I sit in my seat next to the left-side door, looking down most of the time, being careful not to make eye contact with anyone around me so as not to have an awkward moment. At each stop, the car fills up a little more: a man with rap music blaring from the earbuds stuffed in his ear at Stonybrook, a woman talking loudly on the phone in Cantonese at Jackson Square, a group of college girls from Northeastern at Ruggles. Each new person to walk on keeps to himself or to the group he came with. Nobody interacts with each other except for an occasional "excuse me."
Like it or not, we have been trained in this day and age to think that a friendly "Hello" is a thing of a Pleasantville past. We are told from a young age to mind our own business, to be wary of strangers, to keep a tight hold of our possessions, to not let our guard down and be 110% sure of our surroundings at all times in an effort to prevent an unwanted hand from invading our personal bubble and wreaking havoc. We are brought up to automatically assume that aside from most immediate family members, the only person you can really trust in the outside world is yourself. Who knows who might have ulterior motives? An act of kindness could be a theif's key to your wallet, or the hand that invites a sex offender's touch.
So I sit on the Orange Line, making my way to State Street on a late weekday evening, silently processing my own throughts, keeping my head down and my eyes away from anyone who might be looking for them.
My silence is shaken up when a group of three friends make their way onto the train at Mass. Ave. They are an eclectic mish-mash of a group: an older Hispanic man, a heavyset black woman with a cane, and a thirty-something blonde woman with a long denim skirt and a top I've seen and wanted so badly to buy while window shopping. They are carrying three garbage bags that seem to be full of clothes and a few smaller items. Without saying a word, the person originally sitting across from me gets up so the woman with the cane can have her seen. Denim Skirt Lady sits next to her, and the older man stays standing.
"You wouldn't happen to have a cigarette on you, would you?" Cane Lady asks Denim Skirt Lady after they settle into their seats.
"Of course!" Denim Skirt Lady says as she pulls a box of Marlborough Lights out of her bag. "Take whatever's left. I don't need 'em. Would you like one?" she asks Old Guy, who says he's all set.
"Quit 'em three years ago," he adds proudly.
"Oooh, good for you!" Denim Skirt Lady says, visibly impressed. "Wish I could put them down too!"
"Like everything else," adds Cane Lady, "usually you don't really know how bad they are for you until it's too late."
Denim Skirt Lady and Old Guy agree.
The group gets talking about their jobs, their history in this city, where they're headed and what they did all day. They joke around with each other like all good friends do, laughing and calling each other out on every slip-up one makes.
I hear snippets of what they say to each other. Old Guy sometimes has a solid amount of odd jobs, Denim Skirt Lady works for an agency that collaborates with the Boston Housing Authority. In the midst of the conversation, one thing becomes clear: Cane Lady doesn't have a permanent address. The clothes in the bag are hers to carry around everywhere as she bounces from room to room, place to place, shelter to shelter. Old Guy is there to lend a hand, to help carry her things and to make sure she's set up alright for at least a little while.
As the train pulls past Downtown Crossing and rumbles towards State Street, Cane Lady pulls a blank envelope out of her purse. Denim Skirt Lady hands her a pen and recites a telephone number.
"That's my work number. Just give me a call anytime before 5 and I should be there. It's extension 32, but you can also just give them my name and they'll redirect you to my phone," she says as Cane Lady quickly writes down all this information, then recites it back to verify.
"Got it," Cane Lady says. "I'll give you a call tomorrow. And--I'm sorry, I feel silly asking now--what is your name?"
Denim Skirt Lady smiles and holds out her hand. "I'm Janine. What's your name?"
"I'm Vanessa, and this is Tommy."
Janine shakes hands with Vanessa and Tommy as I leave the train and go back to walking with my head down, my eyes more focused on my destination than anything else.
But I can't help but pray that maybe Janine's friendly smile in a dark subway station paid off.
That maybe, because these three new friends were willing to let their guards down, Vanessa might finally find somewhere to call home.
I guess it's kind of amazing what a simple "Hello" can really do. Imagine what this world could be like if we were all a little more willing to share one with one another.