In the early 1990s, before I knew Laura, I wrote the following incident in my journal.
He came down the aisle behind a huge, soft-sided suitcase, the kind that would usually show some designer label, except this one looked like a second-hand or slightly used knock-off from K-Mart. It was full and heavy and awkward in the narrow SEPTA aisle, but he hefted it easily to the luggage rack above the seat in front of me. That’s about all I paid attention to: the sight of that suitcase coming down the aisle and its swing up to its place above. I was scanning the blurbs and the outlandish cover of the novel I was about to start. I did register that the owner of the suitcase was a man, black, and not very tall.
As we were crossing the Delaware from Trenton to Morrisville, the woman across from me reached over and asked him what book he was reading.
“It’s a paperback version of the New Testament. Got a brother’s always asking me why I carry round half a bible.” He handed it over to her to inspect.
“Do you go to church?” he asked.
Somewhat uneasily, “I haven’t been going lately. I used to teach the young ones, but what with my child and all I haven’t been able to. Told myself I’m taking a year off. I’m going to go back in the fall to teaching the middle school children again.”
She had been on this train before. In fact, I think I usually see her on the early morning train. Pleasant-looking, but not striking, plump, but not obese, black, about 30. Plain, business-like dress, no jewelry, no fancy hair-do. Her most distinct feature was her voice, if one can describe such a quiet, soothing voice as distinct. Its slight throatiness kept its pitch from being too high or squeaky, almost like a rasp working the edges off a soft pine board.
“It’s real important to go to church. Now that I’ve found Jesus I want to walk in the ways of the Lord. I used to be in the gutter and some Christians came along and said, ‘Brother, you don’t have to live this way.’ To look at me now you wouldn’t know it, but I was all skin and bones. I’d been living on the street and in abandoned houses. Doing cocaine, drinking. Look what finding Jesus has done for me.”
I took note of him now. From the back. Short-hair, with signs of a few small designs on the front and sides. They looked like they were growing out. A round handsome face when he turned halfway back to face her. Clean shaven. The top of a light red sweatshirt was all I could see of his clothes. His eyes blazed with intensity. His voice had a desperate edge to it.
As we pulled into Levittown, he asked in the tone of a child traveling without his parents for the first time, “Is this Philly?”
“No,” she said, “you’ve got a ways to go.”
The conductor who happened to be passing at that moment asked, “Where are you going?”
“Where? Thirtieth Street?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t sound too sure.
“This train gets into Thirtieth Street at 5:25.”
“I want to get to Center City,” he said to the conductor’s back.
She asked, “Do you want to go to Suburban Station? That’s at 15th and … something.”
“Yeah. That would be good. I grew up in Philly. Used to hang out at 11th and Columbia. I’m heading down around 7th Street.”
“There’s a new station, you know, at Market East and the Gallery.”
“Oh, can I take this train to the Gallery?”
“I’m not sure. I get off before then.”
To the conductor who was coming back down the aisle, “Does this train stop at the Gallery?”
“Yes. You can take this train to the Gallery.”
A broad smile broke the worried look on his face.
She continued their conversation. “I really began to learn the Bible when I found this group in college. They were real helpful. Talked about practical things. So many churches talk about God, but they don’t help you in the world. This group was real good at teaching how to live the Bible in the real world.”
“I was up in Newark with the Victory Temple for about five years. Have you heard of Victory Temple?”
“No. Where are they located?”
“They’re in Newark, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, all over. They do a lot of work with people like me. Get us off the streets. I seen a brother walk up to someone passed out in the gutter, say, ‘You don’t have to be this way.’ You ever heard of Mickey Cruz?”
“No. I haven’t.”
“He used to be with the worst in New York. Mau Mau’s. He found Jesus.”
At this point I noticed the woman sitting in front of him starting to fidget with her newspaper, probably reacting the same way I usually do to loud conversations on the train between religious zealots. I’ve seen her on both the morning and evening trains for the past year. She gets on at Thirtieth Street in the morning. Has the look of an athlete, more the build of a biker than a runner or swimmer. Short kinky hair, glasses, and sharp features. In that year, I’ve only spoken to her once. As we were pulling into Thirtieth Street one evening and I was dozing off listening to country music on the radio, she reached over from the line of people in the aisle and shook my shoulder.
“You better not leave that out there like that,” pointing to my radio lying on the aisle seat beside me. I said thanks, covered the radio with my newspaper, and went back to sleep.
As I was observing this woman, the conductor came to collect the fare from a younger woman, sitting directly across from the man from Newark. Another tall, thin young woman, but not athletic-looking at all. Reddish complexion. Long, light red hair, flowing down over her shoulders, but with a bun of sorts on the top, and a claddagh ring on her right index finger. I noted that as she paid the conductor. She also seemed to have caught the drift of the conversation going on behind her, but unlike the woman across from her, she seemed slightly curious.
