The evening commute home was a scramble as people rushed and crushed onto the train fighting for a place to sit or stand. A last-minute couple pushed through the door dropping tourist maps in their haste. Forced by the crowd to split up, the man went one way and the woman another.
The woman sat down in the last vacant seat next to where I stood and began to refold maps. Beside her sat a well-dressed business woman who appeared to read something work-related even after a day at the office. The two glanced briefly at each other, said nothing, and went back to their tasks of reading and map folding.
Things calmed as the train doors shut and people settled into seats or places to stand. As we waited for the train to depart, only the rustling of newspapers or the occasional ring of a cell phone could be heard. The two women beside me were silent.
Finished with her reading, the business woman put papers back into a briefcase. The tourist woman fumbled with one last map and slipped it into a tote bag. Each woman stared straight ahead.
The train slowly moved.
Ms. Tourist turned towards Ms. Business.
“Hello.” Ms. Tourist said. That simple sound caught me off guard.
For the most part people say little or nothing on these commutes. Less a function of being unfriendly and more a symptom of preoccupied minds, people say nothing. Me included, but I’ve often wondered how funny, smart, or maybe obnoxious the person next to me might be during any given commute if we only chatted. Still, silence is the norm.
Not even a simple hello.
That’s why Ms. Tourist’s simple “hello” caught Ms. Business off guard as well. She whirled to face Ms. Tourist, stared at her for a second, and gave a “hello” in return. Each smiled slightly then stared straight ahead once again.
Perhaps shocked by the simple approach, seconds later Ms. Business returned the favor. “I saw your maps. Are you here on vacation?” she asked.
Ms. Tourist shook her head yes.
The train sped up.
Where are you from? Ms. Tourist asked.
Oh really? My son lives there now!
And you? Where are you visiting from?
How funny! My daughter lives there now!
The train reached full speed.
And so did conversation between Ms. Tourist and Ms. Business. Questions flew, answers flew, and in the process the women discovered they each had family living within miles of the other, had probably crossed paths at several restaurants, and both had grandfathers from North Carolina.
The train was still going full speed when their conversation became louder. The women agreed on movies they loved, books they hated, what humidity did to their hair, and how they wished their husbands didn’t snore so much. They covered politics, parenting, and pantyhose for the remainder of the trip.
As the train slowed to approach the station, Ms. Business plugged Ms. Tourist’s number into her iPhone. When the train came to a stop the women stood, actually hugged goodbye, and Ms. Business hurried through the door to catch her bus.
As the thick crowd exited the train Ms. Tourist rejoined her husband. I followed them onto the escalator and listened as Ms. Tourist excitedly recounted to her husband all she’d learned from the woman beside her, how nice she was, all they had in common, and how they’d probably meet up in Atlanta the next time the woman came to visit her daughter.
As we stepped from the escalator Mr. Tourist stopped and turned to his wife. He looked sincerely puzzled.
“How did you learn all of that? What’s your secret?” he asked laughing. As I walked past them towards my bus I saw Ms. Tourist shrug her shoulders as she explained her secret.
“I said hello.”
Stuart M. Perkins