My Amtrak Angel

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My wife and I were on the late train from Washington DC to Boston. We had just spent the holidays with her family, and after a hectic three days of brunches, dinners, wailing infants, and disrupted sleep, I was not quite in my right mind. I suppose the half-bottle of wine on the train didn’t enhance my neuronal functioning, either.  For that matter, I had not really been myself for a couple of days—leaving my laptop at my brother-in-law’s house, misplacing my keys, and generally walking around in a brain-marinated haze.

Suddenly, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the conductor calling my name over the intercom. “Will Mr. Ronald Pies please speak with the conductor. It’s important.”

I couldn’t imagine what had provoked this summons—had I broken some obscure Amtrak regulation? Was my ticket found to be invalid? Was I about to be put off the train for God knows what reason? As I approached the conductor, I could see him smiling with a slightly ironic expression, as if to say, “Are we having some cognitive problems tonight, sir?” He handed me my black leather “fanny pack” that contained not only my wallet—which meant, of course, my driver’s license and credit cards, along with a hundred bucks or so—but also my house keys and cell phone.

“You left it in the lavatory, sir,” the conductor said. “That woman sitting over there found it and turned it in.”

“Oh, my god!” was all I could muster at that point. I returned to my seat briefly, greeted by my wife’s amused chuckles. “Well, that was lucky!” she said. But somehow, “lucky” wasn’t quite how I saw it. My life would have been thrown into chaos for days, if not weeks, had this unknown Good Samaritan chosen to walk off with my pouch—as many would have done. Anyone who has tried to replace a driver’s license and cancel six or seven stolen credit cards knows the hassles involved.

Every so often, I begin to despair of humankind. I’m sure you’ve had that feeling now and then–maybe upon reading of the latest suicide bombing, mass shooting, or genocidal killing. Not to mention the general coarsening of life, amidst the torrents of “flaming” emails; episodes of adolescent bullying, and incidents of religious intolerance.  In my darkest moments, I picture our blue-green planet surrounded by the haze of nuclear winter, or deluged by the melting polar ice caps. In short, I can get pretty gloomy and cynical if don’t keep things in perspective. My wife is good at reminding me that the world has always had its monsters and miscreants—and that life in the Middle Ages was a good deal more boorish and bloody than in our own time.

But it took my “Amtrak Angel” to bring this all home to me. As I walked down the aisle to her seat, I was struck by how unassuming she appeared: this young woman of average height and build, with average looks, and average, short-brown hair. Some might have described her as “plain” or perhaps even a bit dowdy. Yet she had performed an act of uncommon honesty and kindness.

”Hi,” I said, leaning over her seat. “I really want to thank you for your honesty. You saved me a world of misery!”

“Oh,” she said, shrugging, “I just thought about what I would want someone to do, if I had left my purse somewhere.”

“Well,” I replied, “I really appreciate what you did.”

A few minutes later, I returned to her seat with a small bottle of wine, purchased in the otherwise pedestrian “snack car”. The young woman looked a bit embarrassed and giggled nervously. “You really didn’t need to do that,” she said. Still, she seemed pleased by my gesture.

In the Jewish tradition, we have the legend of the “Lamed-Vovniks.” The story derives from a statement in the Talmud, alluding to thirty-six men who “daily receive the Divine Countenance.” In each generation, we are told, it is these thirty-six righteous men who preserve the entire world. (The Hebrew letters lamed and vov correspond to the number thirty-six). Tradition holds that these individuals are unaware of each other’s presence, or of their exalted role in saving the world. Perhaps the rabbis lacked the imagination, or the historical perspective, to realize that a woman might very well be among these Lamed-Vovniks. But I arrived in Boston wondering if this young woman was indeed among the thirty-six who will preserve the world. And, to this day, when I find myself despairing of mankind, I try to remember my  Amtrak Angel.

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