I was at a board meeting of the Portland Yacht Club last night. I confess to zoning out for a little while. The day had been very hot, the kind of thick mid-eighties unstable air that means a thunderstorm will probably move through at the end of the day. It hadn't come yet, and although the fan was on the air in the boardroom was uncomfortably warm. During the treasurer's report or the Food and Beverage committee report or maybe a discussion about mooring insurance but I kind of mentally left the table, and stared out at the anchorage. I was looking south and noticing the boats, all their bows pointing northwest, their sterns swaying a little bit to one side or the other. I noticed a boat I hadn't seen before, and as I looked at it I thought about how much I like looking at boats. And the thought slipped across my mind, "I would feel completely at home anywhere where I was looking at an anchorage full of boats." For a moment I imagined being picked up and dropped into a board meeting at the San Diego Yacht Club or the Chicago Yacht Club and looking out at their waterfront and, yep, I felt pretty sure I would feel right at home there.
And as soon as that thought struck me I thought how peculiar that was. I thought about what a strange and privileged and incorrect comfort zone that is, the sense that I could find safety and belonging at any yacht club I wandered into. It made me feel a little bit sheepish, and it reminded me of something that happened to me in college.
I was in Boston for the weekend, sailing in a regatta. My team was staying at a teammate's parents place south of Boston, but I met my parents for dinner and sent the sailors without me. We made the plan that I would call when I was done with dinner, take the T to Braintree, and they would meet me at the Braintree station. It would take them about as long to get from their house to Braintree as my train ride to Braintree from the city would take. Seemed like a good plan.
So after dinner I bid my parents goodbye at the T station and found a pay phone. (Remember when nobody had cell phones? What a novelty!) I called two or three times got a busy signal each time. After the third time I shrugged and decided just to get on the train and head to Braintree. I'd sent my backpack off with my teammates but probably had a book with me, and so I didn't mind sitting in the Braintree station waiting to be picked up.
And when I got to Braintree the phone was still busy. So I settled in on a bench and kept calling. And it was still busy. I began to get nervous. It was getting late. I didn't have any money. I didn't know anyone in Braintree. I was hoping that my teammates had just decided to come and get me, so I walked all around the outside of the station. I found a pay phone outside that I thought would give me a decent view of a car that might be coming to get me. I wasn't sure, though, and would walk up to the corner and look there, then hurry back to the entrance to make sure I hadn't missed anyone. I kept calling. I went back into the station -- it was kind of cold out, and I wasn't really dressed for the night's chill. I couldn't figure out why my teammates had forgotten me. I tried to think about alternative people I could call. I had an aunt in Jamaica Plain, but we're not especially close and it was very late and I wasn't really sure how far away that was from Braintree. I didn't have cash for a cab and wouldn't have known where to tell a cabbie to go. Plus they were few and far between. My parents were on the way back up to Maine. I still expected my teammates to show up at any moment. I was nervous but couldn't really decide how nervous to be.
The train station was empty. The trains had stopped running. I had considered taking one back to Boston but didn't have a plan for what I would do and had let it go. The MBTA employee, the token taker in the little booth, had been watching me. She was tired and a little pissed off, but gentle. "Are you okay?" I said, well, actually I'm not sure. We're closing the station, she said. Do you need a ride someplace? Well, maybe, I said. She was going to Boston, she told me. Boston would be great, I said.
Her name was Cissy. She was a heavyset black woman in her mid thirties, with red lipstick and a MBTA cap and jacket. She was waiting for her brother, who she shared a car with, to pick her up. I can't remember her brother's name, but I think he was an ambulance driver. Or maybe that's what he wanted to be, an EMT. I think he did some kind of driving for work, though. He was like Tigger, full of beans when he pulled up in their shared Mercury sedan, while Cissy was exhausted after her shift. I sat in the back and kept saying thank you while they drove me into Boston. I remember he pulled out a joint and lit it up while Cissy rolled her eyes, then laughed at him. She was the tired older sister, and he was a jumpy younger brother, and it felt like they had a loving, nagging, eye-rolling relationship. I liked them. He offered me a drag on the joint, and asked me where I wanted to be dropped off.
I thought about it. "You can just drop me off at Harvard. I'll be okay there." They looked at me. Are you sure? Yeah, I'm pretty sure. Do you have a friend there? Well, not specifically, but I can find some sailors and stay with them. Are you sure? Yeah. I'm sure. I go to Yale, I explained. And I'm on the sailing team. I'll be taken care of by the Harvard sailors, even if they're strangers.
They asked me a bunch of questions about Yale. They hadn't met anybody who'd gone to Yale. I felt inadequate because I didn't have very interesting answers about the place, or about my own professional aspirations. We talked about names -- Cissy was a nickname, and I told them about growing up with the name Scheherazade and the nickname Sherry. We talked about ambulance driving. Cissy complained about the management of the MBTA; it sounded like a strike might be in the works. As we approached Harvard they came back to puzzlement. "Are you sure you want to be dropped off here? We can stop by a phone if you want to call someone." I was aware of how bizarre it was, and a little bit ashamed, because I knew that neither of them would have been able to find a place to stay with strangers on the Harvard campus. But I knew I could.
And they shrugged and dropped me off at Harvard Square, and I said my grateful goodbyes and squeezed Cissy's hand and got out of the car, walking away from these generous strangers and through the gates onto the Harvard campus. I was in a bed within an hour, feeling disconcerted but welcome.
I hadn't thought about that in a long time, and now that the memory's come up I expect I'll be thinking about it for a while. There's a lot in there, about comfort zones and entitlement and how and when we choose to be generous and accepting to strangers, and how and when we expect to be welcomed. I'd like to track down Cissy and her brother and say thank you.