This past Monday, in the dark hours before dawn and not far from my home, a 40-year-old man was walking alone on the railroad track. Nobody knows why he was there. All that is known is this: at 4:29 AM, he was struck and killed by the westbound Metrolink # 301, the first train of the day on the San Bernardino line.
That morning, I had an appointment with the staff of a small church in South Central Los Angeles, to consult with them on the matter of marriage ministry. I figured I’d ride the train. I had never taken the Metrolink before, so carefully researched the routes and timetables online. I’d have to transfer to the Metro Rail at Union Station, then transfer again at the 7th St./Metro station. It would take nearly two hours, but it seemed better than fighting my way through the morning commute traffic.
I arrived at the Upland station early and bought my ticket. A woman walked up to me and asked, a little agitatedly, “Are the trains going to be running this morning?” A little alarm went off in my head. “Well,” I replied, “if they aren’t, then I’ve got a problem.” “Okay,” she said, not terribly reassured, and walked away.
I sat down to wait. The crowd of passengers began to grow, and I started picking up snatches of conversation. “There might not be any trains this morning.” “Yeah, some guy stepped in front the train.”
A Muslim woman was standing nearby. “Did I just hear what I think I heard?” I asked. She nodded.
A Metrolink employee appeared to give us the story and our options. Yes, a man was killed, a little over a mile away. The train would have to be cleared by authorities before being released; it could take hours. Buses would be provided instead, or people could elect to drive and carpool.
“How long would the bus take?” I asked. “I have a 9:30 appointment down by USC.” She grimaced. That was my answer. I called to cancel the meeting and offered to reschedule.
But as I was walking to my car, we all heard the sound of the train in the distance, and within a couple of minutes, it rolled into the station.
Metrolink # 301.
That train was running three hours behind schedule, but arrived right at the time I had expected to board anyway. I made all of my connections, arriving in South Central at the appointed time. The meeting went well, and was a great spiritual encouragement to all of us. I was treated to a nice lunch, and the afternoon train ride home was smooth and problem-free.
It occurred to me: if I had been running late that morning, I might have hurriedly bought my ticket and simply boarded the train that was already there, perhaps never knowing what had happened a few hours earlier, just up the track. I would have counted it an anointed, blessed day.
What difference did it make that I knew? What difference should it make? For the most part, all around me, it was business as usual. There were a few comments on the order of, Yeah, it’s too bad about the guy that got killed, or, What was he thinking? But there didn’t seem to be any kind of existential crisis. Life moved on, and that was that.
In one of his poems, Longfellow gave us an image that has become a cultural idiom:
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; so on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
Our lives interweave and intersect; but with so many, the contact is brief, and we move on. Perhaps we exchange a pleasantry or two, perhaps just a glance. Or we may keep to ourselves and avoid contact altogether.
But what bothered me, I think, was that I was riding a train that had brought a man’s life to a tragic end, and knew nothing of the rest of his story. Why was he there, and so far from home? What tale might he have told, if asked?
And would anyone have cared to listen?
Ask me what kind of day I had on Monday. Was it a good day? Was it a bad day? Both. Neither. It was a day in which fullness and blessing stood side-by-side with emptiness and death.
Like other days. It just depends on whose story you’re paying attention to at the time.