They Weren’t All Bad…Final
My beautiful new friend was true to her word. Never did a four-hour span of time pass that she did not come by to check on me, accompany me to restroom breaks, or purchase my meals. It bothered me that I had no way of repaying her.
During one of our leisurely meals, she became a bit less reticent in her questions as to how I came to be on such a long train ride alone. The first couple of times she’d broached the subject she had abruptly switched topics when tears begin to fill my eyes. But I felt I owed her something and I trusted her unlike I’d trusted anyone beyond Chinee and Papa. The very least I could do was to share some of my story besides it had also been a very long time since anyone was interested in anything I had to say. It seemed we sat hour after hour with her asking questions and me answering and finally, me asking for her opinions to questions I’d been longing to ask for months. She didn’t have the answers I sought but it was a relief just to be able to share my thoughts with someone so solicitous.
To assume that I didn’t have my own curiosity as to how she had come to be aboard the train alone would be a misguided notion, but when I asked her, I noticed a subtle but definite change in her posture, a stiffening, almost defensive. I also noticed her right hand switched to a clenched position from a relaxed position on the table. I understood defensive postures all too well therefore I avoided asking her anything personal again.
She couldn’t have been more than three to five years older than me, yet she seemed so mature, so aware and so very self-sufficient. She walked with her head held high in total defiance. I decided that I wanted to be like her, independent and immune to judgmental examinations. She received plenty of those each time we entered the dining car, (at least I believed the glances were meant for her). I assumed the women who leaned slightly away from her as we walked the aisle, did so because they were jealous of the looks their male companions gave her as we passed them. I had become very astute in reading body language and assessing precarious situations. We or she or I were constantly being observed and not in a kindly, caring way. My new friend paid no attention to the women or the men nor did she seem to pay much attention to just how beautiful she was. The cinnamon chocolate color of her skin combined with her soft dark wavy hair suggested strongly of a French, Spanish and African bloodline, Creole. She had the softest Southern accent further suggesting that neither French, Spanish or an amalgam of either was her native language.
Early one afternoon, after my friend had escorted me back to the Sleeping Lady, boredom got the very best of me and I decided to display a little bravery and explore some of the cars alone. Thus far, I had been no further than the dining car immediately ahead of us. I knew that we were near the back of the train because of the advantage point we had as we stood on the platform before boarding the train in Beaumont. Although desegregation was slowly creeping across the South, it had not yet found its way on much of the available public transportation. The Sunset had at least 30 cars and we were most likely in car number 14 or 13 counting from the front. I had made several attempts to count the cars ahead of us as we rounded steep curves to the left but never reached the same number twice. We had made several stops along the way, but I’d never left the train, I was much too afraid of being left behind or boarding the wrong car or much worse the wrong train!
There wasn’t much of anything to see as I progressed forward beyond the dining car, just more of the same. People sitting, people sleeping, and every now and then a baby either crying or giggling. As I was about to enter the next car, a Porter I recognized, came through the same door toward me. He stood there and blocked my path but not in a threatening manner. “You’re a little way away from home aren’t you young lady?” I nodded and said, “Yes,” I got on in Beaumont.” He smiled indulgently and said, “Yes Ma’am, I remember where you got on, but I meant you’re a long way from your car.” “You’re not allowed to go any further forward from here.” I glanced back over my shoulder and realized that the car in which we stood was indeed just like all the others I’d walked through but realized for those few seconds as I’d stood there assessing the situation that the difference was that the people in this car, although Negroes, as we were called in the late ‘60’s, they wore a different style of dress. The kind of clothing that spoke of the better department stores and of dry-cleaned laundry and they wore shoes with taps on the soles to prevent excessive wear. They were, what I supposed would have been called, “well-off.” They had purchased tickets that did not allow them to share seats with the Whites, however, their fare did afford separation from the working-class Negroes who wore their 2nd hand, Sunday best having laundered them themselves with Oxydol and Faultless laundry starch. This was my first-time having exposure to true classism within a Race. I needed to think about this. I turned back to the Porter, thanked him and said goodbye. “I’ll be seeing you Ma’am,” he said showing me no less respect than if my own ticket allowed me passage in this car.
Since my trip forward had ended abruptly and because I was not quite ready to just sit and watch the scenery, I thought I’d backtrack and see what the cars behind mine offered. As I walked through the car which held my seat, I glanced over at the Sleeping Lady and she was wide awake! This was a first! She looked up at me and did not seem to recognize me at all! I returned the favor! I walked through the first car and it held people who must have paid the same fare as the people in my car plus about four or five men in Army uniforms. The car after that held as much cigarette smoke as it held soldiers and so did the car after that and the one after that and the next and the next! There was another dining car not quite as nice as the one I had been visiting but the food smelled every bit as good and that was where I spotted my friend. She was smiling and talking to a couple of the soldiers and I wasn’t sure if I should interrupt them to say hello or not. I had just decided to make a hasty retreat when she spotted me and asked if I needed anything. I shook my head and told her that I just wanted to see what else was on the train. She told me she would be by later and to have dinner with me.
