I was taking the train back home from New York City this morning and when the conductor walked by to collect my ticket and punch my destination into my new train ticket with his snappy clicker, he said three things to me: “Thank you,” “have a nice day,” and “thank you.” He said this to almost every single person on the train. (I guess he didn’t want everyone to have a good day. After all, people need to have bad days before they can really appreciate the good days.) I thought about what he meant by, “Have a nice day.” We all say it, but it’s become more of a “Hello, how are you? Good, you? Good” conversation. We all go through these polite manners to appear like we are nice people who actually care about others’ lives. I’m not saying we’re all heartless apathetics (yes I just made that a noun…plural), but let’s be real – few of us, if any, take the time to think about these things we say every day. Have a nice day. I can’t control whether or not you do have a nice day, but I am just hoping and wishing that you do. And when you just casually respond with, “You too,” you are just wishing the same for me.
This reminds me of the time I visited televangelist Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, Texas one summer…the largest church in the nation. I was very skeptical and judgmental at first because I felt like Joel and his team of worship leaders were all putting on a self-glorified show in front of all the lights, TV cameras, big screen projections, and of course, a stadium full of people…all in the name of Jesus, of course. It took me a while to get over this, but once I did, I realized that it didn’t matter if Joel’s intentions for being a preacher at this well-known church were selfish or not, because God is sovereign and the people who were supposed to experience God did. Joel and his team were just messengers and if they had the wrong intentions, that was their problem, and they’d have to answer to God. And so really, I guess it doesn’t matter if people mean it when they tell you to “have a nice day” or ask how you’re doing. As long as you feel cared for, the world is a happy place.
Then I thought about this train conductor and wondered how many people he has the ability to interact with everyday. I wondered what his story was…how he got to this job, if he had a family, if he enjoyed his job. I thought about the way most people probably perceive him. As a nameless, uneducated public transportation worker who was created to serve us. I don’t know what it is about the way God has created me, but the section in my heart for people must have been blown out of proportions and made extra large. Something about people like this nameless train conductor not being appreciated and treated like human beings was very unsettling in my heart. We don’t even care to know their names!
Then I thought about the importance of names. You can wait in line at the grocery store, stand in an elevator, or ask someone for directions, and have a casual, surface-level conversation without ever asking for their name. But the moment this transaction of names happens, you become friends. You warm up to them and feel the ice melting. A sense of personal familiarity washes over you. Just from exchanging names. A name is the most personal thing to you (and we never even take the time to think about it).
Something about this nameless train conductor intrigued me. I wanted to know his name. I didn’t care if I never found out his background, family life, or how he felt about his job. If I could just get his name, he would become more human to me. I would feel more connected to him. All I wanted was a name for that face. That face that I saw for a total of maybe five seconds.
Then he came back.
He walked by to clip some more tickets so I stopped him.
“Hi. What’s your name?”
His demeanor wilted enough to see his concern. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Oh, no. I just like you and was wondering.”
“Oh! Al Simone, what’s your name?”
I told him my name as he shook my hand. My hand disappeared in his big, warm grasp, and I explained how I noticed that he tells everyone to have a nice day and that I thought it was nice.
His face blossomed into a smile. “Thank you! No one’s ever asked me that. Thank you. You just made my day!”
So it was true. Nobody had ever asked him for his name until I did. I should’ve asked him how long he’d been working at the NJ Transit.
Al. Al Simone. A middle-aged Latino/Italian-looking man with dark hair, warm dark brown eyes, a genuine smile, and a caring heart. All unnoticed by the hustle and bustle of this busy world. He had a name now.
I smiled as he walked by again and he stopped to ask me where I was going. “Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. You ride often?”
I wish I did. The moment I answered “no,” it was understood that our paths would probably never cross again. He smiled, “It’s been a pleasure,” and walked past me.
I heard clipping approaching from behind me and got excited to ask him how long he’s been working on the train, but I turned around to find a heavier white-haired and bearded man instead. The intersection of our life paths had met and passed in a matter of minutes.
I looked out the window as we crossed the Hudson River.
Yes. It’s been a true pleasure, Al.