The boy in the train station coffee shop

By Christopher Wink | Oct. 8, 2008 |

Worlds – yes, disparate worlds – come to some form of a cross-section in red-eyed, late nights in train stations.

Early Tuesday morning, we were doing that, surfing the intersection of the young and the acutely itinerant – being reminded of the sociological difference between situational and generational poverty.

We, three, were in a 24-hour coffee shop just before 1 A.M., waiting on a 6 A.M. train. A security guard recommended the spot, a few modern chairs off to the side where people buy cups of foam and cream. A young man, a year or two my junior, sat beside me, tapping his foot and twitching in his chair, regularly, if subtly. The kind of movements you might expect at 1 A.M. in a late-night train station coffee shop.

He asked me about my laptop. If I had change. If he knew he was homeless tonight. He was polite enough, expectant of my answers, I suppose.

Nothing Philadelphia doesn’t know.

A police officer came, presumably summoned by the coffee shop manager, presumably responding to a young man who had been there before.

There is a world most of us won’t touch, not in any way direct enough to make us think meaningfully of pocket change and a complimentary cup of water from an international coffee chain. I do not care to guess, nor desire to know what you or me or he might think that change would be for or that water might wash down. That isn’t why I am writing this, rather than watching a movie with my friends on one of our fancy laptops before we take a train towards privilege-subsidized adventure.

I don’t come with any sermon to be preached. I was small then. I am small often. There is no bible story to be referenced, of great lessons to be taught.

I sat with my laptop and my backpack, offered him good luck as he went along with the officer for a chat, who I guess sent the him on his way. Sent him from sitting in chairs without buying anything, asking for and receiving a complimentary cup of water, not at all unlike what my two friends and I did – swiping electricity for our laptops, to boot.

Of course, that young man may have done the same thing a hundred times.

Still, only the passions of men and of politics assign blame for that cross section. Where I meet – for just a moment in time – a young man whose life I know nothing about, but might fairly assume I couldn’t understand.

That’s something any travel I’ve done has shown me, has reminded me – plopping the divides of the world on a modern chair along the side of a coffee shop at 1 A.M. on a idle Tuesday morning in one of the wealthiest and most influential countries in the world.

Somewhere we draw a line in the sand, between what is misfortune and what is misdeed.

We missed a train and get free Internet access and an electrical outlet. Maybe he had everything and threw it away – or perhaps not. I don’t know, and apparently don’t care enough to find out.

Those who go in either direction are wrong; those who always forgive often aren’t the policeman or the shop owner, those who don’t nightly feel the weight of geopolitics and socio-economics played out in the smallest scale – of a man, a boy, really, in a chair among pleasant company in a coffee shop sitting area. Pop music of peace and brotherhood – the banal soundtrack of family restaurants, supermarkets and romantic comedies – playing in the background. The traveling music for a lifetime of misdeeds, walked out by a police officer with a funny little hat.

It would be naive, narrow-minded and belittling for me to make any grander message of this. I have none, so I hope you aren’t reading to find it. It is just late, and I am just tired and too often these are the more memorable moments of travel for me. Of quiet introspection that can only be cliche because anyone who ever truly knows himself has had to know a moment like it.

It felt better when he left. That is honesty. Of course, it felt better when he left. Of course, I shouldn’t be honest. I should push responsibility from me, and, with the privileges of youth and ignorance blame the officer or the shop owner. Let him stay. Give him the water every night, or every third night, with a sliced lemon on the brim.

Be as understanding as these security guards are to my friends and me. Pointing us in the direction of the next stop in our privilege-subsidized adventure, delayed for just 17 hours by misfortune in a train station coffee shop.

Originally written for the travel blog

Leave a Reply