Okay, not missed so much as failed to notice, misunderstood perhaps, that the 11:30 train simply didn't stop in Gloucester, so I'd have to wait until 12:20. With an hour to kill at North Station, I settled in.
I was warm. It was quiet. I'd finally taken the time to go get a haircut, so I was feeling chic and fancy in the way only a new cut and a blow-out from someone who is actually really good at those things can do. That feeling usually only lasts an hour or so anyway, so I figured I'd just enjoy it while it lingered.
I found a bench and looked around.
Moments later, seven multi-colored pigeons arrived in a flurry. By wing, by foot, they gathered at my feet and strutted about ridiculously. With them so close, tilting their heads to look me in the eye, I could really take in how different they all were. Some were speckled, some pure lovely charcoal gray. One had a disfigured foot which it used to, with pigeon pluck, still hop about quite functionally. One had fancy feathers on his toes. I thought they had arrived by grace to entertain and befriend me.
"'I am Mary Poppins!", thought I for a moment.
Until I realized what was really happening. Two bigger pigeons were trying to mount two others with the goal of bringing baby pigeons into this world. And the other three were simply scouting the location for pizza/muffin/donut crumbs.
I am not Mary Poppins.
And just like that, off they flew, both goals (apparently) unfulfilled.
I then turned to see a man with a half smile and empty eyes shuffling towards the Dunkin Donuts kiosk. While his expression was odd, the rest of him seemed appropriate. He was decked out for a typical New England snow day: heavy tan coat, thick gloves, black winter boots. I could see the collar of his dark gray shirt peeking out above the rounded edge of his almost-zipped up jacket. But then he turned to face me. And I saw that dark gray collared shirt was, in fact, fully open and unbuttoned, all the way to his waist. Bare-chested. Open-shirted. Fully coated. Shuffling to nowhere. Never did stop for coffee...or for anything.
I looked back to the open doors where the trains were waiting, and noticed another man. Larger, this one, sitting on a bench. I couldn't see his face. He was stocky. He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt, no coat, dark brown Dockers and white tennis shoes (the old-school, all leather sort, whiter than one might expect given the roughed up condition of the rest of his clothes). The laces, once tied, were now barely holding to their knots. His upper body was flatly pancaked over his thighs, face to the ground. His head sometimes hung between his knees, and was then sometimes pulled up to be supported by one thigh.
He looked despondent.
Until, that is, I noticed - I kid you not - that his feet had started dancing.
His body slumped there, sad. But his feet, those somehow courageous white tennis shoes, started tapping like Fred Astaire. No matter what the rest of his body was doing, damn it, those feet were gonna dance. Rhythmically too, as if to beautiful happy music. Sometimes the toes would come up, sometimes the heels. Sometimes the feet would move about as if following those footprints on the floor you use in ballroom lessons. If you only watched his feet, you would have thought there was a graceful man atop them. Until you saw the pancake, and remembered.
Suddenly the happy feet stopped dancing. For a few moments, nothing moved at all. But then his torso rose. It took some time to do it - but he finally staggered up, and started doing his own version of a shuffle...unbelted pants drooping down to cover the tops of those joyful shoes that now seemed to have lost their grace.
And then finally, Michelle. I only know her name because her friend - I'll call her 'A' - with the small angular body and long dirty-blond hair, with the gravelly voice and tightened face clearly hardened by the exhaustion of what looked to be a pretty difficult life, kept using that name as she begged Michelle to try to stand up, to try to 'get your SH*T together!", to try to help her from what looked to be a very desperate and dark place.
I didn't realize this at first. Initially, I simply noticed a woman in a purple sweater, with black snow boots, doubled over in what I thought might just be a really impressive forward fold (the position I dread most in yoga class). She hung there. Just hung, and every ten seconds or so she would flail her arms a bit and try to put her hands onto her calves. And then I realized, I had again misunderstood. A perfect forward fold was hardly her goal. She was trying to find some change that had fallen into her boot. She hung there, barely holding her balance, and clawed away.
'A', who had for a moment, stepped into the nearby mini-mart to get Michelle a grape soda, returned and surrounded her, hands on both shoulders trying to rouse her from her fold, trying to convince her to forget about that the dime that she was looking for, trying to convince her when Michelle stammered something acrid and accusatory to 'A' that she had not taken her change, begging Michelle to stand up, take a sip of her soda, and to follow her.
'A' begged her to come along. To stand. To care. To fight. She looked directly into Michelle's eyes, and told her 'You are a F'ING MESS!'. And 'You don't know it right now but I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU!. And 'FOR GOD's SAKE MICHELLE, I AM TRYING TO BE A FRIEND! I'm trying to be your GOOD F'ING FRIEND!!' And finally, as she wrapped Michelle up with her own somewhat skeletal frame and they both staggered forward, she whispered 'Come with me...just come on.'
I can't tell you how many times I thought about stepping in and asking if I could help. But I knew I couldn't, probably. And all of this was loud-ish as it happened - in the middle of everything. Stepping in seemed to somehow destroy their dignity or something? I don't know, but I knew I didn't want to do that either. My gut told me to stand clear.
And frankly, 'A' didn't need any help at all - she really did seem to have it under control. I named her 'A' for 'Amazing', though 'Authentic' would work too. Cause that's the first word that came to mind when I watched her try to save her friend.
Michelle, finally, staggered up. And the two of them began to make their way across the station, out of my immediate sight.
But the story didn't end there.
They called my train.
Platform 2. I got up, and headed out.
It was then I again saw 'A' and Michelle - one balanced on the other - now about 100 yards away. They were moving towards a man sitting on three milk crates, behind a makeshift pulpit made from boxes. He was facing a small audience of other people who were looking back at him from a bench.
'THIS is why we are sick!' he exclaimed to his followers. 'THIS is why we all need help!'. They shook their heads and I watched, my mind blown, as 'A' guided Michelle to this impromptu meeting of souls. I have no idea what the meeting was - I kept my distance, trying to give them all as much privacy and dignity as is afforded by a corner in a train station. It didn't sound cult-like or creepy - it simply sounded like one person trying to offer hope to the others. I will never know, and it doesn't really matter.
But what I could see was that this man, whoever he was, was trying to provide comfort.
And these people were trying to let themselves receive it.
And as I turned out the door, I saw both 'A' and Michelle finally sit back down, Michelle guided gently and with care by 'A' onto the bench with the others, welcomed by them all with open arms.
Misunderstandings and gratitude.
And so much awe in the experience that is the journey of being human.
Crazy the gifts and stories to be had when you misread the train schedule and spend that gifted hour sitting still and being human with other people in the station.