When I came back to the conversation, the man was saying, “They’re sending me home from Newark. I messed up with some woman. As the Bible says, woman is the source of all man’s problems. She called the pastor’s pastor all the way in California. Now they say I have to go back to Philadelphia.”
“What does your pastor say?” she asked.
“He’s out in California right now. It’s the deacons say I have to go.”
“You should call him or write. Just to let him know what happened.”
The train came to another station. In a desperate, worried tone, “Is this Philadelphia?”
“No. This is Cornwells Heights.”
“Had a brother lived in Cornwells Heights.”
“What made you start using drugs?” she asked.
“Every man is born with a hole in his heart. We try to fill it with drugs, or liquor, or sex. But we can only fill that hole with Jesus.”
And we went through Andalusia, Torresdale, Holmesburg Junction, Tacony, and Wissinoming, with the two of them sharing their faith. Increasingly, however, the following theme emerged.
“Does your mother know you’re coming home?”
“Do you have family still in Philadelphia?”
“Yes. An older brother who’s on the streets, and some younger brothers and some nephews.”
“You can be an example to them. We need that, you know. Black men.”
“They’ll be surprise to see me.”
“Don’t think you have to do it all by yourself. Let the Lord do the struggling. Sometimes it’s just too big for any one person to handle. You have to put your trust in the Lord.”
More and more, over and over, she tried in various ways to encourage him in his obvious loneliness and fear, his implicitly admitted failure to make it in Newark and the resulting rejection by the group that had saved him from cocaine. He picked up on her encouragement, looking for evidence that he was all right.
“Look at that suitcase. It’s full of stuff. When I went up to Newark, I only had the clothes on my back. Now look. When I was getting ready to leave, the brothers give me this suitcase and say here take this shirt, and take this, and take that. All sorts of nice stuff.”
The reality remained despite all of her encouragement and his search for encouraging signs. He was going back for the first time in many years to the place where he had hit bottom. He was going back alone. He really didn’t know where he was going to go when he got off the train. She knew that.
“You don’t have to go back to what you were doing anymore. Jesus will bear the load for you. Sometimes when people fall back they think they have to give up. You don’t have to give up. This is the Lord’s fight. Let him do the fighting. You don’t have to take it all on yourself.”
As we were pulling into Bridesburg, she asked, “What’s your name?”
“Peter. And yours?”
“Sheila.” (I could not resist wondering if she is a Sheila, what’s the name of the colleen in front of her. I also noticed the other young woman who had been in front of him had moved away.)
“Pleased to meet you, Sheila.” They shook hands across the aisle.
As we were pulling into Frankford Junction, she reminded him that she was getting off at North Philadelphia, filling the minutes with descriptions of how they have closed off the old part of the station and opened a new ticket office on the other side.
As we were pulling into North Philadelphia, they said good-bye.
“God be with you, Peter,” she said, as she got up to go down the aisle.
“And you, too, Sheila.”
He looked frantically out the window at the wreckage that is AMTRAK’s North Philadelphia station rolling by as we pulled to a stop. Passengers started to leave. Sheila was soon lost in the crowd going through a door on the platform. He looked up and down the platform. He looked up at his suitcase. He stood up, lifted the suitcase off the rack, and ran down the now empty aisle, clutching the case to his chest, saying, “Wait. I’m going to get off.”
The last I saw him he was still clutching that huge case to his body as he walked through the crowd of commuters rushing to the exit to get home.
As the train crossed the Schuykill and headed past the Philadelphia Zoo on its way into Thirtieth Street, I caught the red-head looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I wish I could have told her why there were tears in my eyes. Was I just crying for Peter, for his fear and his loneliness? Was I crying for my own loved ones who have fallen into the same abyss as Peter, and who live such lonely lives on the edge with him? Was I crying for all mothers’ sons like myself so desperate for the loving kindness of a woman’s support in times of trouble? Peter may have begun the conversation in Trenton parroting the preacher’s condemnation of woman as the source of man’s troubles, but he left the train before his stop (if he had one) to follow after a woman who had reached out through his loneliness and touched his heart before we reached North Philadelphia.
I don’t know what ever became of Peter. I did continue to see Sheila on the train over the next two years. The loved ones for whom I was weeping 20 years ago are now in better situations. Laura was actually largely responsible for pulling one of them out of the inner city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. She had offered to come with me to help get him moved. When we seemed trapped between his stubbornness and the bureaucratic incompetence of the agency supposedly supporting him, Laura suggested that we go to talk with the clerk at the probate court, which had authorized my intervention. As a lawyer, she had found that court clerks can make things go smoothly. That clerk confounded all expectations of bureaucratic inertia. He had us bring our resistor down to the court. I knew this clerk was different when he responded to a demand to examine the case file by handing it over. Clerks in my years of experience in government do not part with original files, especially to “civilians.” Then, the clerk spent the next hour playing counselor, social worker, good cop, bad cop. In the end he succeeded in breaking through the resistance so we could get on the road to a new place. That clerk was another real-life bodhisattva.