Honor Among Commuters

It’s amazing how many bad memories the mind can conjure in an emergency — which to me, this had just become.

For a split second, I considered jumping off as the train lurched forward. Because I’d distracted the pseudo-operator, the door was still open. I had about 15 feet of platform left. A chin-high railing would have kept me from tumbling into a gully jammed with trash, storm debris, and a deflated basketball. If I’d minded the gap, I maybe could have jumped without self-inflicting bodily harm. Maybe.

But I didn’t jump, and the door slowly closed. Or maybe the door quickly closed, but my mind already had switched to slo-mo even as I tried to stay calm and telegraph trust to the two people I’d left behind. The pseudo-operator — how else to describe the guy in the second car of a two-car train who works the door and collects fares? — wasn’t willing to relay the message that I needed to disembark. So we clattered away toward the next stop, which, although not my top concern in that moment, was in the opposite direction from the one I’d wanted on that blistering July morning.

Of the three commuters waiting for a ride toward the city, I’d been there longest. I’d arrived just after the morning rush, and I’d already wilted on the shadeless platform before a 20-something woman appeared, followed minutes later by man of similar vintage. For a long while, we all followed the commuters’ code of silence — a long-honored tradition, now nearly inviolable owing to cell phones. We may have shared an occasional eye-roll. Everyone who rode that “high-speed line” was oh-so-sick of maintenance work that frequently shut down one track, forcing trains to alternate on the other. Half-hour waits were typical. We all knew this, no need to vent. Better to stay quiet and conserve energy in our separate sweaty zones on the platform.

Eventually, the man spoke. “I checked the website. Worthless.” This prompted the woman to ask me, “How long have you been waiting?” I glanced at my watch. “Forty minutes. So far, two trains have passed, both going the other way.” Sighs all around. We hadn’t exactly bonded, but at least we’d established contact. We continued to shuffle, fold and unfold arms, check phones. I placed my lunch and my book-heavy handbag on the metal bench in the cinderblock shelter. The bench was too hot for sitting, but I needed both hands to check the schedule for another train line — one I could drive to in 10 minutes, if I could make a connection.

When I’d been waiting nearly an hour and was just about to leave, another outbound train appeared. I stepped onto the second car because only that door opened — simply to ask, as politely as possible despite my exasperation — when we might expect an inbound train. I’d only planned to be onboard a few seconds, so I’d left my bags (partial contents: wallet, phone, car keys, house keys) on the bench. The pseudo-operator, who glibly agreed this was the third consecutive outbound train, had no ETA for a city-bound train. He didn’t register that I only wanted information and had shown no signs of paying a fare. Then the train started moving, and he refused to ask the driver to stop.

My fellow commuters watched, mouths agape. I’d told them I was going onboard to get us an answer. I couldn’t tell from their faces if they were more afraid I would jump off and they might have to do something about a broken, middle-aged wreck sprawled across the concrete or draped over a billboard; or more worried that I wouldn’t jump, leaving them jointly in charge of my possessions.

The next station was one minute away. It’s amazing how many bad memories the mind can conjure in an emergency — which to me, this had just become. That time my wallet was stolen, and it took a year to reassemble my card-carrying identity. The day I broke my ankle and had to call a taxi to get to the ER. A long-ago night when my car had been towed, although I’d briefly thought it stolen. I had ample time to imagine all the ways this day might still become a disaster, even if I had avoided a probable ambulance ride by not jumping. I didn’t really think my fellow commuters would abscond with my wallet or my 19-year-old Honda. I knew a train couldn’t reach them until this one cleared the next station. But what if this train pulled onto the far track just as another headed toward them? I couldn’t expect they’d wait for me on the next-next train. Or what if they’d abandoned both the hope of a train and the burden of my bags?

I made a blessedly quick transfer to a waiting inbound train. As I boarded, my heart thumped, sweat dribbled everywhere, my legs wobbled. My voice squeaked when I told that operator he’d have to believe me that my transit pass was (hopefully) waiting at his next stop (a.k.a. my last stop). I clung to a handle by the door, swaying. When the train slowed, I spotted a human coat rack on the caution-yellow edge of the platform: my female fellow-commuter, arms draped with my bags and hers. The man had given up — on the train, the drama, maybe both. She and I gazed at each other. It was hard to tell who felt more relieved to see the other.

When the door jerked open, the woman handed over my things, wearing a weak smile. “Look,” I said, my voice still shaky, “I’ve brought you a train.” We collapsed into seats across the aisle from each other. I thanked her five times in the first minute. Then we slipped back into our separate mornings, our blinking screens, our shared silence, each pondering what else this roller-coaster-ride of a day might yet yield.




Companion to the print journal est. 1984, Greenville, SC. Emrys.org

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Eileen Cunniffe

Eileen Cunniffe

Nonfiction writer who often explores identity and experience through the lenses of travel, family and work. Read more at www.eileencunniffe.com.

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