The train arrived a little after 11:00 a.m. My girlfriend Katie and I settled down into seats across from Jared, a high school friend of Katie’s whom she had run into at the train station. As the doors closed and the train began to move, Katie and Jared rattled off the names of various people whom they had known in high school. This one was in college, that one was traveling through Africa, etc.
I sat back in my seat and allowed their conversation to wash past me as I daydreamed about what it might be like to live in New York City if I were made entirely of cheese. It’s a strange thing to daydream about, but it does pose some interesting questions, none of which I will explore here.
My daydreaming ceased when an elderly man in a seat across the aisle announced boisterously that when he was our age, he had made $35 a week.
“Really,” Katie said. “That’s interesting.”
“Yes,” the man continued, now empowered by the responsiveness of his audience. “And a bag of candy cost a penny. And a huge ice cream cone was just three pennies. And that’s what I would get at the end of the week.”
The three of us made noises to mark how impressed we were with the relative cost of ice cream. It was vaguely impressive to know that the $2 cone I would buy later in Penn Station had inflated in value by leaps and bounds over the last 60 or 70 years. For a matter of seconds, I was happy that this nice old man had decided to share some of his personal experience with us.
My happiness became diminished and eventually disappeared as he continued to speak.
“I was in the Navy, you know …” he said, almost out of nowhere. Of course, I figured he simply wanted to tell us from where his early ice cream money had come. But he kept talking, telling us about the ships and about the water and about the landscape from New York down to Virginia and back.
His attention was turned mostly toward Katie, so she made the appropriate comments from time to time, like “Oh, that’s interesting,” or “I see” or even the occasional question like “Where was that?” And at first, it did seem that Katie was genuinely interested in what he had to say.
After all, he seemed like a nice old man. And all of us had been raised to respect our elders and to listen to them, whether we understood them or not. By privilege of age, they had earned the right to pontificate a bit. And, truth be told, most older people do know more about the world than most younger people. It’s a common sense equation. If someone has lived longer than I have, chances are that he or she probably has a little more pertinent life experience to share than I do. So Katie put up with his ramblings dutifully, for a while.
“And that’s just like the time that I met God …”
I could feel the air getting thin. Katie tensed up beside me. Listening to a lonely old man ramble is one thing. Listening to an insane person share religious devotions is quite another. Of course, not everyone who wants to share religious devotions is insane. Perhaps he was just enthusiastic …
“… And then I touched the angel’s gown. It was made of some kind of strange material. What do you call that? A polymer, I think. And it had many colors. And she looked like no one I’d ever met before. And she spoke to me and told me things …”
Right. Well, insane or not, this was a little more information than any of us wanted from a random stranger on a train. All three of us were becoming nervous. The man just wouldn’t stop talking. Our faces became stone masks of happy tolerance. Underneath these masks, we were itching for any opportunity to escape.
Katie was the most beleaguered of us, because she still carried the burden of giving our collective response. Her responses had shortened to “Uh huh” and the occasional “Hmm.” Even that seemed to be taxing her last nerve. She kept her composure well, but I could tell that she was quietly boiling over. Other people’s God talk was not something she appreciated having thrust upon her.
I kept trying to think of a way out. There had to be something I could do. I contemplated different diversionary tactics. I could set myself on fire, but I didn’t have any matches. I could throw up on Katie and Jared, but the embarrassment would not be worth the effort. (Besides which, the old man might have simply offered his insight on the cost of vomit in 1935 as compared to today’s designer vomit.)
“… ‘Welcome back, Mr. Moore,’ the doctor said to me.”
He paused and stared at us for a moment to let the weight of these important words sink in. We, in turn, racked our brains to remember what the hell he was talking about.
“‘Welcome back, Mr. Moore. You died twice on the table during the operation, but both times you came back to us.’ And that’s when I knew it was true. I’d been gone and I’d met God and his angels. It happened while I was dead. ‘Welcome back, Mr. Moore.’ The doctor said it. ‘Welcome back, Mr. Moore …’”
My only other option was to try to say something overtly rude but just witty enough to shut down the old man in his tracks while allowing me not to look like a total asshole in front of Katie and Jared. Whatever I said had to be well thought out and carefully articulated. After a minute or two of careful consideration, I decided to announce to Mr. Moore and anyone else within earshot that I was Zepflog, King of Neptune’s burgeoning population of Amish.
I was about to make my announcement when Katie piped in with her first full sentence in many minutes. “Well, Mr. Moore,” she said, “thank you for sharing your story with us. I’m sure you’ve had an interesting life.”
It worked! It was amazing. He made a few more comments, but his enthusiasm had sputtered out. Soon he was silent. Katie and Jared eagerly resumed their earlier reminiscences. And I settled back in my seat, happy to be contemplating cheese again rather than the fabric of angel garments.
But it wasn’t long before I noticed that Mr. Moore was still looking in our direction, watching Katie and Jared as they talked. His mouth hung agape and his eyes darted back and forth like ping-pong balls. He started to lean forward in his seat. His intentions were obvious. He wanted back in. And at the first lull in conversation, he would strike.
I tried to warn Katie through the subtle art of telepathy. But it was no good. The second she took a breath, Mr. Moore re-entered our lives.
“I just want to ask you something real quick,” he said. “I just want to see if they teach you this in schools these days. Did you know that this planet used to be all land?”
“I’m sorry?” said Katie, resuming her role as group spokesperson.
“Yes, this planet used to be all land, every inch of it, back when there were dinosaurs.”
“Um … well, I see what you’re saying. You’re talking about the continent of Pangea. But I don’t think that the whole …”
“Yes, in the time of the dinosaurs. But they didn’t make time and God didn’t make time. We made time. Man made time. But you know what else? God killed the dinosaurs. Did they tell you that in school?”
“They say it was a comet or something, but the truth is that God killed them. Every last one of them.”
God killed them and somehow saw fit to bring Mr. Moore back. God is more fickle than I once knew.
Eventually, Mr. Moore rattled out of ideas and we were left in peace for the last 10 minutes or so of the train ride. When we got to Penn Station, Mr. Moore went one way and we went another. I doubt that we were the first, nor will we be the last strangers to be caught in the snare of his diatribe.
I’d like to say that I learned something from the experience of meeting Mr. Moore, something about the nature of people or the delicate relations between strangers or the even more delicate relations between the young and the old. I’d like to say that I am more tolerant or introspective or a better listener because of my hour journey into the psyche of a near senile former Navy man.
But the truth is that I didn’t learn a thing from the experience, save of course for knowledge of ice cream prices in the ’30s or ’40s. The whole experience of listening to this man was rather irritating, and if I had it to do over again, I may have gone forward with the vomit plan.
But when we left the train that day, Katie and I were more amused than irritated. And all things considered, all Mr. Moore really did was rescue us from our nostalgias and preoccupations for an hour by tirelessly substituting his own.
So if you find yourself on the Long Island Railroad someday next to Mr. Moore, try not to get too upset with him. As long as you’re killing time anyway, let him go ahead and tell you a billion things about God and the Navy and dinosaurs that you didn’t really need to know.
He’s a lonely old man, and he needs somebody to take some time and listen to him. And time, after all, was not made by God but by man.