Over the weekend, I finished reading Gloria Steinem’s newest memoir, My Life on the Road. It was a very interesting read, if slightly disjointed–it spoke to the ways in which Steinem’s idea of “home” was uprooted when she was very young and continued to inform her ideas about travel and “settling” throughout her life. Most importantly, she discussed the interesting people she’s met in a lifetime of traveling, and how they’ve shaped her ideals and her understanding of the world. To me–someone who’s only left New England a handful of times and the United States once–Steinem’s journey was something I watched from the outside. As I read, I admired her ability to relax into wherever life–quite literally–took her. I didn’t realize such experiences could happen so close to home.
This morning on the train into South Station, a man probably in his seventies sat next to me a stop after mine. I was absorbed in my latest read (The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), so I didn’t really pay much attention to him.
Until, that is, we were squished next to each other in a way only the MBTA can muster, after another man took the end seat in our row. The stale smell of tobacco and the sensation of being overly crowded made its way through my senses.
“Excuse me,” he said politely, leaning his McDonalds coffee cup against my coat as he adjusted his many layers of clothing and various belongings to provide room for all three of us.
This is not an atypical occurrence–trains into Boston are notoriously crowded in the morning and evening commutes. So I figured I’d just do what I always did–bury my nose in my book until the train arrived at my destination.
But then the man spoke up again. First it was in regard to the snowstorm we had over the weekend, general topics of that nature. I took this time with my short, polite answers to appraise him. Plaid scarf, dirty dark coat, a worn black messenger bag in the overhead compartment. Smiling, crystalline eyes. Long, unkempt fingernails. A propensity for talking too close. I thought my lean toward introvertedness would keep me from giving this man too much time.
And then, much to my surprise, the conversation took a turn.
We started talking politics. And I don’t mean that the man began ranting at me–he began asking my opinions, quizzing me on my historical knowledge (“When was the last time the United States declared war?”–if you think it’s a trick question, you’re on the right track. My answer to him was another question: “…Officially?”). I found out he’d been a lawyer (which he jokingly attributed to his frequent questions), and he was unabashed about his opinions. It’s fortunate most of his aligned with mine, but either way, I was pretty impressed with his ability to just let go and discuss his honest thoughts. We pored over feelings on Trump, on America’s current economic situation. I realized I had solid knowledge from many a history course in the back of my head which had not been stimulated in years. An intellectual conversation on the train ride to Boston was not something I expected hopping on this morning, but I’m glad for it.
We switched gears and talked about literature. I found out he wrote plays and studied acting as a passion outside of his profession–though he never sold any of his works. He said his biggest inspiration was the renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, of whom he gave me an extensive familial history. As an aspiring writer, I found this extremely interesting. O’Neill apparently resented the fact that his father “sold” his acting talents when he bought the rights to The Count of Monte Cristo and performed it with a traveling troupe, Vaudeville style. This, the man explained, was why he never wanted to publish his literary works or make money off them. He’d been afraid of “selling out.” It’s a Bohemian, starving-artist mentality I hadn’t quite heard in a while outside the movies.
In the fifteen minutes we chatted, I felt like I’d taken a million semesters’ worth of college courses. Hearing from someone’s personal experience really solidifies so much of what makes up history. I finally introduced myself and he told me his name was John, just as our train came to its final stop.
One of his last remarks to me was a question: “Have you ever heard of Willie Sutton?”
“No,” I said honestly. It was a response I found myself saying a lot in our conversation, but not bitterly–as a student of liberal arts I feel like you’re trained to be a lifelong learner.
“He was a bank robber during the Depression. When he got caught, a reporter asked him why he robbed banks. He said, ‘Because that’s where the money is!'”
It was a silly joke, but as I told him, it was the 1930s in a nutshell if I’d ever heard it. It set the tone for the rest of my morning. I left the train with a smile, with an openness for whatever came my way. My conversation with this surprisingly friendly man was my intellectual warm-up for the day.
I didn’t exactly travel somewhere I’d never been. But in a way, I had. Who knows which parts of John’s anecdotal out-loud musings are based in fact–but for him, they are fact. They make up his understanding of the world, like traveling made up Gloria Steinem’s. This morning, I got a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. It made me realize: Isn’t every conversation with someone new, or about something new, a kind of journey in itself?
Maybe I’ve traveled farther than I thought.