by Pravin Trivedi
MBTA. What a mouthful. And intimidating! Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority. Try that in one breath… Quite a daunting task, isn't it? Why is it that sometimes the T looks like an old tram, sometimes like the subway, and sometimes like a real diesel train? And he used to wonder what about the Boston T party? Found out it has nothing to do with a party… nor the T! But on with my story.
“So, is this the T then?” said the elderly woman with the southern drawl.
“No, this is not the T!” said the conductress gruffly. She must have gotten out of the wrong side of the bed. Or too early? Or had she not gone to bed at all? She certainly did not look like someone who would have been up late at a party.
“Get off at South station and then take the Red Line.”
“Oh is that where I get the T? And what is this Red line? Should I not take the T, and is the Red something also the Freedom Road?” Her eyebrows knitted in confusion.
“Look ma’am, I don’t have the time for a chat now. After I get all these passengers their tickets, I'll talk to you.” And with that she departed ungracefully and in as much a huff as she could muster.
“I wonder what has got into her?” thought the Texan, a little crestfallen but not quite defeated. Being cheerful by nature, she looked around to see who else she could entice into a conversation. The New Englanders, true to nature, withdrew hiding behind their papers, looking out of windows so frosted and dirty that you could see nothing beyond. Some simply shutting their eyes as if in a trance or asleep as soon as she looked at them.
The crowded 8:15 pulled out of Framingham with bells clanging and the shrill horn at full blast, stopping the traffic on Main Street, and made its way to Boston. For a while, the Texan looked crestfallen, with no one to talk to. Her husband was slow in getting on the train. Ever since they were married forty years ago, he had never kept pace with her. She always led the way. Even the two grandkids, Jeff and Mike, 7 and 5, were somewhat slower. They were sitting two rows, away with their mother, her daughter in law. The kids were jousting and trying to get her attention. Mother was asleep. They desperately wanted to know if they had to drink the T. And when would that be? Why can’t we get a doughnut, grandma?
Suddenly, grandma found her prey. He looked like a nice quite old balding gentleman, trying to read his book, but also trying to see if he could help. He was a little more than a couple of seats away. He had just lowered the book when she caught his eye. He looked at her, and seemed to smile. Later she learnt that he was always smiling.
She saw him move a little and that there was space on the seat next to him. She mustered up her courage and decided to negotiate the short distance and sit next to him. That was easier said than done. When she finally got up and walked the few steps, she lost her balance and fell on him. Gentleman that he was, he tried to catch her to ease the fall. She ended up in his arms instead! Finally, quite out of breath, they disentangled themselves and sat side by side as the train slowed down to a halt at Newton station.
“I am sorry madam, I was trying to tell you that the station was close. Sorry if I hurt you in any way.” The words struggled out of him. She still had her hand with the pocket book wrapped around his neck and seemed reluctant to let go, as if she really needed it for support.
“Forgive me for being presumptuous but I was heard you asking for directions to take the T?” he said.
“What do you mean?'' she said, pleasantly surprised that he had no foreign accent as she had feared. His words were still incomprehensible to her. They felt like music, and she thought she had never heard anyone talk quite so quaintly, except in the movies. Certainly, no one in plain old Plano, Texas.
While this was going on, the daughter-in-law was getting worried. She had watched as her mother-in-law lurched down the aisle, making her way up the carriage and nearly smothering the stranger in an embrace. What was she up to? She signaled to her father-in-law to come over and keep the two kids from getting away while she figured out how to break the two up.
“Watch these two, and no matter what they say, don't let them get away. I got to go and rescue mom.”
“Why, what’s she up to?”
“No time to explain, I got to get there before the train starts to move.”
Depositing the grandpa next to the two kids’ she made her way quickly down the aisle. Seeing her approach, the stranger moved closer to the window to make some room. She thrust herself in the little space left as her mother-in-law seemed reluctant to make more room.
“Hello, so nice of you to join us. Doesn’t the motion of the train motion seem just like a bullock cart? You must be careful when you move. You must be her sister,” he started to say.
He felt he had the older woman completely entranced but was in danger of upsetting the younger one in case she felt insulted. Before she could respond he continued, “My apologies for being presumptuous, you must be the daughter!”
Her face brightened up, and she stammered a few words of a muffled uncertain greeting.
“Mom, why were you bothering this nice young man?” she said sternly.
“What may I ask is a bullock cart?” she smiled sweetly turning to the stranger with whom her older companion was talking.
“We were doing fine until you butted in.” said the irate matron.
“You are so lucky to have such a lovely companion. Of course, she is looking after you, talking to a stranger in a train. You cannot be more careful these days,” he said. “I was just asking her whether she needed assistance in getting anywhere in Boston, since I couldn't help overhearing our wonderful overworked but rather abrupt conductor.”
“She was plain rude to mom,” she said, trying to get an even keel, and establish herself in the conversion. The slightly irritated mom looked on feeling a little left out of the conversation but thinking she could regain control of the conversation.
“We want to go to Quincy market.”
