She knew her seashells all by name or by place. After unfurling a carefully folded handkerchief to reveal an impressive, hectic array of crustacean remains, she set about studying them as if for the first time, seeking the perfect one to build bohemian jewelry around.
I had taken a seat strategically across the aisle and offset from her tantalizingly empty table. The overwhelming array of scenery and humanity constantly refreshing itself in the Observation Car is capable of camouflaging even the most conspicuous characters. Like the spread of shells, there are so many beautiful, fragile individuals scattered throughout the car, all half-awaiting the next opportunity to strike up a conversation with another train rider. I took my seat, fumbled for my camera, and flipped absent-mindedly through my journal, captivated by the scenery that had startlingly shifted from ocean views to over grazed agraria. Her meticulously untamed golden locks had seemingly directed me to choose my seat—their total obfuscation of her downturned face only heightened the captivation. Something about the flawless creation and consumption of her avocado-heavy snack had me distracted from the mottled cows and bucolic green hills to my left, instead wondering what kind of person this was across from me and where she was going and why.
Then the seashells came out and another passenger whom I had already befriended jumped on the opportunity to make conversation. This was when I learned that she could point to any shell and immediately recall, “Italy, Hawai’i, Huntington, Thailand.” Consider my interest piqued. While observing this tentative exchange, I suddenly felt a searing pain deep inside of me. It was caused by a smile so effervescent and innocent it seemed completely out-of-context. It made me self-conscious. Its unbridled joy over seemingly trivial things illuminated dark recesses inside of me that I didn’t care to see. The sorts of things that can’t scare you if you can’t see them. The light continued to seep in, and it made me smile on the outside. But it also made me shiver and shudder and long and desire.
A rapid succession of words were exchanged, but I was still caught surprised deep inside, trying to make out all of the rarely-seen shapes among the blackness. I was invited to join at her table, which I clumsily, heartily accepted. I peeled my eyes from the inward mysteries to the outward mystique that I was now face-to-face with. Through all of these exchanges, she had not stopped working the waxed twine and seashell, idly crafting a necklace that could sell for a serious sum in the right locales. It all whirred by—scenery, subjects, conversation contributors. She had shared a humbling story of overcoming near-death illness, level-headedly raved about God’s greatness, and talked candidly about a recently-ended relationship, all the while beaming that searing smile. She gracefully photographed complete strangers silhouetted by the setting sun, carefully wrapping the gorgeous film SLR’s lens in another handkerchief. Everything was in its place, yet she was open and gracious and carefree. I had never witnessed such a combination of character traits as was now unfolding before me.
The organic ebb-and-flow of people in the Observation Car, the comfortable pauses and guts-spilling-before-formal-introductions, and the understood character traits of train riders…the alchemy of this situation was life affirming. An uninvited addition to our table momentarily crushed me, but quickly proved to be perfect. A young man who I still cannot quite understand, undoubtedly affected by some slight birth defect, sat down and began conversing with an earnest sincerity that rivaled her own.
“Do you guys want to paint?” The question was so ridiculous that it did not surprise me in the least, and suddenly the seashells had been replaced by a spread of solid watercolors, acrylics, and high-quality paper. I wondered what else could be in that groovy floral-print briefcase. The man rambled about his painting experience, the smiling girl just listened and smiled and made him feel like the most important man in the world, and I sat and surrendered any concern about artistic impression-making, instead embracing the cosmic perfection of this moment. I smiled at the sky more than once and scribbled out a most impressionistic rendering of the sunset happening to our left. Across from me, she painted a guarded, painstakingly detailed picture of a girl. He turned an initial amalgamation of colors into a venerable work that shamed even my best efforts.
When at last it was too dark to make any real progress on the paintings, we sat and lingered over them like a well-eaten meal, talking and sharing in a way that is rare among even best friends and kin.
“Who is someone that has cracked your world open?”
In a conversation that had been anything but shallow, the gravity of this question still caught me off guard. He asked it disarmingly, spurring a series of cycling stories and reminiscing and serious pondering. I settled on Paul, the man in Audubon Park who cut the small talk and asked the most piercing questions about my cross-country jaunt. As I sit here scrawling this, I realize that it may have been the two seated across from me, names fuzzy but faces and mannerisms bright as ever. We all went around and took turns answering, spending ten, twenty minutes apiece. A neighbor-listener even chimed in, trying to ascribe serious meaning to her cat. I smiled and listened, finding some sort of value in the preposterous normalcy of this response. I tried to exchange a knowing glance across the table to share some silent laughter, but was met with two smiles, each exuberant in their own way.
Some six hours into a twenty-six hour trip north, I had already had my world cracked open multiple times. As we closed in on a central coast town, she grew nervous about missing her stop and began to hastily but perfectly collect her belongings. I was gifted granola bars, fresh fruit, and an avocado for the remainder of my journey. This brought me back to the bike, when a free forty cent cookie could elicit tears of joy. We all exchanged names and numbers, for a reason that is still not quite clear. After handing hers to me and the painter, she quickly grabbed them back. God Bless! she added underneath the last four digits of the telephone number, and she really meant it. I hopped off with her, hugged a long, appreciative hug, and jogged around the platform to stretch my already-anxious legs. I was driven back into the train by all of the nicotine addicts viciously crushing cigarettes at alarming rates, returning to my still-strewn belongings well before the All Aboard whistle.
There was nothing romantic about those hours. I was taken down several notches by folks who were simply living their lives. I had many other disproportionately profound conversations on that train ride, for that is the nature of the beast. I met so many people for even brief spans who put their own little cracks in my ever-expanding world. In having the dark recesses of my innards illuminated by such a radiant smile, I was shown areas that I didn’t even realize I had, let alone that I could improve. I was also shown personalities that I had never encountered or fathomed. Ebullient, flawless people who are as happy as one of my self-described “redneck Canadian” hosts in Florida. His motto was one of the few tangibles that helped me out of my hammock on those cold, sweaty mornings when little else seemed to. I woke up above da grass, today is gonna be a goud day.