5 Strangers, A Broken Train, and A Black SUV
"Attention passengers. Due to power issues, all trains will have expected delays."
This is the last thing you want to hear from the robotic speakerphone at the train station. I just left my night class and really want to get to the gym. I curse under the frigid cold wind beating at my naked face. I stare up into the LED board displaying "LATE20" or "LATE40" or even worse, "CANCELED". I look around and I am met with the bleak gazes of my fellow train-mates. I notice a middle aged man pacing back and forth, occasionally gazing at his watch. He looks impatient and is taking his frustrations out aloud. I see two girls on their smartphones collaborating on their next plan of action. The one with the long hair, and whom is quite under dressed, is cute and talkative. I should probably stop taking peeks at her. The other one looks cold, all bundled up in a brown down jacket, but is all smiles. There is also an Indian woman here, deep in conversation in her native tongue. Her phone is turned up loud, and I can hear a prominent male voice yelling back. I squint at guy from my class, pacing on is cellphone at the far side of the platform. I don't know his name but I empathize him. There is another guy standing to the right of me, with a handkerchief covering his mouth and nose. I occasionally lock eye contact with him, thinking, “Look at this guy. Is he going to rob the train or something?" Finally, after a half hour waiting, I see the hopeful headlights of the scheduled 8:14 PM train. The platform of people chatter jovially as we aboard into the warm haven. Will I finally get home on time tonight?
Nope. En route to our first stop, the conductor starts blabbering off on the megaphone. I could tell it was something bad because it lasted longer than a sentence. She appears through the doorway, yelling at all of us now, "The train is only going to 30th street! There has been a problem farther down!" This is the second to last thing you want to hear. There is an audible groan. A female passenger looks at me confused, so I tell her the situation. She rolls her eyes and slips in her headphones. The train makes it two stops before we are exiled. I gawk at the LED sign, "THORNDALE LINE SUSPENDED". I ask the harbinger what I should do. She suggests I group up with them, and points toward a group of passengers. So I follow, hoping for a solution.
It is a familiar group of people: the classmate, pissed off gentleman, bandanna man, under dressed girl, smile girl, and chatty woman. Everyone is in disarray when I join them. I see the women pointing at a map. The men are browsing on their phones. I go up to my classmate, and ask him what his plan is. He shrugs. To my surprise, the bandanna man does not seem too precarious after all. He lowered his bandanna to reveal a sincere smile. "Do you guy’s user Uber at all?" He says. I shake my head as he starts tapping on his phone. "I think we can get a cab to pick us up. I'm Tyler by the way." I meet Tyler's greeting with a handshake. "I'm Andrew." My classmate replies in kind. Tyler goes off to approach the girls, probably telling them about the wondrous Uber app. It is a private taxi service with a driver that takes you anywhere you like.
We regroup across the station, which is thankfully indoors. We decide to take a vote in what to do to get home. The middle aged man begins walking out of the station, cursing the buses for apparently not being in service either. He wishes us good luck and departs. The cute girl also decides against the cab and ends up taking the next train back to college. Our numbers drop from 7 to 5. I have a day pass to take any transportation service so I vote on taking a train that will leave me about 20 miles from home. The other 4, well they want to use Uber to go from the city, right to the home station an hour and a half away. I give in to the majority as Tyler enters his credit card number in. "Cool they are right outside, let's get going." He states. We begin to ascend to street level and I strike a conversation with smile girl, "Did that other chick decide to go back?" "Yes she did. She has no money anyway, and wants to make amends with her roommate. Kind of an airhead. I'm Maria by the way!" "Josh. Nice to meet you."
All five of us surface to the bustling Philadelphia block. The towering Comcast building looms high above us. A wine and spirits store is behind us, with patrons running in on their phones, and out with bottles for a later date. As Tyler talks to the Uber driver, the rest of us small-talk and look around aimlessly. The holiday spirit was shining brightly within a row of trees, which Maria enjoyed seeing. We wait about 15 minutes and then we see our ride come to a halt across the street. Tyler flags him down and we cross, dodging puddles and car bumpers. The driver exits. He is a young Middle Eastern man with a polite attitude. "Hello everyone. Let me get the backseat for you. Safety is my number 1 priority." We slowly pile in, I’m first in the back. All the while, there are strangers standing around the bus stop, looking at us with disparagingly. I'm feeling a little skeptical myself. This is how a crime movie would start...'Let's all pile into the black SUV with tinted windows and a precarious chauffeur...Sounds like a great idea.'
