I was on the Friday evening train bound for Toronto a couple of weeks ago –– warm inside, cold outside –– enroute to a week in the sun. Surrounded mostly by kids going home before, during or after Christmas exams. My own pre-trip challenges had been stressful in my little world from where to board the dog to how to stuff my flippers and snorkel and all of my camera gear into one bag.
At one of the stops a woman boarded with her two small children and what I thought were a few bags. There was a little commotion getting settled into the seats in front of us, and a certain amount of squealing. Other passengers exchanged glances, some kept their heads down, others, wired to tech, were oblivious. Where were they going a child’s voice asked. To his aunt’s, his mother replied.
From time to time I caught the reflection of the one little boy as he marveled at objects passing outside in the dark –– a truck, another train, lights that went ding –– beyond the window, as well as the fact that he could spy on me via that same reflection.
Not long into the ride, the woman asked the conductor if he could help her with her bags when they disembarked. She was only going a couple of stops, getting off before Toronto. He replied that he had lots of people to help off the train but would try.
I offered to help. She had a dazed look. She was heavyset, not dressed warmly enough for the night, and the younger boy clung to her thigh. We collected up bags and all made our way –– small children in tow –– towards the front of the car.
She pointed to a collection of plastic grocery bags in the storage space. Most of the bags consisted of half opened packages of food that you would find in a refrigerator or cupboard, a half empty 2 litre bottle of cola, boxes of Kraft Dinner, assorted cans, jars and packages, of the kind of food that is not expensive, meals for a dollar a can, spaghetti, stew. It seemed she had cleared out her cupboards and fridge, of what she could carry, along with bags of clothes, and two little boys –– the more curious one, about 3 feet tall, and the other more clingy one about 2 and half feet tall (a three year old and a five year old?).
She still held her ticket in her hand, the kind of ticket they print out at the station, not the kind you print on your printer at home, or have encoded on your cell phone. She wasn’t holding a cell phone. The little boy continued to ask where they were going. His aunt’s, she replied.
When the train stopped, I jokingly told the conductor not to leave without me. I took up as many plastic bags as I could, and the older little boy followed me. I stepped down and he stood at the top of the stairs staring at the vast space between him and the platform below. I took his stiff little body in my free arm and held him against my chest. I swung him and the bags around to the middle of the platform, and lowered him to the ground. I told him not to move, to stay beside the concrete light standard.
I turned back to his mother and the conductor. I recall the conductor assuring her more than once that someone would be along to help her, but I doubted this would happen. The platform was empty. He told the woman that she must keep her children close to her, as it was a busy station, and went back to the train. I told the little boy not to move but stay with his mother because the trains were big. I looked down the platform to see if anyone was approaching to help. I asked her if someone would be meeting them, and she nodded, wide eyed, still dazed. I was torn between my life on the train, and these lives.
I got back on the train and returned to my seat with enough time to glance at the scene on the platform, before the train started moving. With a backdrop of a freight train racing past them now, not more than twenty feet beyond, the mother crouched over the littlest boy who had his face buried in her thighs and the other little boy standing stock still where I had placed him, surrounded by plastic bags. Our train jolted into motion. My heart broke right then.
What should I have done? Gotten off the train? Found them a cab? A safe passage to the doors of the station? I realized I had a five-dollar bill rolled in the bottom of my pocket. Why didn’t I think to give it to them? Why didn’t I carry a business card with my phone number? Why didn’t I carry more money for such emergencies?
The conductor’s face appeared over the seat back to thank me for helping. How could I not help? It was literally the least I could have done.
I rarely use my twitter accounts except some self-promotion but I took my phone and tweeted out two messages with the hope that somewhere in space someone would see and perhaps offer a hand:
“Just helped a poor woman with 2 small boys off #via55 Oshawa. They need an angel,” and added to the second message, “Please God be with them.”
I could do no more. The train slid towards the city where homeless freeze to death on streets paved with gold, and multi-billionaires are called philanthropists.