People are inconvenient

I pride myself on my conscientiousness. I always step aside if I’m lost while walking on a busy street, I use my turn signal when I’m changing lanes, I clean my dishes right after I use them. I arrive early when meeting with a friend, I volunteer for projects at work, I follow through on plans and promises. Gold stars for me.

But something tells me that, strangely enough, to be conscientious is not to have reached the heights of virtue. Woe is me. And all it took was a ten-hour round-trip train ride to get that troublesome truth into my head.

Let me just start by saying: to me, trains are magical. I love watching the world flash by from the comfort of a spacious seat with ample leg room. I love getting up to stretch my legs, walk to the dining car, notice my fellow passengers as I pass. I once took a trip from DC to LA with my sister, a fascinating three-day journey in a glorious sleeper car that definitely falls in the top three trips I’ve ever taken. I’ve spent many train-riding hours sleeping, praying, writing, reading, musing.

But you know what can be rather inconvenient? What can steal the magic? What can bring me frustration, discomfort, annoyance? Well, people. While I am careful to keep to myself and always use headphones and never take phone calls except when absolutely necessary, as briefly as possible, in very hushed tones, there are people out there—many, I’m afraid—devoid of such conscientious habits. In fact, I sometimes wonder if people give themselves special license to really let themselves go in the warm, contained comfort of a train car.

My most recent trip confirmed this phenomenon in spades. There were people having long phone conversations at full volume. Others blared music from their phones. Loud, messy snackers. Dreaded manspreading. Unconscientiousness to the extreme, giving rise to my indignant self-righteousness. How annoying.

But it was somehow the ride back, less than 24 hours after the first, that softened my heart and opened my eyes. As the conductor came through to take tickets, interrupting the delicious dinner I’d brought with me, he paused and said, “You didn’t bring a plate for me? Seriously?” And I paused my meal for a minute or two for some friendly banter. He came by later, finding me deep in a page-turner, and asked, “What are you reading?” Again I stopped to chat, to share my enthusiasm for the book I was loving. As we neared a stop, the woman in front of me turned around, poking her head between her seat and the window. “Do you have any toothpaste?” she implored. I came close to rebuffing her request, thinking how odd it was to ask a stranger for something so personal (and, let’s face it, germ-infested), but I did have toothpaste, a little half-used travel tube I could certainly do without. So, instead, I said, “I do!” with a smile, happily forking it over. “My boyfriend’s picking me up,” she explained sheepishly. It was a minor sacrifice, I found, for a good cause. Later, the woman across the aisle asked, “Can you watch my things? I’ll be right back.” I agreed, and to my surprise she came right over, tucking her purse and a plastic bag between my feet and the window.

At the front of the car was a loud-mouthed teenager, broadcasting family drama as she chatted with her grandmother on the phone. She was traveling from North Carolina to Jersey and had months’ worth of things with her. She couldn’t believe the way her sister was acting. She was sad to leave her cat behind. “Can someone ask if there’s going to be a delay?” she proclaimed while we were stopped in DC. “I’m trying to ask,” she complained to her grandmother, “but no one will answer me.”

Diagonally across from me was the most flirtatious and downright adorable two-year-old I’d ever seen, riding with his doting grandmother. We waved and made faces and played peek-a-boo with each other across the aisle. On walks up and down the car, he’d give high fives and fist bumps to everyone he passed. “You just want to meet and greet, huh?” his grandmother quipped. Eventually I got used to the monotonous alphabet songs she played for him at full volume from her phone. While she slept, he and continued to smile at each other. Our little secret.

With my annoyance worn down and my affection for these strangers having slowly materialized, my journey came to an end. The train slowed as it neared Philadelphia, and I stood clutching my suitcase as I swayed in the aisle, listening to quiet small talk around me and yearning for my bed. The loud, tired teenager spoke with another North Carolina native who waited by the door. “Is someone picking you up?” she asked, concerned. “Because if not, I’ll call you a cab.” Her new friend assured her she was well taken care of. “Stay safe out there,” she urged.

Unconscientious and tiresome they may be. Noisy and annoying and a bother. But in the midst of it all, the frequent interruptions and loud conversations and borrowed toothpaste, I learned: inconvenient or not, people are so very lovable. The greatest of these? No, not conscientiousness. Not quiet or neatness or efficiency—no. The greatest of these is love.




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