Going Off Script

It was lunchtime in May and the cafe car was packed. In fact, on this holiday weekend, every car of Train 172 was filled with people and hot air. The HVAC system had petered out near New Rochelle an hour ago. And so the sweaty masses, heading to college graduations or beachfronts, descended on the cafe car for cold beer and microwaved hotdogs.

I sat in a booth next to the cafe, my body sandwiched between a stack of luggage and a tall man fiercely typing on his laptop.

As our train steadily moved north, the lunch line barely moved. Hot, bothered passengers filled the aisles, craning their heads to see the front of the line. Some had waited four years for this weekend, some had waited all winter for it. Waiting 20 minutes for a hotdog was nearing the end of their rope.

Somehow, a conductor was picking his way through the thicket of people. He got to our booth and started to scan the tall man's ticket. The conductor looked down at the scan. He looked up at the tall man.

"Mike?" he barked. Folks from the lunch line turned to look at our booth.

The tall man's head shot up from his laptop. “Yeah?”

I knew the look on the tall man's face. It was the look of someone under attack, someone who thought they were about to be embarrassed because their credit card couldn't be processed or ticket had expired.

“Mike," the conductor said, "you're great. Don’t change a thing.” Mike's face turned red. He grinned. Folks from the lunch line grinned.

I held my ticket out for the conductor to scan. I was curious now. Was it a one-off for Mike? As before, the conductor looked down at the scan, looked up at me, and barked, “Caitie?”

“Yes.”

“Caitie,” he said, "you're perfect. Don’t ever change.” And then he turned to pick his way through the car.

The day's narrative should have been pre-written: On a packed train trip, the HVAC didn't work, the lunch line didn't move, the conductor didn't care.

But the conductor went off-script. With 15 words, he rewrote the narrative. It didn't change anyone's life. But it changed the moment. And what is life made of it not moments?

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