I’d like to tell you a story, a true story, about an experience I once had. In the manner of all history, tales need to be told and remembered no matter how far into a distant past they had occurred. Truth, you see, is eternal. So, I begin.
It was a hot, humid August morning. I was headed for the Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It was the kind of day that defeated the power of both Dial soap and Shower-to-Shower powder combined. The trip from the commuter parking lot to the White Plains railroad station left me worn, sweaty, and vainly trying to retain the demeanor of a sophisticated traveler—an unmet challenge even on my best days! You know the picture I am painting, one depicting a woman seemingly impervious to the vagaries of atmospheric conditions. For me, it was clearly an exercise in futility.
Yet, I bought my ticket, joined the other “off-peak” travelers, and settled uneasily into the non-air-conditioned “no smoking” car. With the practiced nonchalance of New York commuters, newspapers appeared, were folded in place, and the world around most of us was then funneled into the printed page. Each tented person was totally oblivious to each other one. Even the jolting starts and stops of wheels rolling along tracks did not interrupt the solitude. Nor did the raucous announcement of “TICKETS, please, tickets!” Instead, arms and fingers automatically extended with stubs awaiting the mechanical punch of the conductor’s tool and the trip continued uneventfully.
As a paperless passenger, I was the only one who noted the arrival of a young man bespectacled with rimless glasses and bearing a gentle aspect. He joined our group at the Scarsdale station. He entered quietly, accompanied by his 10-speed bicycle. The way he carefully placed it, securing the bike well out of the way of his companion travelers, made me note his concern for others. Equally obvious were his feelings about a treasured mode of transportation.
I watched him. I thought, Here is a person who takes energy conservation seriously enough to do something about it. How wonderful, I opined, it is when a railway system accommodates the needs of its passengers while encouraging mass transportation. It reminded me of the books I had read of global traveling and a dreamy Orient Express. After all, I had no newspaper or novel at hand. I could dream, couldn’t I?
Acknowledging my thoughts, I returned to my original reverie: the clicking, clacking train wheels. The respite was invaded. “TICKETS! Hey, young man, bikes aren’t allowed on the Long Island Railroad. You’ll have to get off. Right now.”
A look of complete dismay crossed the young man’s face as he protested, “But, it’s not in anyone’s way. You don’t open that door until Grand Central Station and I’ll get it off before anyone can be bothered.”
“The door’s got to be left free. Get the bike off!” That was the only response.
“But, I called ahead to the Scarsdale station and told them I had sprained my ankle. I was supposed to bike to Washington, D.C., and now I can’t. I’ve got to catch the 1:00 p.m. out of Penn Station. They said it was okay to bring the bike if I traveled off-peak hours.”
“Look, buddy, I don’t know who you talked to. I got my rulebook. Says right here—NO BIKES ALLOWED. Rules are rules.”
“Isn’t there room for human beings in your rules?” Gentle, he was, but gently persistent. His quiet refusal to move served only to anger the conductor.
With thinly disguised fury, he spoke. “I got my orders! Get off!”
Slowly, newspapers were lowered. Eyes began to focus on the unfolding drama. Silence reigned. Then one loud voice, unfortunately not mine, pierced the quiet. “Jesus told us about the spirit of the law. Haven’t you ever heard of the spirit of the law?” Yes . . . these were the actual words spoken.
It was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of a commuter train bound for Grand Central Station, New York. It was a voice stabbing at the soundlessness of apathy.
The cry was heard. It was picked up and amplified. “Yeah, let the kid ride the train. What’s the harm?”
The conductor backed away, clutching his book of regulations to his chest. “I’m not the boss. I’ll get the trainman.”
Seconds later, he returned with another conductor and an angry-looking official as company. The scene of argumentation was repeated. This time, with the authority of one who has never been contradicted, the official clearly ordered, “No bikes ride on MY train.”
The Jesus voice responded almost simultaneously: “YOUR train?”
Tumult broke loose. The world, which only a few miles before had dissolved into the folds of newspapers, now burst forth in vehement shouts and sputtering spouts of anger. Pent-up feelings of oppressions and memories of injustice were loosed into language. The chains of enslavement to a system which allowed no human flexibility were broken. The people were free.
“You said the bike’s a danger. Did you ever ride the 5:15 commuter out of Grand Central? We’re packed in there like sardines. If anybody got sick on that train, they’d never get a doctor in. That’s danger, buddy. This bike ain’t.”
Suddenly, as one, people were standing up at their seats and in the aisles. Raised fists matched raised voices. The air was filled with their noise. A quiet lady wearing a sleeveless, flowered ring dress spoke from her aisle seat. “It’s okay to raise the ticket price. It’s okay for trains to leave early and arrive late. It’s okay to have people faint from lack of air. All that’s okay, but THIS is against the rules.”
“Okay, okay!” The affirmation was addressed to the bicyclist. “You can stay. But, you better watch that bike. Anything happens, we’re not responsible. The railroad’s not responsible.” Official and two conductors all stood unmoved in their newest pronouncement.
A deeply gentle, but firm, response was heard: “I’ll take responsibility for my bike.” It was supported by additional shouts: “We’ll take responsibility for the kid. Nothing’ll happen! So, now let’s go to New York.”
Spontaneous applause filled the hot, humid air of the railroad car. Smiles sparkled everywhere. Newspapers were again picked up and folded for easy reading. The world disappeared once more into lines of print. Unheard in the new silence of the 10:30 a.m. commuter train out of White Plains station was the whisper stirring in the passengers’ hearts. “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.