Amtrak Approaching Penn Station, Manhattan

In line for the bathroom.

Illustration: Forsyth Harmon

A special kind of decorousness outside train bathrooms. All eyes to the ground humility, arms folded forbearance, untoothed smile acknowledgements. The train was five or so minutes from NYC and, stricken with the imminence of our destination, everyone wanted to pee. Now there were three of us in line, trying to maintain balance and dignity and avoid eye contact as we were barrelled back to the city—sons and daughters full of pie and family.

You, the incoming fourth in line, were a young guy with round spectacles and a nice, oblong, Where’s Waldo-ish face. You took your place behind me with the obligatory quick sheepish smile that says, thanks, and yep, here we all are, human, with our bodily functions, ha. And then you and I and the rest of us in this bathroom line watched but pretended not to watch a young boy battling through the sliding doors. Eight or nine years old, full of the willfulness and self-consciousness specific to that age, he did not look up at any of us as he went to try the bathroom door. When the locked handle failed him he glanced up at me and I confirmed it was occupied, that there was a line, with as much sympathy as I could. My memories of that age are almost exclusively embarrassment in the company of adults—smiling, indulgent adults, calling attention to one’s mistakes. And then, he positioned himself behind me, but ahead of you. I faltered—who wants to be a line tyrant to a kid? But then again, the laws of the bathroom line, the justice of the bathroom line, dictated you were next! It was a tiny yet perturbing quandary and I glanced at you in a flickering sort of way, but then the bathroom door was opening and it was my turn and everyone knows you don’t dally when the door opens. When I emerged, the boy was right there, small and determined and ready to shoot in and take my place and I glanced at you as he did.

What I replayed all the way back to my seat, monkeying myself arm to arm along the headrests through the swaying train, was how very many things your quarter-second-of-a-smile said. I don’t mind and let him go ahead! and also,  don’t worry that you didn’t let him go ahead of you, it’s ok, you’re not a bad person. And that this voluble smile offered itself as a scrap of talisman, something to hold while enduring public transit in the coming weeks. Among giant swivelling backpacks to the face and between the bellies of the men pressing up against your butt on the morning L train, and behind those who pause at the top of subway stairs at rush hour to send a slow text and while on the train is delayed due to train traffic ahead and stewing in the question generated therein of why it is that the only music played out loud on a phone is bad music and then hating that teenager for making you hate yourself for feeling like a peevish old person, among all this, your brief smile and its generosity could be a reminder of, and means to grace.