One of my favorite things about train travel is that you actually have to interact with human beings. It's one of the few activities left in America that actually forces you to socially engage with complete strangers.
You get the good with the bad, though. Sarah and I boarded the Amtrack to head out on our trip to New York this past Wednesday, and our goal was to find a chair with a table so we could open up our laptops and work away, slaves to Public Relations that we are. We ended up sitting across from a grumpy looking old man with snow white hair. Sticking out of his ears, that is.
"Ted, could you--"
"No TALKING!" rumbled hairy ears. "Can't you see this is a NO TALKING car?"
Oh dear. "I'll be right back," I whispered to Sarah, and headed off to another car. Past the dining cart, I found a few empty seats next to a table. A blond woman sat alone there.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Although I will have to call someone in twenty minutes. I hope that's not a problem."
"Of course not!" I said, and put down my suit coat, to mark my territory. I went to grab Sarah and bring her back.
The lady frowned when I returned with Sarah. "You didn't say you were going to bring a friend."
Sarah and I looked at each other. I tried to make a joke of it. "Did I say I was only bringing one?"
The lady just stared at me, looked around the train. "Maybe I should find another seat..."
Rude. What, she should get a four-person area with tables all too herself? Talk about selfish.
Then her cell phone rang, five minutes later. "Hey. How's it going? Yeah, well, I'm not alone, so I really can't say much..." I put my head down, staring at my computer, pretending to be engrossed in whatever was on the screen. She sighed, dramatically. "Well, the thing is, I think I'm going to quit my job. Today."
Okay, now she had my complete and undivided attention.
"I know I've only been there three weeks! But they totally lied about what I was hired to do. They brought me on here to straighten out this company, and this week, out of nowhere, they tell me I have to work with a mentor coach. The woman calls me up and insists I have to speak with her on Friday even though I don't have any time. Then she makes me meet with her this past week-end. Then she whips out this client list at that meeting, and I'm like, 'What's this?' And I look at it and say, 'It's not even right.' So she gets all mad that I asked one little question and says she doesn't think she can mentor my because we're not compatible."
And on and on it went. I tell you, for someone who didn't want to talk in front of other people, she wasn't shy once she got going! For me, it was hard work, pretending not to listen in on her conversation for the next half an hour.
On the trip home, we had an even better treat: a rich ginger with a British husband. She was a PA for a large health services organization and had traveled around the world a few times and back. She was also really chatty.
Somehow, the subject turned to arranged marriages, which was strange, because I'm directing Fiddler on the Roof, but I didn't bring that up at all.
"Yeah, I've had a few friends who have been part of arranged marriages. One was this guy at our company who was really quiet, didn't speak much. One Friday, we asked him what he was doing for the week-end, and he said, 'Oh, I'm having my arranged marriage this week-end.' Turns out they had known each other since they were ten. It took her two more years to come to the States."
"It's actually easier for a lot of people," said the lady next to me. "Rather than dating, or having to go on web sites like match.com. A lot of people just give up and ask their parents to arrange a marriage for them."
"I had one friend who invited me to her arranged marriage," said Ginger. "But she didn't look happy about the wedding, she just looked so serious. Couldn't figure out why. So I went to the wedding. The first half of it was completely separated--men partying in one room, women partying in another room. When the women were all alone, they took off their abayas and jilbabs and you wouldn't believe the low-cut dresses they were wearing. Because they were around other women, you know? Anyway, the time came to meet the bridge and groom, so we all moved to this ballroom. There was a spotlight center stage to introduce them. That's when I realized why my friend was so solemn. Her husband came out, and he was easily 35 years older than she was. She was his third wife, and clearly he just wanted more children."
"It's very easy to get divorced in those cultures," said the lady next to me, whom I'll call Mary Ann, even though I probably won't be mentioning her again in this story. "Just three phrases repeated by the man, 'I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.'"
"Well, it's really not as completely simply as that," said Ginger. "You do have to pay for it, which is why most men only end up having two or three wives."
"I thought that you could demand a divorce and get it, but the woman's entitled to ask you to cut off one of your limbs?" asked Mary Ann. Ooops, she's back in the story. "Like, a hand or foot?"
"That wouldn't be the limb I'd be requesting," I interjected.
"From a practical perspective, who wants a severed hand or foot?" I paused, thinking about that. David Lynch, maybe? Quentin Tarantino? "Most people will accept money in lieu of body parts."
"The problem is, inter-marrying," said Ginger. "With arranged marriages, there's a lot of marrying between third or fourth cousins, and that can be a problem. Not for those getting married, but for the next generation. A few years ago, I was in Saudi Arabia visiting a series of hospitals, and I came across one ward that was really dark and quiet. It was spooky. I asked the director I was touring with, what is this place? Is it a cancer ward, what? He turned to me and said, 'This is where our misfits go.'
"'Misfits?' I asked. He nodded and we went into the ward. Turns out, this was a place people don't talk about. It was filled with children with twisted limbs, with severe brain damage. Patients who just lie in beds all day long, being tended to. No one comes to visit them, no one speaks of them, but since it's a socialized state, their needs are taken care of, from birth to death."
And on that solemn note, we reached her stop.
No other stories followed, but really, how could you top that one? I tell you, taking the train can be quite an education.