By: R. Theodora Appleton
Traveling home from New York Penn Station is an adventure during rush hour. The train cars fill up and everyone has to squeeze in. Coughs, sneezes and phone calls serve as the playlist for an hour.
The air gets tighter as more people pile into the car. I sit with my eyes glued to my smart phone and tune out the activity around me. The two ladies sitting next to me leave after the first stop. Someone immediately replaces them.
I see three tattoo teardrops on his face, one from his left eye and two under the right. There is a white towel tied around his head like a makeshift durag. Tattoos cover his entire body and it looks like art. He’s wearing a white shirt and black shorts. He notices me and I notice him. I go back to making eye contact with my phone.
The conductor walks by and checks off the same box on both of our tickets. Not much time passes and he asks if I’m going to New Brunswick too. I respond and the conversation begins.
He talks to me about relationships. He reflects on the meaning of true love. I listen, and encourage the conversation more. He tells me that he wants to be married one day. That he wants to bring flowers to his wife, and make her smile.
He is from Paterson, NJ, and he tells me that he’s always had a business mindset. The conversation surprises me when he tells me that he used to sell drugs to make a living. He tells me about his dangerous lifestyle and what the drug industry has done to his life. He tells me that things are looking up now that he’s out of prison.
“I’ve been on probation since I was 13, it’s hard, you know what I mean,” he says.
I understand what he is saying, but I cannot accurately imagine the life he is living. I’m surprised that he is so open to telling a stranger his story.I enjoy it though.
He tells me that his childhood has shaped every decision he has made and how he sees the world. As he describes his life and hardships, the story remains hopeful. He delves deeper into his soul.
The stranger on the train tells me about his dreams of starting a business. He also has plans to pursue art as a poet and singer. His greatest challenge is staying out of the world in which he grew up. He tells me he sees people he grew up with selling drugs, driving expensive cars, and ruining people’s lives. A life he used to have. A life he regrets.
As I reflect during our conversation, I once again reencounter an internal debate. Are we all the same, or are we all completely different? Could anyone have the life this man has? The unfortunate truth is, his fate is not unique to him. Anyone of us could have this life.
I ask him what his tattoo means because not knowing its meaning has been bothering me the entire time. He tells me it stands for, “Blood, sweat and tears.”
We reach our city and I wish him luck as I leave the train.