The driver introduces himself as Mikhail. His courtesy remains constant as we become solidified in gridlock traffic. We ask him how Uber works and he seems very new to this. “Only 4 weeks on the job” he claims. I begin feeling more secure as we banter back and forth and how happy we are to get out of the cold. The conversations range from Uber, to college, to farming and modified GMO foods, to football. Pittsburgh is playing Tennessee in the Monday night game. I begin to learn a lot about my fellow Temple students. The car is full of diversity: construction manager, kinesthesiology grad, teacher, environmental engineering doctor, and a technical writer (that would be me folks). We finally approach I-76 and increase our speed. We all feel relieved that we are now officially on our way home. I see a SEPTA bus out of the right window, wondering if the middle aged man was aboard. I laugh at the graphics and say, "See look, they are operating, and teasing us with tasty wings." We all laugh.
We reach Route 202 and calculate about 15 minutes more. Mikhail has been driving rather slowly (45 in a 65) for the past 15 miles and we begin to wriggle in our seats. Andrew appointed himself to issuing directions, which he is very good at, yet our driver almost missed a crucial off-ramp. Here comes another one. The lanes open up past the construction zone and Mikhail gets confused on where to go. Andrew points right and he begins to change lanes. Suddenly, a car appears in the right lane, which causes Mikhail to jerk back to the left. We get over, luckily, but the driver brake checks us. We slow down abruptly. The driver then gasses it and out pops his arm, waving a familiar vulgarity around in the air. "Now was that really necessary?" Andrew said. Maria burst out laughing, finding the middle finger quite humorous.
This is our stop: Exton Station. Prior to arrival, we all took guesses on how much the total fare would be. The majority fell between 60 and 80 dollars. Mikhail hit the "CALCULATE" button on his cell phone. A minute goes by, and the total drops our jaws to the floor. It was $168 dollars! I feel bad for Tyler knowing that he just spent that much. We all thanked him and he set his course to go back into the city. The Indian woman's husband arrives first and she pays Tyler $20 dollars. She was just glad to be home. Maria pays another $20. Andrew pulls his car around to take Tyler home. We thank him for his charity and quick thinking. Hopefully Andrew pays him his share. I made sure to give Tyler my number so I could pay him back on campus. I now stand complacent at the station with Maria. She called her boyfriend on the road, and asked him to take me to Downingtown. How ironic it was, when minutes later, we see a lone Amtrak train roll up to the station. "Guess the problem is fixed!" Maria says. I agree in kind.
Her boyfriend, Zach, pulls up shortly after and he graciously gives me a ride back to my car. I chuckle awkwardly after he tells us, “Oh I had some wine earlier. Thank God you called me before I really hit the bottle!” ‘Oh here we go again.’ Maria tells him about the night's events, in which he gives a good-hearted remark. He too was surprised with the total cost of the ride. We chat for a good twenty minutes, mostly about the day's events and writing; Zach is an aspiring poet. He tells me about a writer's association in Center City and encourages me to visit a meeting. I dutifully jot down a note in my phone. He drops me off at my car, safely, and I thank both of them for the company and ride. After a grueling two and a half hours since ending class, I arrive home, and quickly tell my dad this same story.
It has been 4 days since my eventful trek back home. I am actually glad I decided to stick with the group. If I was to take the train to Norristown, I would've still needed to get home with limited funds, and by my lonesome. I felt a need to use my critical thinking skills at the train station. I also regained some faith in humanity. I stripped the titles of “smile girl” and “bandanna man” for good, after seeing the compassion and teamwork they all displayed in a time of need. There is no need to rationalize it; I made some pretty cool friends that night, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Money did not see to be a problem with Tyler, for he has yet to call me back. Maybe I will repay him with a beer someday.