A tall slim boyish-looking 20-something-year-old wearing a Cubs baseball cap and thin navy blue jacket faced us across the aisle. He was slumped down in his chair while listening intently to my conversation with "Andy," the 30-year-old who had just been released from prison and wanted to go to California. He couldn't leave the state and was forced to wear a monitor.
Joe and I made eye contact.
“Are you going to Chicago?” I asked him.
“What do you do there?”
“I’m a third year law student at Northwestern.”
Andy’s ears perked up. “Can you represent me?” he pleaded.
“Cannot.” He gave us his spiel. “We were told as law students not to practice law, yet. Anyway, I’m going into civil law. I’m interested in anti-trust litigation. But…”
He took out his phone and began searching for several free legal options for Andy. While doing so, he told us that he was engaged to a woman from Cincinnati and was moving there after graduation. He had a possible job with a local firm.
In the meantime, I turned to Andy and asked him, “Why do you want to go to California? What’s there?” He pulled out a flyer from his back pocket that was still damp from last night’s rain. "Here," he said, and handed it to me. “Tony Alamo, founder of Alamo Christian Foundation in Hollywood, CA, offered me a place to stay. He sent me the clothes I’m wearing.”
A tough looking woman named Cookie with long frizzy brassy blonde hair, wearing gold shoes, a Chanel T-shirt, and a ring with a fake gem the size of a kumquat was sitting two seats away from Joe. She pivoted slightly to look our way and chimed in: “I know Tony Alamo. I ran away from home in the 1970s and went there for two weeks because a guy I knew was living there. It’s a bad place—a Christian cult. You don’t want to go there,” she warned.
(After I got home, I looked up Tony Alamo and found that he was sent to prison as a child sex offender. He recently died on May 3, 2017 in prison, one week after I met Andy. Link to obit: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/03/us/obituary-tony-alamo-minister-sexual-abuse.html)
“Are you going to Chicago?” I asked Cookie.
“Yes,” she said.
“Why are you going there? Fun? Business?” I asked in my nosy, reporter/investigator way.
This was a tough woman with New York savvy. She started talking. Told us how she finally got her life together, earned a GED, worked her way through community college, found a job in the entertainment business, learned what was needed, and now was owner of her own digital record label. She was living well.
This repartee among the four of us went on for two more hours--and our conversation became more intimate and intense. Every sentence was breaking down barriers between us. Each of us was as exposed as a single light bulb dangling from a ceiling as we shared our individual stories.
Over the loud speaker, we heard that the train to Chicago had arrived. Andy wasn’t going our way so the three of us got up and said our goodbyes. “Best of luck for the future,” I said lamely and shook Andy’s hand. He did not have a cell phone, but was carrying around in his pocket a small khaki colored notebook that he took out to jot down the information Joe was giving him about free legal aid. I gave him my email, and he entered it into his book. And then I walked away as if nothing had happened.
We lined up, the train arrived, and everyone waiting scrambled for seats, trying to find a comfortable one. After the last person was seated and the initial frenzy died down, passengers settled into their own world. They were sitting, talking, reading, nibbling, tending to crying babies, staring out the window watching the fixed earth go past, and dozing. I started reading the new Elizabeth Strout book, “Anything is Possible” on my iPad and snacking on Cheez-Its. The train crept along the track—I could have crawled to Chicago faster. It stopped intermittently for long stretches and picked passengers up along the way in dozens of small towns. Every so often an announcement came over the speaker system that cut into the silence: “Next stop is …..”
The shrill sound of the PA system was almost as annoying as the frequent herky-jerky stops the train was taking between towns for no apparent reason. And there I sat and sat.
A lean muscular woman with dirty blonde hair and crackly lines around her eyes, wearing tight jeans, a black tank top, and a sweatshirt with a hoodie walked into our train car and jerked her head up and down until she found the right seat. It was next to me.
We didn’t say a word to each other for about an hour until she stood up suddenly and said, “I’m going to the club car. May I get you something?” She held out her hand. “I’m Karen, by the way.”
“No thank you,” I answered. And when she returned with her diet Dr. Pepper and large bag of Skittles, we began to chat. It was almost cozy sitting there with Karen having an intimate exchange, rain beating on the windows. Our conversation continued like one big run on sentence until the train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station.
In between slurps of soda and her chomping on Skittles, she told me that she lives with her husband and a teenage son in a white house she bought on top of a steep hill in a small Illinois town.
