The sudden change in plans made my palms start to sweat. The Beach Boys blaring from my earbuds abruptly stopped as my phone died, leaving an uncomfortable silence. The only sound came from the 18-year-old beside me who gingerly leafed through his textbook. As the stations rolled past, I feared my inexperience traveling alone would prove problematic. With no options left, I swallowed my awkwardness and in a mouse-like way explained my dilemma; he generously pulled out his phone and instructed me through the Amtrak map like a seasoned pro. Assistance led to pleasant conversation, and in time I learned all about my very first seatmate, James; he would join the “Amtrak Hall of Fame,” an unofficial ranking of dynamic people I have encountered sitting on those cobalt seats.

When my mom moved to Maryland before my freshman year of high school, I took the train once a month to visit her. Amtrak was the perfect nightmare for a claustrophobic, anxiety-ridden 14-year-old who was scared to leave the comfort of Wilton. My solution was to hide under my cap, with my feet propped on the seat next to me, all in the hopes of closing myself off from strangers. This strategy proved ineffective on the day I met Dan.

His coffee-colored, patched luggage clunked up the aisle as he approached the only open seat beside me. He presented a toothless grin and sat down. His weathered hand extended out to me and his 80-year-old palm rattled beneath mine as I smiled and introduced myself. As he drew his crinkled Sudoku booklet from his satchel, Dan produced his ticket displaying that he would be accompanying me to Annapolis. When I inquired about his journey, he spoke in a voice as sagacious as the willow trees we whipped past. Every year, on the anniversary of his father’s death, Dan made his way to the Naval Academy’s cemetery to honor his dad. He pulled out his wallet, revealing a photo of a young boy bouncing on the knee of a handsome man in uniform. He retold tales of mischief with bright eyes and a grin, revealing all five of his teeth. Dan laughed at my teenage sagas, offering his two cents here and there. The hours melted into one another as the fluorescent station lights crept closer. We left the train and parted, leaving our newfound friendship in the night air.

Dan’s warmth inspired me; I had to take the opportunity to investigate the wealth of stories and life experiences at my disposal. I began by merely asking my companions where they were headed, and, by the time we arrived, I knew the names of their third cousins. Today, when a new seatmate joins me, I pull my earbuds out and offer a hello, leaving space for my fellow passenger to either engage in conversation or to choose the silence of their own little world. The beauty of the train lies in the ability to spend uninterrupted time doing “whatever;” the world moves outside the train car, yet time stands still within.

Octavia Butler notes in her book, A Parable of Talents, that “kindness eases change” (Butler 253). These brief train friendships transformed a period of my life, and I began to actively show kindness and interest in the people I encountered. I have learned to value fleeting banter with tired business people as much as I do philosophical discussions with pensive college students; I have laughed at teenage horror stories and felt forlorn over others’ personal strife. People seldom recognize the immense impact of things as minute as a smile, but showing and accepting small acts of kindness has developed into something I hold dear. If, only for a moment, my kindness provides a flicker of light to their day, then I will have done my part to thank the strangers whose conversations did the same for me.


Lydia Hoffman is a senior at Wilton High School. She shares this column with five classmates.