At dinner that evening she seemed very pensive and not her normally talkative self. At every other meal, she had told me stories of different passengers, where they were going, their children, what type of work they did and when they planned or if they had planned to return to wherever they had come. I didn’t ask how she knew; I was just happy to be part of her conspiratorial gossip, because merely from the way she’d told me the stories, I could tell she hadn’t been informed of these things by the women who leaned away from her unintentional touch. Today though, instead of eating with her normal abandonment, she simply pulled the crust from her sandwich and picked at the filling inside. Each and every time we had been together, she would take my hand and slide folded bills into my hands. This time was no exception. Each time, I objected, but she would not listen to my protestations. At last count, my little handkerchief, tucked safely in my front pocket, held over one hundred dollars and the corners had become harder to pull and tie together! I ate quietly, wishing I knew how I could get her to talk to me and wondered what was making her so sad. As I was finishing my last bite of burger she said, “I swear I have never seen a person who loves hamburgers as much as you do.” “I guess they will always remind me of the last time I had lunch with my brother,” I answered sheepishly.
She reached over and handed me what felt like 3 or 4 bills. I asked her why she was doing this, but she asked me a question instead of answering mine. She asked, “how well do you know these sisters you going to stay with?” I told her that my eldest sister was as pretty as she was, and that I had been named for her. I told her that I knew her best because she would come home several times a year. Even though she was sixteen years older than me she didn’t act like other grownups, she was fun. “Humph, People are always fun when they on vacation but get them on their regular day and they can be just as sour as everybody else,” she retorted. “What about your other sister?” “I don’t know much about her. I think I’ve only seen her three times in my life. She got married really young, about my age and moved away. She hardly ever came back home.” “She acted as old as my Mother and treated me like I was one of her children instead of her sister.” “I sure hope you don’t have to stay with her,” she said sadder still and I wanted to ask her why she felt that way but was not really certain I wanted to know the answer. She grew quiet again and said to me, “Look, you gotta really listen to me now ok?” I nodded, suddenly unsure and afraid of what she was about to say. “You had a Mama and other family that loved you, so you got that to build on.” “Don’t let them other people who hurt you make you forget about the ones that loved you cause if you do that, you gonna let them and you down.” “There might come times in your life that might make you do some stuff that you don’t want to do but if it means the difference between living and dying then you do it but don’t live in it and don’t let it live in you, you hear me, Cher?” I blinked hard trying not to cry, I didn’t let any tears fall but dang they stung me in protest to being held onto too tightly. “We gonna be pulling into San Bernardino tomorrow and that’s where I get off, that’s where the lady you been sitting with is getting off too.” I wondered how she knew that since the Lady had not spoken to me since our first night aboard and to my knowledge had never spoken to my friend either. Then it struck me afresh what she’d just said, she’s leaving the train! Fear flooded me! “Where is San Bernardino?” I asked my voice shaking. She squeezed my hand and told me it was about 60 miles or so from Los Angeles and it would probably take about two hours to get to the station there. I didn’t want her to leave. I wanted to go with her, and I said as much. She told me that she had no family to go home to so, she pretty much rode the trains and would get off in whatever town suited her and moved on when she got bored. I asked her why she couldn’t stay onboard to Los Angeles since no one was waiting for her, but she said someone was waiting, they just weren’t family. It was strange how in just 3 days I had become so dependent upon her and so happy to be in her company. I also felt guilty for thinking she was supporting herself by pickpocketing. So, what if she did, she didn’t do it just for the sake of stealing, she had no one to take care of her either and besides that, she’d given me most of what she’d taken. I promised her I would always remember her. She told me not to bother remembering her, but to remember what she had told me. We ended the meal that evening with her telling me to never expect anyone to take care of me. That it didn’t matter that I was only thirteen, there was work I could do and be paid an honest wage for it. She told me to always keep train or bus fare home and to never, ever depend on anybody for nothing. Work for yourself even if you’re working for somebody! Don’t forget that! She told me she was going to say goodbye to me now because we would be pulling into San Bernardino early and she wouldn’t have time to say goodbye. We hugged each other and she did something that I will forever believe to be the most tender, intimate, non-sexual touch humans can share with one another. She took her hand and softly caressed my cheeks first with her palm then with the back of her hand; much the same way my mother always did just before she’d say goodnight to me. I still didn’t cry…I was done crying, but my broken heart found brand new ways and places in which to break.
