By Sunday evening when I arrived at Penn Station, I was exhilarated, but exhausted. I was also in pain from having sustained an accidental self-inflicted hot water second-degree burn on my thumb. Don't worry, I’ll spare you the details and photo!
The train was 45 minutes late and overcrowded. Couples and families were split apart and strangers were seated side-by-side. Most folks plugged into electronic devices right away. All around me, people were listening to music, watching movies, working on spreadsheets, writing reports and sending emails. I thought about working, but couldn’t summon the focus or strength. Instead, I rested and thought about the uncertainty and exciting possibilities that lay ahead. Doing so, allowed me to overhear a touching and unexpected conversation between the two men seated in front of me. One was older, in his late 30s, the father of a 7 year old girl. The other one was a junior in college, in his early 20s.
The conversation began in Trenton, where the Young Man had boarded. My ear picked up their conversation when the Young Man started speaking about the differences between Princeton and College Park as college towns. The Young Man was from a small town in the Midwest and then had transferred from UMD to Princeton in August. He was still trying to get used to everything. After spending most of my life in a farming/cattle ranch community, before attending undergrad and grad school in Austin, TX, I understood what he meant by getting used to everything. Austin is great college town, but it’s also a big music town that hosts the ever-popular SXSW Festival, has a lot of great food and excellent outdoor activities. While worlds apart in many ways, both College Park and Princeton have beautiful scenic campuses, are peopled with brilliant, accomplished and creative minds, and rest in close proximity to the nation’s most exciting, international cities.
The Older Man suggested that part of the Young Man's trouble was that New Jersey has an identity problem. “Princeton is a great school, one of the best schools, but I would never want to live in Jersey. But because of work, I’ve spent time in a few major cities and the shore. One on one, New Jersey has some nice cities, as beautiful as any city in America. But, for some reason, somewhere along the way, the state got a bad reputation and it stuck. You know, the whole armpit thing”
Now, the Young Man had never heard of Avenue Q, so the Older Man explained that it was an irreverent “parody, riff, take” on Sesame Street. “Instead of counting and the ABC’s, we learn that everyone is racist and sexist and that we’re all basically good people who do bad things sometimes and have all kinds of issues. It was the funniest, smartest thing I’d ever seen.”
The Older Man then asked the Young Man if he had ever watched Sesame Street. The Young Man replied, "Of course, I grew up on it." The Older Man confessed that he hadn't watched it growing up, but does now with his daughter. Then, he started talking about the puppetry of the Lion King and tried to connect with regards to the history of puppetry. He wasn't quite getting right, which made me want to interject and launch into my Intro to Theatre lecture about the history of puppets and the impact of The Lion King on puppetry in the American Theatre, but I didn’t and I'm glad. If I had, it probably would've prevented what became the most amazing unscripted conversation I've ever eavesdropped on in my life.
The Older Man felt good about this, because his daughter loves Belle so much and he's been worried about her only wanting to be pretty. The Young Man felt good about this because he always connected with the Beast. When he was younger, he was angry a lot and didn't always know what to do with his emotions. Also, he wants to fall in love with someone like Belle, a smart, pretty, kinda weird woman, who doesn't want to be like everyone else.
It was only then that I felt a twinge of guilt. These two men, who had never before met, were caught in a moment when their worlds had intersected on a deeply personal level. They couldn't have known their conversation was being stolen and recorded in such detail. Everyone around us was plugged in and seemingly oblivious. But I couldn't help, but bear witness. My expectations for where this conversation would go had been so vastly and delightfully overturned. I was so struck by how the world had opened up to this rare, wonderful and unexpected moment of intimacy. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did ...