“You’re too nice. Toughen up kid.”
I wondered: was this the best or worst advice that anyone has ever given me?
I suppose they were sage words of wisdom for a ride on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Port Huron, Michigan. Especially considering that for a third of the trip I had the worst seat partner ever.
I’d like to say I signed up for a seven-hour train ride because of a romantic notion about taking a train across the snowy white winter landscape, listening to Christmas songs, and getting lost in a reverie of nostalgia for past holidays. But really it just comes down to $27. The ticket was cheap. I’m a graduate student and there was a darling boy in Chicago who I just had to see before going to my parents in Michigan for Christmas. So there I was.
Initially I had been excited to use the long trip to complete a paper for a class. At least I was excited until a chatty, moderately intoxicated guy named Lee from Algonac plopped down beside me. Right away it was clear I was to be his captive audience for the seven-hour duration. Yikes.
Lee wanted to know my name, what I was working on, where I was coming from, where I was going, did I have any kids, how many kids did I want to have (he suggested a prolific range of 13 to 18 children), again – what was I working on, and could I repeat my name? From time to time he took my book out of my hands and tapped on my computer screen to inquire about the meanings of words I was using. Then he asked me if I wanted a drink. I’ll spare the painful details only to say that about two hours and four cans of Budweiser later an Amtrak employee offered to move him to a new seat.
Although the Amtrak employee did the dirty work, I suspect my liberator was actually the woman behind me who later offered her advice on my need to toughen up. The same woman offered to help me move while my seatmate was making a beer run, but we could never quite pull it off.
This might sound crazy but I felt bad about even plotting to abscond from my seat. I felt really, really bad for Lee. He was obviously lonely. His journey began in Somewhere, Wisconsin and ended in Algonac, Michigan. It didn’t sound like he had family or any plans for the holidays. What’s more, each time Lee returned with a beer, he asked if it was okay for him to sit back down or “do you want me out of your face?” How could I respond to that? Put differently, I would have felt comfortable saying, “I have a paper to work on and I’d prefer not to talk,” but the way he framed the question made it so hard for me to do anything but force a smile and say, “Sure, take a seat!”
I felt guilty. So, so, so guilty. I have long suffered from Catholic guilt even though I’m not Catholic. My irrational guilt sometimes motivates me to do nice things for others, but usually it just results in my apologizing for something I’m not responsible for like when someone else spills their coffee on me or America’s history of black slavery. I had no reason to feel guilty about Lee’s drunken lonely state and yet I was.
Ultimately, I think the lesson I took away from this experience was not to “toughen up” but a renewed sense of gratitude for the love of my family. I am so blessed that not only did I have loving parents to go home to for the holidays, but my dad picked me up from train station at midnight and woke up early the next morning to drive to me to West Bloomfield for a long-awaited and much-anticipated tooth surgery. Afterward, while I was in an inert state, my dad ran around picking up prescriptions and making sure I had everything I needed for a comfortable recovery, including tucking me in for a long nap on the couch. Sure, I had to put my Christmas dinner through a blender, but it was good to be home for the holidays. Be kind.