Column: Train moments that touch the heart

04/07/2012 7:00 AM |

The electrician and the sleepy attorney have commuted home on the train to the same station — probably for years — but I’m guessing they had hardly acknowledged one another’s existence before last Wednesday.

That’s when the burly contractor gave the napping litigator a gentle nudge on the arm and said in a soft but assertive tone, “Hey, pal, we’re in Bay Shore.”

I ride the Long Island Rail Road every day to work and back, three hours a day. Riders have a lot to whine about — what with the delays, the shutdowns and the rising ticket prices.

But for those of us who pick our heads up from our smart phones now and then, there are plenty of feel-good moments to be seen and heard.

I recently watched two riders team up to map out the quickest way to reach Jamaica via subway from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, after word spread that railroad service west of Jamaica was shut down “indefinitely.” Believe me, I’ve tried this and it’s no picnic.

The two men analyzed the giant subway grid on the wall, then weighed the friendly and a bit too ample advice of a disheveled passerby. Finally, they walked to the Lafayette Avenue subway station.

There, they chatted about work and commuting before catching an A train to Broadway Junction, where they ambled up the steps to the elevated platform and soon boarded a J train bound for Jamaica. The two never left each other’s side until they boarded their LIRR train in Jamaica.

Romance — depending on its form — is nice to witness on the train. One rainy Tuesday evening commute home, I caught a glance of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing under an umbrella on the Islip station platform.

My train crept to a stop and I got a little choked up as the train door slid open right in front of where the man was standing and a woman stepped out into a quick embrace with the man before the two began walking together, holding hands. As the train pulled away, I watched the couple ease down the platform steps. The man guided the woman to the passenger door of his car. In a flash, they were out of sight.

What made this so heartwarming was that it was clearly a daily routine. How else would the man know just where to stand on the platform to greet his lady friend?

On a Friday commute home, it was sure nice to find a $20 bill on the floor of the train, even though I pounced on it a little too fast. Out of guilt, I asked the nearest person, “Does this belong to you?”

He said, “No.” That was good. Good to find the 20 bucks, good to keep it and good that the man was honest.

The train is always good for those chance encounters with old friends. For me, it’s bumping into a former Daily News colleague, a high school football teammate working as a conductor or a fellow parent from my time living in Bethpage.

It’s always a pleasure bumping into the coach of my daughter’s soccer club on the ride into work. Bob and I board in Patchogue, but Bob jumps off for work in Babylon.

Commutes with Coach Bob represent the best of both worlds for me. I get just enough stimulating conversation before Bob’s stop. Then, when he’s off, I’m able to kick back, read the paper, play Words With Friends on my iPhone, answer texts and do whatever.

It’s nice to watch old friends meet and hug. It’s nice to see a young family board the train together, embarking on an exciting trip to The City. They worry about things most commuters don’t: Should we sit in a seat facing the direction we’re traveling in? Do we change in Jamaica? What time do we arrive at Penn Station?

I frequently see regular riders switch their seats on the train, making room for a couple or a family to sit together.

It was a pleasure to see a regular rider who speaks fluent Spanish step in to serve as translator between a conductor and an elderly Hispanic man who didn’t have a ticket. The Hispanic man clearly did not understand the conductor’s English, even when the conductor spoke very loud and very, very slow.

From what I could tell, the amateur interpreter asked the man in Spanish, “What station are you getting off at?” I was able to make out “qué estación.”

The man replied, “Jamaica.” Then she informed him — in Spanish of course — that if he didn’t have money for a ticket, the conductor needed to see “identificación.”

The man quickly dug up his I.D. and the last I saw of him, he was on the platform filling out paperwork.

It’s especially good to see common sense prevail on the train, like when a regular rider realizes it’s a new month, but is already on an evening train back to Long Island and hasn’t purchased his monthly ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, the rider barely gets out the syllable “for-” in the word “forgetting,” before the conductor recognizes him and quietly agrees to give the guy a pass for the ride home.

What makes the LIRR good — even great — on many days are the riders. Sure, they can be cranky and gruff and want their quiet and their space, but given the opportunity to reveal their goodness, they rise to the occasion again and again.

Mr. Harmon is a former Times/Review editor. He is now public relations director at LIU Brooklyn.