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I posted this story back in 2008 after a memorable journey…

HollywoodA few weeks ago I spent a couple of days working in Los Angeles. It was my first time there, and I was struck by the number of cars, the size of their freeways, and the utter lack of public transport.

I’d been in a suburb with a well known humanitarian organisation, and had to head downtown (into the city centre) and on towards Santa Monica for another meeting. Minded to travel cost effectively I chose to take one of the few trains that exist. At little over a dollar, it would be a huge saving on the $150 or more a cab would cost. So after being dropped at Sierra Madre station by a Russian taxi driver, I purchased my ticket. Sierra Madre station was deserted, and it was hot. When the train pulled up and the doors opened, I could feel the blast of cool air from the aircon. Nice. Then I had this sense that I was no longer alone – turning slightly I was aware of a travelling companion, and doing his best to look me in the eye, he motioned me on to the train.

Now I’m not one for stereotypes, but this man was clearly a dealer. Probably about 10 years or so older than me, black, bearded and a little unkempt. Bulging pockets. Glazed eyes. “Hey brother, where you headin’?” he enquired as we climbed onto the train. As I contemplated my response, I could see 3 options – 1) ignore him; 2) run for it, away from the train; 3) strike up a conversation. 1 and 2 were non-starters, you see it was only the two of us on the platform and in the carriage, and having been dropped by a taxi I didn’t really have a clue what I’d do if I didn’t take this train. Mumble some excuse? “Union Station” I said boldly, after a silent prayer. “Great, man, me too. We can head there together” he enthused.

So we struck up a conversation, though I struggled to remain relaxed as he asked many questions. Was I fixed up? Did I have a stash? What was I doing in town? Did I like lobster? Did I want to accompany him to a great nudist beach and have fun all afternoon? I did my best to respond, and asked him many questions too. After all, he was from around here. He showed me his school out the window, his family home, the prison he’d been in many times, great restaurants. He told me about his girlfriends, his family, his problems. We talked politics. We talked about spirituality. All uninterrupted, for at each station, passengers would take one look at the dealer and choose the carriage either side, leaving us to ourselves.

We were joined by a colleague of his en route, a younger guy covered in tattoos, also under the effects, and as he proudly announced, newly on parole. It transpired his siblings were all doing time. “Hey, brother, who’s the homey” he asked my companion. Then to me “Brother, you ain’t from round here, coz there ain’t nobody wearing shoes as cool as that round here”, and he leant over, doing the knuckle to knuckle thing. Phew.

And then, a couple of stops later he hopped off. They’d talked business. It was as though I’d joined them in their board room. And as he left, he tossed a gold visa card to my companion saying “I just got it; it looks new. See what you can get off that brother!”.

An Asian chap finally joined our carriage a few stops before Union Station, and we talked about the best restaurants in Chinatown as we neared teh end of our journey. And finally, at Union Station, my companion disappeared, and left me to my bus journey into Santa Monica.

So what did I learn? That people are people. And that sometimes, it is possible to connect with the most unlikely folk. But it takes courage. And generosity of spirit. I’ll never know why they didn’t pull a gun or knife, nor why they didn’t relieve me of my passport, wallet, cash, phones, laptop etc. But we did have a laugh, and shared a little of ourselves on the way. I learned a lot that afternoon. Not least why everyone drives in locked cars with blacked out windows. But more importantly, that we need to be courageous on our journey. And courage is often rewarded.

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Ben Emmens