Strangers on a Train

We don't see each other enough.  Sometimes once a year, often less.  But that we know each other at all is a gift, a twist of fate. Our friendship began on a train from New York in 2002.  She, her husband and daughter, and I, occupied the last seats in the car, two-and-two, separated by the aisle.  David and their daughter sat together; Paula sat next to me.  I noticed she was wearing a Bruce Springsteen tee-shirt. The night before I had gone to one of the Rising Tour shows at Madison Square Garden.  I commented on her shirt, and Paula said they'd been at the same show.  A man two rows ahead of us was speaking loudly on a cell phone, letting us know all the details of his day, week, and life, and Paula and I exchanged smiles.  I commented on her tee-shirt.  We rode north along the coastline, talking about the concert, Bruce's music, and other things: her family, my family, how I'd be getting off in Connecticut and they'd be riding all the way to Boston.  I told her I was a writer and she told me she'd been a lawyer but had given it up for a love of books.  She worked in a Boston-area Borders book store.

We exchanged numbers, addresses.  Paula Breger, Luanne Rice, take care, nice to meet you, stay in touch!  It could have ended there--it most often does, right?  You meet an interesting person on a train or plane, pass a few pleasant hours, and never see each other again.

It wasn't that way with Paula.  We wrote and called.  We had family tragedy in common.  We'd lost our parents too soon.  We'd seen them through long illnesses, and it was healing to talk to someone who knew, who'd felt some of the same things.  When i went to Newburyport on book tour, she met me at Jabberwocky Bookshop.  The next day she and her daughter took me to the beach on Plum Island, a six-mile long barrier beach and Parker River Wildlife Refuge, to swim and walk along the hard sand looking for sand dollars.

One year we met at the Newark (NJ) Museum for an exhibit, Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway.  Photographs by Annie Liebovitz, Frank Stefanko, and others illustrated the cars and road motif used in some of Bruce's songs.  While we were there, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" played in the background.  We both liked the picture of Bruce leaning on his Corvette (1978; Frank Stefanko, shown above.) The exhibit was haunting; I loved seeing visual proof of an artist's inspiration.  But mainly it was a focus for Paula and I to meet.

Other meetings: Philadelphia to attend a concert.  I rode the Acela beside the late Danny Federici.  Paula and I happened to be staying in the same hotel as Bruce and the band, and saw Little Steven on the treadmill while we swam in the pool.  Sitting in the lobby, after the show, we heard someone call, "Tim!"  Then, in case we'd missed seeing Tim pass by, the voice called more loudly to make sure we knew, "Tim, Tim Robbins!"  The next day Paula and I walked around the old streets, climbed the great stairs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to tour the collection.  But that trip will be forever known to us as the "Tim, Tim Robbins" weekend.

For a long time we seemed to believe we needed an event to shape our time together.  It started out as a shared love of Bruce, his music and lyrics, the wild and mysterious energy that explodes at his shows.  We live far enough apart so it's not easy to just get together.  But along the way, something has shifted.  We don't seem to need a reason anymore.  It wasn't so hard for her to email me this time, say she and her family were heading to the Jersey Shore, could she and I spend an afternoon together.  Yes, I said, of course, in spite of my hermit tendencies.  She has hermit tendencies too.  Go figure...

She'll be here soon.  I'm thinking about friends and what they mean to me.  How each friendship has a different context: how we met, where we met, how long we've known each other.  Sometimes friendships are in rhythm, other times they can be, as my college roommate put it once, "out of synch."  But if we sit tight, let time come around again, what we loved is still there.   Mim, my grandmother sang, "Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold."

And to think we were once strangers on a train.

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