Saturday, January 9, 2016

Strangers on a Train

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with my Peace Corps service in Uganda.  I just found this to be a very interesting and enlightening experience.

Waiting to board the train from Champaign to Chicago yesterday morning, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the passengers getting off were carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes or white mesh bags slung over their shoulders.  They were walking toward a group of people standing by the stairs, waiting to greet them.  It was obvious, watching these simple meetings, that these people had spent a fairly long time apart.  I gradually began to realize that the people getting off the train were coming home after having just been released from prison.

Boarding the relatively full train, I found an open aisle seat next to a young man in a sweatshirt and sweatpants with his hand on a large, stuffed yellow envelope resting on the tray table in front of him.  After putting my backpack in the luggage rack above, pulling out my book, and taking off my coat, I sat down.  After a normal greeting, the next words out of my seat partner’s mouth were, “I just got out of prison today.”  As I began talking with him, I looked around and realized that I was sitting in the middle of a group of people in the same situation as this man.  Around me were six young men, all about my age or a few years younger, all making their way to Chicago after having been released from prison today.

The man beside me quickly launched into descriptions of the family he would soon be seeing, the video games he was looking forward to playing, and some details regarding Chicago sports that I hadn't known.  He also talked about those people he would not be seeing.  He told me that his grandmother had passed away just a few days ago, and that her funeral would be held soon.  He had been released on parole just in time to make it back for that.

The two guys sitting in the seat across from us were interested in the book resting on my lap, Walking with the Wind, a memoir about the civil rights movement written by John Lewis.  One of the men said that he had heard about the book before.  They asked me if they could take a look at it, and I happily obliged.

In front of the two guys interested in my book, someone asked if he could use my phone.  None of these men had cell phones, and, again, I was happy to lend it to him.  I didn’t need it for anything at the time.  As it turned out, I didn’t get it back until the end of the nearly three-hour ride.  Noticing this about halfway through the trip, one of the guys next to me leaned over, touched my arm, and said, “You have to excuse him.  He hasn’t talked to his family in a long time.”  I didn’t mind, and the phone became very useful later on.  Near Chicago, we began frantically passing it around to everyone, calling mothers, brothers, and other family members, making sure that each person had someone coming to the train station to pick him up.  No one had enough (or any) money for bus or taxi fare.

Just before we pulled into the station, two of the guys spent some time making sure that a third understood his paperwork explaining how to get in touch with his parole officer.  “You don’t want to end up right back where you were,” they said.  As the train came to a stop, everyone grabbed their boxes of belongings and their envelopes containing parole instructions.  My phone made its way back to me, along with expressions of gratitude from all of the men.

I expected the train ride to be a few hours full of reading and dozing.  I ended up doing neither.  Instead, in this totally unexpected scenario, I was reminded of some important things.  In an era full of data, debates, posturing, and dehumanization, what struck me most about these men was their humanness.  They are people just like anyone else, not prison statistics or points to be used to support a position.  I don’t know what brought them to prison.  I didn’t ask, and, honestly, I don’t much care.  My personal experience with these men was characterized by laughter, shared interest, and mutual respect, and I believe that a few others around us on the train had a similar experience.  I am thankful for it.

Those of us living on the outside are not so different from those in prison.  All are deserving of respect at all times.  And, regardless of what has happened in the past, each moment in anyone’s life can be the start of something new, something better.