A Stranger on a Train

An act of kindness, no matter how small, can change the whole journey.

There was a crazy woman sitting across from me on the train that Saturday. She was a black woman in her 30s wearing an oversized dirty gray sweater and bright orange shoes. She held a plastic bag filled with cheese puffs. She was the kind of person who utters strange, incoherent sentences, sometimes yelling or singing to no one in particular. The kind of person who makes everyone else on the train sit far away, averting their eyes and leaving quickly at their stops. The kind who likely rides the train not to travel to any place in particular, but to stay warm on a cold day in February.

As I rode the train that day, this woman kept up a strange dialogue with herself, alternatively speaking randomly and shouting angrily. “I don’t have nobody to care for me,” she said. “I don’t have no money to get a meal!”

That afternoon something strange in me was shifting, making me stand up when most of me wanted to stare out the window. I walked over to her seat. “Excuse me,” I said. “Would you like some money to get something to eat?”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, thank you.” But there was more: “Sit down with me,” she said. “Please sit down with me.”

She quickly added, “I won’t hurt you.”

Without thinking, I sat down. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me,” I said. “I trust you.” Somehow, I did.

I don’t know why I sat there. People are unpredictable, and people who talk to themselves on trains are dangerously so. In the past I’ve always averted my eyes, changed trains, avoided giving out money for fear of being mugged or having my $10 donation converted into crack within the hour. Until this moment I thought charity was sitting quietly at home writing checks to United Way, not making myself uncomfortable to help someone else.

Before I walked over to her, a flurry of thoughts had swirled in my head: Conversations with my husband about how charity changes the giver, how it doesn’t matter how the gift is received or used by the recipient. My anger when I learned the richest two people in our country make more than the income of 60 countries combined.

And there was my experience in counseling, which has taught me that even the most incoherent, mentally unstable people speak words that contain kernels of truth. “I don’t have nobody to care for me,” she had said.

Above all was this thought: This woman is a human being. She needs to be treated like one.

“Where are you from?” I asked her as I sat down. She was Alisa, and she’d lived in D.C. almost her whole life. She gave me a cheese puff from her bag and I accepted it. She asked for a hug and I gave her one, her head falling to my chest as I stroked her hair, her arm. She kept asking me repeatedly if she could come home with me. “You can’t,” I said. “I don’t live here, I’m just staying with a friend for the weekend.” She was upset but quieted herself after a time, just asking that I keep sitting with her.

“What’s your favorite food?” I asked.

“Mac and cheese,” she answered, a rare smile lighting up her face.

Soon my stop came and I moved to leave the train, saying goodbye to Alisa and patting her arm.

I wish I could say I felt better having reached out to this woman. I wish I could say that after I left, she seemed happier somehow. Instead, after I left she began yelling at a man with a small child for getting in her way. They looked frightened and quickly left.

And as I walked off I second-guessed myself. How much had I really helped her? What kind of meal would $6 buy in a city? Why hadn’t I given more? And, most of all, did I hurt her more by showing her a little kindness only to abandon her again? “Please take me home with you,” she’d said, “Please, just take me.” And I didn’t.

I felt sick. I couldn’t wash my hands enough. I didn’t want to eat.

As I walked out of the train station, a young woman who had also been on the train came up beside me. “Hey,” she said. “It was a good thing you did back there. You helped calm her down.” I shrugged but said thanks.

This is what giving is — it’s not always rewarding or easy. I know there is God in this, too, but sometimes it hurts like hell.

Article © 2006 by Gina Mitchell