Serendipitious. Wondrous. Glad I had time to get the camera-ous. Parked on a side rail waiting for a freight. Some rule of the rails that freights have the right of way to passenger trains, which are apparently not carrying precious enough cargo. When you ride the train you are on rail time which is a very different time than real time. Rail time means delays. Rail time means you musn’t be in a hurry. Rail time means taking time to look out the window as much as possible, especially when the train is stopped.
At this most wonderful place to take a side rail, I met two circumstantial friends from more than halfway around the world. Circumstantial friends is a concept I’ve coined to define those people who enter your lives when you don’t expect them to, affect you in some way with a deeper connection you can’t fathom, then, just as quickly as they’ve entered and shared, they’re gone. You can meet these people anywhere, from a quick meeting in line at a store or in a doctor’s office where you share some kind of meaningful talk, not banter, not chatter, but talk that is real communication, to shared places on vacations, or conventions even. Airplanes, trains, ships are common places to meet circumstantial friends as well. You may even exchange phone numbers or addresses or e-mails, but most likely no one will use them to maintain contact. Somehow you know that the friendship you share in that moment is precious and specific to that moment. A circumstantial kind of thing. It comes along when you both need it and then it is gone, except for the smiles of reminiscences when the meetings come to mind.
My circumstantial friends were from South Africa and I first encountered them at the window in the lobby of the train when it had stopped on the siding. I was standing there enjoying the happy coincidence of stopping at this beautiful spot, and he (these people often don’t have names) came out of his room. I mentioned that this was not such a bad place to stop. He looked out the window and uttered a sigh. He called for his wife who made her way to the small platform in front of the window. Feeling like I’d soaked up the scene I moved back and motioned for her to stand next to her husband. At this point we exchanged some banter about the incredible scene, I took some pictures, I enjoined them in the very American way to have a nice day. As I walked up the stairs to my room I wondered what part of Britain they were from and if they were here on vacation or if they’d immigrated here. I found out when another chance occurrence cemented our circumstantial friendship.
Reservations are necessary to eat on the train. I chose one o’clock for lunch. As a single I was guaranteed to meet new people at the four-seat table. I was placed at a table with Jerry, a real estate appraiser from California who sat opposite me and spoke so loudly I thought he was deaf or hard of hearing. As we were chattering, well, as Jerry was shouting at me, the silver haired couple that I’d shared the beautiful reflection scene with were seated at our table. After some changing around in chairs owing to his actual deafness and the fact that he wanted his hearing ear to be towards the center of the table, he asked Jerry his name. He said their names, but for some reason I don’t remember them. What I do remember is what a wonderful and intelligent conversation ensued at that table over lunch. We stayed seated for over an hour after we’d finished, avoiding the glares of the waiters and steward who for some reason would not chance asking us to leave. We talked about the economy, and about the state of education in the United States and apartheid in South Africa which, I now knew, was where my friends were from. He had just retired as a Professor of Education. She was a former teacher. They had just come from visiting their daughter and grandchild in Australia and were now on their way to visit another daughter and another grandchild in Seattle. They decided to take the train from San Francisco. Their daughter had paid their way. As I was learning this, Jerry kept shouting and attempting to monopolize the conversation. Jerry was very opinionated. Something about Jerry did not cement him for me as a circumstantial friend.
He, the professor, casually asked me how much it would be to take the train. He quickly followed with the fact that his daughter had paid their way and he wanted to reimburse her. I told him I wouldn’t tell him. I told him to accept the generosity of his daughter. Sometimes, I said, our children want to do things for us to thank us and just don’t know how to do so. Let her do this, I told him. But I also assured him it was not too much. Reluctantly, our conversation ended when we reached Eugene, Oregon. I wanted to go and get some fresh air and to avoid waving to the prisoners. We said goodbye and godspeed.
I never saw Jerry again but I saw the professor and his wife when I got off the train in Portland. I am known by my children and by friends who pick me up or take me to train stations, as not being one to pack lightly. And, I did not this time either. I had four bags. But, I had a system. Two suitcases rolled with four wheels and I could put the to smaller duffel bags on top of them. I was proud of my system. I got all the bags off the train and there stood the professor and his wife. He offered, no, insisted, that he would help me with my bags. His wife concurred. I followed him, she followed me, into the station. I went to thank him and he kissed and hugged me. I turned to her and we also kissed and hugged. We wished each other a good trip. As I rolled my luggage to find a cab, I thought about my friends. I’d wished I’d exchanged e-mails, addresses, something to maintain the false promise that we’d get in touch again. But, we wouldn’t. My friends from around the globe definitely belong to my circle of circumstantial friends. They will always be alive in my stories. I have the picture to prove it.