I sat alone that next morning. It seemed most of the people in my car disembarked in San Bernardino. I irrationally associated a bitter distaste for San Bernardino and from then until now, I’ve never changed my opinion of that city. I didn’t want to sit in that seat alone, so I walked to the dining car and ordered coffee! Coffee!!! She had, so I did. While seated there I heard a woman sitting behind me tell another that she finally felt free to leave their husband’s side for a while since the little la putain had left the train. I had absolutely no idea as to what they were speaking and didn’t care. I was again facing an uncertain tomorrow. As I sat there sipping my overly sweet and heavily creamed coffee, I counted the money that was now barely contained inside my now dingy handkerchief. Inside there was three-hundred dollars and 32 cents! Boy, pickpocketing could sure be lucrative if done correctly, I supposed. Maybe that was what she had meant by doing something bad to live but to not keep doing it once you got on your feet. As the train pulled into Union Station in Los Angeles…somewhere in one of the cars behind me, someone once again began to play the song, Back up Train. How I wished it would.
I kept my promise to my friend albeit not quite as I would have preferred. Within two months of arriving in Los Angeles I was told by my eldest sister that I would be living with my second eldest sister and man oh man my train friend had been correct. It was not ideal to say the least, actually I could say that I had fallen from the frying pan into the fire. But this story is not about my sister, only in as much as I need to tell you that she insisted I would have to earn my keep. She had secured a babysitting job for me with a neighbor, watching her three children on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and she had applied for both a Social Security card and a job in my name at a local doughnut shop, about a three quarters of a mile from her home. I was warned not to reveal my true age to the owner of the shop and that I would have to walk to get to this job that offered me split shift hours from 3 am to 7:30 am and after school from 4pm to 8pm, Monday through Thursday. Second Eldest Sister further warned that I was not to let my schoolwork, or the upkeep of her home suffer because of my jobs. I suppose this would be a good time to mention that the upkeep of her home, which was a household of six, including me; she was also expecting a new baby in the Spring, but getting back to my duties, they included cooking, preparing her children school lunches, doing laundry—no automatic machines here in this “modern California home, just a wringer washer and a clothesline out back whereby I hung 8 loads of laundry per week in the good old California sunshine to dry. I was also to complete mopping, changing bed linen on 4 beds twice a week, which made me grateful that I slept on a sofa, dishes twice a day and in my spare time, ironing the freshly washed clothing for her family, (I was also truly grateful that I didn’t own many articles of clothing to add to my laundry duties) and anything else that would prevent me from sitting down for more than ten minutes and a page of school work at a time. How had my beautiful train friend known what was ahead for me? But I worked and I saved every dime I could after paying second eldest for my food and board, beyond what the State of California and Social Security paid her for offering shelter to her orphaned sister.
Regardless of the situation of which I found myself in this strange, new place, I still held to the fact that God never left my side and continued to put people into my life who had direct, positive impact upon my life choices. The doughnut shop owner took me under her wing and taught me her business and gave me my first and detailed lessons in bookkeeping and accounting, in which I would eventually work professionally and retire from after more than 50 years. Also, during that time at the doughnut shop, I found myself working side by side with a very lovely young woman of French dissent. She was working her way across the country and had made it from Boston to Southern California and was taking odd jobs to earn enough money to finally settle in San Francisco. Coast to Coast is what she desired most, was her often spoken mantra. She taught me a few rudimentary French phrases and we giggled a lot between serving up pastries and hundreds of cups of coffee per day. She reminded me of my dear Train Friend, she made me forget how exhausted I was.
One morning after she’d completed a sale to a particularly prickly and difficult customer, she’d walked away from the counter calling the woman a la putain under her breath! I asked her the meaning of the phrase and she said the politest description would be a prostitute or whore and she made reference to the New Orleans sex workers. My breath caught in my throat as I remembered the women behind me in the dining car on my last morning on the train. They had been speaking of my young friend. She had once told me that she normally went as far East as New Orleans, her home, and as far West as San Bernardino stopping anywhere along the way and in between. She was not a Pickpocket after all! She made her living working military transport trains! But I wasted no pity on her because she needed none, nor did I change my very high opinion of her. She earned a living the best she knew, hurting no one but herself and by doing so helped this lost young girl. She was my very own Rahab. Not for the first time, God used a prostitute to deliver one of His own and I’ll forever hold my train friend and the 2nd and 6th Biblical chapters of Joshua close to my heart. Despite her telling me not to bother remembering her, I’ve never forgotten her and never will.
My Lord, my Savior, and My Jehovah Jireh, please be attendant to the fervency of this, my prayer. Lord, whether my train friend of whom you so lovingly placed in my life is still occupying space on this side of your glory or whether she has entered into your eternal presence, I thank you for the love and wisdom you showed to me by placing her and others in my life during the times I needed them most. I thank you Lord for all your blessings and for what some would call trials. Nothing you’ve allowed in my life has broken me because you have been my rod and strength. Lord, if possible, I ask that you allow your obedient servants of times long ago, of whom will be known to me as my Train Friend and as Nurse Nice, until I meet them again in Paradise, to know that I’ve never forgotten their benevolence to me and their obedience to you. And Lord please, look into my heart and see that I’ve always acknowledged Your presence in their lives and mine. It is in Your matchless name that I declare my humble gratefulness, Amen.