Life hasn’t been easy. She married right out of high school and had a daughter who is now married with two daughters. Her face softened as she broke into a big smile when telling me that she is the only one of her four siblings to go to college. After graduating, she went to work for a manufacturing company as a bookkeeper doing accounts receivables.
Her eldest sister, who was divorced with two kids, left her husband for another woman, a lieutenant she met at the Department of Corrections where she works. Her family is reeling with the news of this lifestyle change and her sister avoids family gatherings like the plague.
Karen’s other sister, who married a man in Florida, sold everything to go grow marijuana in California. She and her husband thought they’d make a killing. They bought a school bus, stripped it, added a bed, bathroom of sorts and kitchen, and drove west, settling on a plot of land where they grow the plants. Five years later, they are still living in the bus. The biggest challenge of all is whether this lifestyle will stand the test of time. They are still waiting for a windfall.
We chat further. I tell her why I’m going to Chicago--for our book signing of Suddenly Single after 50, which deals with loss of a spouse and all that entails. Karen reveals that she can relate. Her first husband died.
“I am so sorry. How?” I asked.
“He killed himself. I should have seen the signs,” she said wistfully. There was this feeling, she said. This creeping numbness, knowing some disaster was going to happen. She did nothing. She was in denial. Perhaps it was just ordinary fear like fear of sickness, fear of starving, fear of not being able to pay the bills, dread. Her face swelled up and her eyes teared in remembrance of old grief. She popped a purple Skittle into her mouth, started chewing again, and continued.
She remarried shortly after. A man she met in a chat room who, it turned out, has a seizure disorder and cannot work. He gets disability. She supports the family now as the manufacturing company’s controller (she moved up the ranks) while he stays home with their son. About four years ago, they began having marital problems and considered divorce when the company transferred her to South Carolina. She hoped her husband wouldn’t follow, and he didn’t. He opted to stay home and raise their son. The idea was to use her transfer as a trial separation.
They visited one another from time to time and went on “dates.” It was the first time she had been on her own and it was empowering. The separation gave her time to figure out who she is and to focus on herself and her needs. She bought some land and built a house. “Unbelievable. I’ve never done anything like that,” she beamed.
When the company moved her back home, she gave her husband the option of leaving. He stayed and they decided to give their marriage another try. Today, the marriage has never been stronger. Now they divide responsibilities more evenly. “What’s for dinner?” he’ll ask. And she’ll say, “Arrange for something. Cook or pick it up, I don’t care.” In one sense she’s undergone a dramatic transformation; but in another, uncanny way, she had been racing ahead to meet this very future all along.
The train finally pulled into Union Station. Karen and I exchanged emails and a hug and waved goodbye. I raced to get to our book signing venue, the Women’s Athletic Club. Its members are among Chicago’s most successful and prominent women. Many in the audience had been divorced or widowed and had moved on to new, successful lives. What juxtaposition, I thought; their stories are vastly different from the ones I had heard just hours before.
Barbara and I spoke, signed, sold out of the books on hand, sipped wine, and supped. By 9 a.m. the next morning, I was back on the train.
This time a junior studying journalism at Northwestern sat down next to me.
“I’m Mathew or Matt.” he said, introducing himself. Sweet. Polite. He offered to put my suitcase on the luggage rack overhead when he saw me struggling to do so. When he sat down, he told me he was going to St. Louis to visit his best friend at Washington University who was graduating in three years. He then excused himself, said he had homework to do, donned earphones and began clicking away on his laptop. We didn’t talk. I read. Fortunately, this time the train was on time, arriving back in St. Louis in five hours.
However the lives of the strangers I met unfold, I’ll probably never know. But I like happy endings, so I’ll choose to write my own script: the young prisoner finds a “home” and work; the law student gets a full-time job in civil law with a big firm and breaks up a communications monopoly; the record exec signs an exclusive contract with a major rock star; the company controller becomes chief financial officer, and she and her husband both live to a ripe old age content in their marriage, and the journalism student gets a job doing social media and public relations for a large Chicago media company.
When we open up to others, even strangers who share tidbits of their lives including their vicissitudes, it can encourage and help them. It helps us, too, because we realize we’re not the only ones dealing with difficult decisions, pain and hardship. Talking to Andy, Joe, Cookie, Karen and Matt was eye-opening and humbling. It put my life into perspective and made me appreciate more how lucky I am. It also greatly expanded my horizons. My life felt small before. I never would have imagined how my outlook changed and enlarged by the time I returned home.