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Overheard: Conversations from the Road

Her name was Mary, and she was worried about her teenage grandson. He was acting up, doing poorly in school. And she rarely got to see him; he was in the custody of her daughter’s wealthy but abusive ex-husband. It sounds like the plot of an overwrought novel, but of course, true life is often odder — and more interesting — than fiction.

Mary was sitting in front of me aboard a train to Philadelphia, spilling her life story to a stranger named George. The balding older man in a Philadelphia Police jacket had boarded a few stops after she did, and within five minutes they were making small talk about which train station would be closest to Mary’s new hairdresser. Within 15 minutes, George was listening sympathetically to Mary’s worries and recommending local treatment centers where Mary’s grandson could get help. Within 25 minutes, George was offering to pray for Mary and her family, right then and there on the train. (When he finally got off, I noticed what I hadn’t before: the “CHAPLAIN” written on his police jacket.) All the while I was shamelessly eavesdropping, a paperback novel abandoned in my lap.

The fleeting intimacy of this conversation is something frequent travelers will instantly recognize. There’s something freeing about talking to someone you know you’ll never see again — the woman who sits next to you on the plane, the local with whom you share a few pints at an Irish pub, the couple you meet over breakfast at a B&B. Sure, sometimes it’s just chitchat. But often a connection with a stranger can be both meaningful and memorable, despite — or perhaps because of — its ephemeral nature.

George and Mary’s conversation on the train was like a book I won’t have a chance to finish. Will Mary’s troubled grandson get the help he needs? Will her daughter wrest custody away from her abusive ex? I’ll never know. But her conversation served up another example of what travel gives so generously to those with their eyes and ears open: little pieces of other people’s stories.

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