“How did you get on the train? You seem to be from some other place than around here. Did you get any directions? Are you visiting? It must be difficult for the two of you to manage the kids and get around this big city in rush hour?” The questions poured out of him.
“We live in Plano, Texas, and are vacationing here.” the younger one said.
“My son has a conference and he asked us to go to town on our own,” the mother blurted at the same time.
As they were conversing, the father was showing obvious signs of impatience with the grandkids. He also wanted to know who the women were talking to. Seizing the opportunity, the mother whispered in the girl’s ear, “Go look after them, I can handle this.”
The young one reluctantly returned to her brats, but not without flashing a ravishing smile at him while bending over and holding onto his hand in a firm goodbye grip.
“Go,” said the matriarch shoving her away, finally getting her to release the brown man’s hands that were beginning to turn blue.
“I think there are such lovely places to visit in Boston. You may want to take the kids to Fenway park on a tour. I am sure they would like to brag about the winners and the Green Monster.”
“I am sure if you knew where you were going, it would be fun. Otherwise, you spend more time getting lost in a big city.”
“Yes, and that is not fun.”
“And what is the Green Monster?”
“Oh my! Don't let the kids know that, especially if they are Red Sox fans.”
“I don't know what they see in the game, but they are glued to the TV screen whenever baseball is on”
“Well, at least you know where the kids are.”
“You got a point there,” she finally agreed, touching him lightly on his hand.
He sharply withdrew, as if stung. Then thought about it and slowly put it back. She pretended not to have noticed either movement.
To be continued .....
The MBTA PArt II
“Getting to Fenway is complicated. Why don’t I make a slight change of plan and accompany you to the next train connection? That way I will not worry about your getting there.”
“No, no, no, I will not hear of it,” she said. As they were arguing, the train slowly lurched, swayed, and squealed to a stop in the dark caverns of Back Bay. Almost everybody got up to leave, and so did she but she felt his hand grab hers and he said, “No, not this station.”
She sat down and made no motion to take her hand away.
As the compartment emptied out, the rest of the family made their way down the now empty seats around them. When she realized that they were close, she suddenly withdrew her hand as though stung. He pretended not to have noticed it. The young one did not miss it, though.
“Hello, are you all going to enjoy the historic city of Boston?” he asked the three he had not yet met. “And what would you like to see? The museums?”
“Yuck!” said the kids.
“Now that is no way to talk to someone you have just met. Why don’t you tell him your names? Come on now.”
Once they were introduced, he again picked up the theme, “I bet you would love the lightning demo at the Science Museum! And they have a life sized the dinosaur. Or would you prefer to sit in the bleachers and stare at the green monster?”
“Yippee,” both kids screamed at once. Neither grandparent understood their enthusiasm but were pleased that the stranger's infectious charm got them in his spell.
Grandpa was quiet but as the squealing died down, he muttered, “It is nice of you to take us to the T.”
As the train’s wheels screeched into South Station. The kids were impressed as he pointed out the sleek 150 mph Acela train on the far track.
“What is that big building?” the kids asked him.
He scratched his head for a moment. He was not all that familiar with the city.
“It is a big, tall Boston building,” he said rather casually. “They make baked beans there. Big, tall special beans, and that is why they call this Beantown.”
“You are making this up, aren't you?”
“Isn't he fibbing mom?”
“That is not a nice thing to say,” mom admonished them while looking at him with an impish smile on her face. “You are, aren't you?”
“Can he come with us mom?”
“Can you come with us, sir? Can you take us to Fenway?”
They had encircled him on the platform and felt trapped.
“I am sure the nice man has somewhere to go. Stop harassing him and thank him for showing us the way,” the older woman said slowly, watching his expression keenly.
“I wish I could. But I need to go to my school,” he said. “But I will make sure to put you on the right train to your destination.”
The children were silent. Dejected.
“And if you get a chance, take the duck tour,” he said.
Immediately they were fascinated, again under his spell. He could have led them anywhere. Their mother kept watching him, with concentrated attention.
“You go to school? Aren't you...,” trailed off one of the twins.
“John it is not nice to...” admonished the mother.
“...say that I am too old to go to school?” he laughed.
“Please don't mind him”
“I am not offended. Listen pals, you are never too old to learn. Always remember that.”
As they walked into Boylston station, he saw that the old man was busy trying to get his wallet out and he warned him to be careful of being mugged.
“Well, this is your station and platform. I will put you on the right train. You get off at the next stop. It is that simple.”
He saw the young woman scribbling something on a scrap of paper in her hand.
“Ah, here is the train,” he said as the green line screeched and ground to a halt. “Come on, and get in, they close the doors quickly sometimes.”
As they climbed aboard and shook his hands, the woman slipped him a piece of paper unnoticed by others.
The old man said Thank you and slipped something in his coat pocket.
They left him dazed as the doors shut and the train moved off with an awful screeching sound.
He pulled out a crumpled 10-dollar bill that the old man had stuck in his pocket. Too late to give it back as the T had left.
He slowly opened his other hand holding the scrap of paper the young woman had slipped him. There was a phone number, and shaky handwriting.
“Call me after 10 p.m. They will be asleep.”