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Strangers on a train

Or, how I learned to stop griping and love the no-good, broken-down T.

Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

It was with sadness that I first read the news about the MBTA’s planned shutdown of the Red Line north of Harvard Square on weekends. There will be buses instead. For five months. That is only going to create headaches for some 35,000 people like me each weekend, but why was I surprised? The T had broken my heart before.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way. Yes, that elusive Green Line train that never materializes is beyond frustrating. And once trains arrive, they’re more crowded than ever. Drivers are texting and allegedly selling drugs and playing chicken, fares are climbing, and trash will inevitably catch fire on a track somewhere, bringing the whole system to a standstill.


Oh yeah, and sometimes there’s a snake on the loose.

But despite all this, and against my better judgment, I can’t deny my true feelings any longer: I love the MBTA.

Living in Somerville without a car means I rely on multiple branches of our city’s public transportation system. I take the bus each morning from the outer reaches of West Somerville into Davis Square, where I board the inbound Red Line headed for the Globe’s offices in Dorchester. When I visit my parents on the South Shore, I hit the transit trifecta: bus to train to commuter rail.

Many days during the week, I’m running late and get to the bus only after the doors have closed. I meekly knock on the glass, hoping the driver will take pity on me. I’m not sure the drivers are supposed to, but they do. The adoration I feel for these men and women is what I’d imagine others must feel during a date that’s going particularly well. “You get me!” I want to exclaim. “Could this be love?” But mostly I just say thank you.


Once I’m on the bus, there is a man I see often: eyes closed, murmuring a soft chant or prayer. At first, his incessant humming frightened me, and I waved him off as just another city eccentric. But after more than a year of sharing the bus with him, I’ve begun to see his gentle chanting as a comfort, a sort of lullaby. What is he willing into this world? Peace? A closer connection with God? A reliable bus schedule? Come to think of it, the 87 is almost always on time.

There’s no cellphone signal underground on the Red Line between Central Square and Alewife, at least not yet. So when I got stuck underground for an hour last year between Porter and Davis, no one had their eyes glued to their phones the way they usually do, and a funny thing happened: My fellow passengers and I started talking . To one another. It was shocking.

This July, I almost wished I were one of those nearly 450 Red Line passengers stranded underground for hours. Sure, it wrecked the morning commute, and when their rescue train also broke down, people had to be evacuated through the underground tunnel. But how many new friendships started down there? Will any marriages result from that chance meeting? I like to think so.

If you ride the T every day, it’s easy to take it for granted. A less forgiving person may hold a grudge after a mucked-up commute or inconvenient rerouting. Loving the MBTA the way it deserves is an exercise in patience and forgiveness – not unlike most relationships.


If only we’d let it, the T – or the bus, if you’re like me – could be the thing that brings us together in a world that creates far too few opportunities for that.

The snow is coming, you know. Which means so are the delays. (Just moved to this city? Don’t say no one warned you.) Winter here means broken-down trains, stressed-out passengers, and lots of folks complaining about it all.

But this year, I say we should embrace this annual tradition. Let the trains break down. Let them stall. Go on and whine about it when it makes you late. But every so often, when the train is just inching along and the driver is halfheartedly apologizing for “any inconvenience” that might cause, keep a smile on your face and some optimism in your heart. Then turn to the person sitting next to you and introduce yourself.

Nicole Cammorata is a reporter for Boston.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.