On the right track

By Matthew Hennessey

I ride the 5:08 out of Grand Central Terminal. Almost everyone boards this train at the source, but there are usually at least a few passengers hopping on at the first stop in Stamford. The conductor typically makes two sweeps to collect tickets—one as we depart New York, and another as we depart Stamford.

I like to ride in the very first car. This allows me to save a few steps when I get off the train, but it also gives me a front-row seat for a nightly cat-and-mouse game between the conductor and a passenger boarding at Stamford.

A woman of a certain age, this passenger gives the appearance of someone not without means. Yet, she is evidently determined to ride the train to its terminus in New Canaan free of charge for as long as she can get away with it. And she’s been getting away with it for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention, which is about six months.

For the purposes of this story, I’ll call her the Stingy Spinster. Each night, she hastily takes her seat, buries her face in a newspaper, and adopts the posture of someone who has been comfortably ensconced since Grand Central.

Then the games begin. The conductor enters the car barking, “Tickets, please! Tickets for passengers boarding at Stamford station? All tickets please.” The Stingy Spinster ignores him, with all the studied nonchalance she can muster.

The conductor is on to her. I can see it in his eyes. I can especially see it in his body language. I have watched him walk right up to where she is sitting, stop, pivot, and announce, “Passengers from Stamford station? All tickets please.” She casually turns the pages of her newspaper, waiting for him to give up and go away. Much to my dismay, he always does.

As I said, this has been going on for some time, with little variation. One recent evening, however, things took a slightly different turn. As the 5:08 semi-express made its first, hesitant movements away from Stamford station, a young man appeared on the platform, sprinting alongside the accelerating locomotive. The engineer must have taken pity on the fellow because he stopped the train and opened the doors. Let me assure you this is a courtesy rarely extended to passengers on the Metro-North Railroad.

After boarding, this young fellow made his way to the engineer’s cab. “Thank you, sir,” he said, before lowering himself into a seat adjacent to my fare-dodging friend. Soon, the conductor arrived as usual. “All tickets please.” The young fellow dutifully offered his paid-up ticket while the Stingy Spinster buried her head further into her paper.

The contrast of their behavior was nearly as stark as the contrast between their stations in life. She, the well-off matron; he, the striving youth. She, who carries her personal electronics in an expensive handbag; he, who totes his school books in a backpack of canvas and string. He, who pays his own way; she, who, for some reason, feels she doesn’t have to pay hers.

Lost in thought, but not wanting to get caught staring at either of them, I turned back to the book I have been reading, Render Unto Caesar by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. Serendipity struck.  My eyes fell on these words:

As Catholics, how can we uncouple what we do, from what we claim to believe, without killing what we believe and lying in what we do? The answer is simple. We can’t. How we act works backward on our convictions, making them stronger or smothering them under a snowfall of alibis.

You know that moment in the movies when the light bulb goes on in the main character’s mind? It’s always accented by some kind of a soundtrack cue, usually about as subtle as a train’s horn, which, if you can believe it, was exactly what I heard.

What followed for me was a rare moment of extreme clarity, thanks to the newly appointed Archbishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia. How we act is not just or merely a reflection of what’s going on inside of us, it actually informs and reinforces our convictions. Our actions demonstrate our faith, even as our faith guides our actions. What we do is living proof of what we believe. Doing good makes us better; doing bad makes us worse.

It occurred to me as I looked again at the earnest young man that we are often taught the opposite: that what we actually do is not nearly as important as our intentions. “She means well,” you will hear people say, even in reference to those whose behavior is atrocious. “His heart is in the right place.” Even if his fists aren’t.

Surely the Stingy Spinster holds in her mind at least one good reason why she shouldn’t have to pay for her ride. Perhaps, in Chaput’s words, a “snowfall of alibis” have convinced her that she is entitled to a special exemption from the rules that apply to the rest of us.

But it is her opposite number, the honest young man, struggling to keep up with a train in motion, mindful of opportunity and grateful to those who provide it, whose heart is truly in the right place.

He nearly missed his train, but at least he’s on the right track.

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