Columnists > Judgment Calls

Passenger at the well

Talking to a stranger on the afternoon train

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

Having missed the 5:20 Lansdale local at Suburban Station by a hair's breadth-and one of those divinely appointed retoolings of schedule that alter all history henceforth-I board the 5:35 R5 to Warminster, an unknown quantity. The amount of humanity that a gaggle of skyscrapers is able to disgorge in 13 extra minutes is something I haven't figured on; there will be no indulgence of hermit preferences on this ride, I see immediately, taking in at a glance the long corridor of double seats all systematically staked out at half occupancy, like some perfect binary math exercise of schoolboys.

This is the northeast megalopolis, not southern hospitality; our mothers all taught us not to talk to strangers and it's the only remnant of propriety we adhere to. Greek moniker notwithstanding (philos = "love"; adelphos = "brother"), each commuter is hermetically sealed in his slot.

The first available haven is with a business woman, her overstuffed bag plopped down in the leg room of the adjacent space like a hostile takeover, or a "keep out" sign. This is not to be. I move on.

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Directly behind is a fortyish man in a suit who is already looking in my direction and has cleared away his briefcase. I make an instant calculation, factoring in the gravitational pull on my parcels against the likelihood of other prospects, and timidly venture: "May I?" "First woman who's ever sat next to me," he says. "Let's celebrate," I say, surprised at myself, and releasing my bulging canvas bag with a thud. (The lady in front of us chuckles, sneaking a peek over the top of her seat.)

Well, that went as well as could be expected, I muse, settling in. In the enforced silence of northern train culture I suddenly think of John 4 and the woman at the well. No doubt greater theological depths are to be plumbed in that pericope, but at the moment I am thinking of Jesus the taboo-breaker, striking up a conversation with a person he shouldn't, in a place he shouldn't.

Two nuns appear in our compartment now, donning flying buttress headgear. "I haven't seen veils like that since before '65 and the Second Ecumenical Council," I say, trying to keep up the momentum, and sending out a probe. "They're old," he replies, not revealing much. "I guess they're pro-choice about dress," I say. He nods. I have my wedge into conversation.

I can't recall exactly how but we establish, before the Fern Rock station, a common pedigree: lapsed Roman Catholicism. For him, the end of the line; for me, the beginning. He recounts an encounter with a bunch of people he met out west who think you have to be "born again." I tell him he probably has to throw me in that kettle too. "John 3:16," I reference, cementing solidarity with the western weirdos. And then I elucidate, "Y'know, all those subversive signs you've spotted in baseball bleachers."

"All kinds of saviors out there these days," he says. "Before you know it, you're drinking Kool-Aid laced with arsenic." "That's why you have to read the Bible," I urge, trying in one fell swoop to set ground rules for epistemology. "The Bible prophesied about all those weirdos.... Do you have a Bible?"

My companion at this point makes a detour into abstractions, woman-at-the-well-type digressions, as it seems to me: God as a benign cosmic force and not a person. The usual. But I'm not going down that road; it's a black hole and we don't have the time. "If God hasn't spoken into space and time, it's all opinion anyway," I say, cramming all I know of Francis Schaeffer into a nutshell. "Personally, I work it from the center, not the edges. The most immediate data in the universe: my sin." And here I confide (because he seems interested), "If every thought I had, just this week, were written down in a book, I'd hate for anyone to read it."

"I would too," he says, in a breezy statement that confirms 4,000 years of Scripture tradition, and I marvel that you can park yourself near anyone on any train and the gospel will hit the nail on the head every time.

"Do you like your job?" I query some miles later. "Parts," he says, disclosing his occupation as chiropractor, and I am suddenly aware of sitting next to a guy who shells out maybe $200,000 a year in malpractice insurance. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," I sigh inwardly.

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