you over to your mother until she proved that her anger was just a reaction...of panic and guilt. Sadly I'm pretty certain that you mom was a lot worse than that. I wish I had just taken you home with me!
#44 Richard & His House on Wheels
This is not Richard
I never took his picture, but this internet photo reminds me of Richard and his house-truck. The man in the photo looks a bit like a playful, less bearded version of the Richard I remember.
Fall Break of 1976
I met Richard while camping in the Ozarks with my friends Karen and Jan. Of course, some college students head for Cancun, but Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park was the best we could do. Instead of giggling over margaritas, we laughed over bowls of campfire stew.
After a chilly night in the tent, we headed to the Black River, which was probably more entertaining than a beach anyway. On that warm October day, the water had attracted lots of tourists wanting to play in the maze of boulders and waterfalls and swirling pools. We took a few turns tumbling down slick rock slides and stumbling back up to torture ourselves again.
And then we rested on the warm rocks to let our bruises begin to heal. Eyes shut, we listened to the roar of the water and the muffled squeals of children... with a little drunken hollering mixed in.
Occasionally we sat up and amused ourselves with some people watching. The distant children looked like elves and fairies as they hopped effortlessly from rock to rock...a sharp contrast to the noisy beer drinkers who fumbled clumsily with their 6-packs and cassette players. We 3 quietly teased about how someday we needed to get us some of them "Handsome Ozark Mountain Men "
There was one person we observed who didn't fit in, though. He had a long untended beard and white gauzy pants rolled up to the knee. He sat alone on a nearby rock for much of the afternoon. We didn't know if he was meditating, writing poetry or planning the next bank robbery.
We ended up chatting with the bearded man named, Richard. He seemed soft spoken and kind and a little mysterious. He said he had been fasting for a few days. He planned to start a hike the next day and hoped to finish at Elephant Rocks (another boulder filled park in the Missouri Ozarks) in time for the full moon on Friday. We hoped he could make it since he already looked pretty thin.
Richard seemed a bit eccentric to us, but there was nothing awkward as we sat chatting. He seemed like an amused older brother, as we shared funny stories and brainstormed ideas for silly Halloween costumes. He took us to the parking lot to see his "home" which was an old bread truck, covered in faded red paint. There were curtains in a window and even a little porch attached to the back. He gave us a loaf of bread before we said good-bye, reminding us he was fasting. We thanked him and told him to call if he ever made it to St. Louis. "If you're not fasting, we'll cook you up a big healthy meal!" We assured him.
St. Louis Visit
I must have given him my phone number because a week later I called Karen and Jan in a panic. "I didn't think he would REALLY call! He's coming to town and we promised him dinner!" So Karen and Jan came over to my duplex and we spent an afternoon making a huge mess trying to prepare a special feast for our vegetarian friend. By 8:30, the 4 of us were seated around a candle lit table eating scalloped eggplant, salad and potatoes along with homemade bread. The food was surprisingly delicious, but the atmosphere was surprisingly uncomfortable. It felt like we 4 were on some kind of a dreaded blind date. It was as if our group didn't know how to converse when we weren't sitting on sun baked rocks, lulled by the sound of the water.
Distracted with Dessert
Luckily we had invited some other friends to join us for our grand finale of Baked Alaska. The picture to the left is what it should have looked like. Ours was a melted disaster.
The extra guests broke the ice with new energy and jokes and stories...for a while. Then, Richard pulled out his guitar.
In 1976 it wasn't unusual to have a guitar come out at a gathering. Singing could be a cure for a dull party. But Richard's guitar playing added a whole new tension to our group. He squeezed his eyes shut while his hands almost spastically plucked at the strings. The melody he sang seemed to clash with the notes of the guitar.
Sad and Lonely
Maybe Richard's singing stirred up some old memories, because before long he began talking about a wife and 2 kids that he had lost touch with. In a soft voice Richard began to share his disappointment in himself and the world. I can't remember the specifics of the things he hated about the world, but he said he felt powerless to change any of it. He figured he would pretty much live the life of a hermit and concentrate on trying to change himself instead of the world. I suddenly realized how very sad and lonely this man was. I thought he had just been quiet and thoughtful.
Thank you, Richard
I was relieved when your red house on wheels pulled away from my curb. Your sadness scared me and I suddenly began to worry about what could happen when you invite an unhappy stranger into your home. So thanks for NOT being all those things that we read about in newspapers. Thank you for not overstaying your welcome or doing worse. But mostly thanks for sharing a little bit of your sadness. At 19, I was concerned with little more than my college world. It was good for me to stop and really think about the life of another.
I hope you're still alive somewhere. I like to picture you sharing your life with another person, maybe in a real house. But those are my wishes. Mostly I just hope you found happiness.
#43 Tom, the Shark Fisherman
The Saltiest of the 3 Fishermen
I met Tom just after he returned from 2 days at sea on the Top Tuna! He and his crew reminded me of weary horses who suddenly have the ability to gallop when they catch sight of the stable. All 3 scrambled on the deck, tackling numerous chores, preparing to leave their boat for the night. Tom did the most grumbling of the 3.
DJ's Deck in Daytona Beach
I was with my husband tackling a plate of raw oysters at a quirky seafood joint, when we noticed the boat pull up beside a nearby dock. It was like sitting at a drive-in movie...watching the show!
A Full Load
We had a perfect view of the boat, loaded down with lines and pulleys, hooks and 2 days worth of shark.
Handling the Sharks Twice
Despite his grumbling, Tom seemed pretty happy to answer my silly questions. (He did have to ask me to step back a few times, since the blood was splattering.)
"I hate all these regulations!" he whined. "We can get rid of the shark's head at sea, but we can't remove the fins or do anything else till we come to shore." He claimed all the strict laws just ended up with more waste. "We can only handle sharks. If I pull up a red snapper, we have to throw it back even if it's dead. There are hungry people who could eat that!"
Shark Fin Soup
There were hoses blasting, knives slicing, blood spurting, along with a little cussing and laughter. "These go straight to China." Tom announced as he sliced the fins off each shark. He shook his head and chuckled at the idea of shark fin soup. "Yeah, they can't have a wedding banquet without their shark fin soup!" He seemed pretty amused. "They think there's some kind of aphrodisiac in that shark fin!"
Tom heaved the gutted sharks into a rolling bin, which was carted off to a nearby fish market.
Dwayne and his son tossed the last fins into the orange basket. I wondered if they could possibly like eating shark after handling them day and night. Dwayne said he didn't eat shark...not anymore.
When Tom and Dwayne were done unloading I had a chance to admire their colorful, rubber overalls. Tom made some kind of crack about just how "colorful" he and Duwayne really were... before we got off on the subject of food.
Dwayne was hoping "Mom" would be making pasta for dinner. Pretty soon their ladies came to fetch them and they headed off for an evening on land...before heading out in the morning.
I know how tired you must have been, so I'm surprised you even chatted at all. You actually made me a lot more curious about life as a fisherman...and life as a shark for that matter. Since we met, I've read up about all the controversies of shark fishing and I understand both sides a little more. Also, like Dwayne...I lost a little of my appetite for shark.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers