The train from DC to Boston was an hour late. After we passed New Haven, the car I was sitting in was two thirds empty. We hit Providence well after midnight, where a few people got on. I was sitting up trying to stay awake. A young man sat two seats in front of me. My attention wandered, and I realized that he was talking to the young woman in front of me.

“You think one of the hostels will be open?’ he asked her.

She wasn’t sure, so I said, “They’ll most likely be closed up at this hour.”

“Will they let me stay in the train station?” he said.

The young woman and I went back and forth on that question, trading opinions as two people will who both know a city pretty well, but who don’t know the exact answer to a specific question. We finally said we thought he’d be better off not trying to stay in the train station. So then he wanted to know, could he stay in the bus station? The young woman and I went back and forth a little bit, and said that would be more likely.

Then it turned out that he wanted to take the train to Maine, but that train doesn’t leave from South Station, so we had to explain to him the difference between North Station and South Station, and how you get from one to the other. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around the fact that one city could have two train stations. Then he went back to whether or not he could spend the night in South Station.

I leaned forward. “Have you ever spent the night in a train station?” I said.

“No,” he said, seemingly surprised that I would even ask.

“Well, take it from me, if you spend the night in a train station, don’t lie down and go to sleep,” I said, “because if you do, a cop will come around and think you’re some homeless guy and tap you on the feet and tell you to move on.”

He thought about that for a moment. Fortunately, just then the young woman remembered there’s an all-night diner around the corner from South Station. Neither of us could remember just where it was, but we told him that he could ask someone in the station for directions. At that point I realized that if we didn’t warn him, he was going to go around downtown Boston asking questions all night, because he wouldn’t realize that asking innocent questions could get him in trouble.

“I could be wrong,” I said, “but you don’t seem like a city kid to me.” He smiled, and acknowledged that he was not a city kid. “So when you get into the city,” I said, “don’t go asking questions like you’re asking us. Just make up your mind where you’re going, and go there, and try to look like you know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Oh God yeah,” said the young woman. We were pulling in to back Bay Station, and she was standing up to get her luggage. “Don’t trust anyone except us. And maybe you shouldn’t trust us,” she added, grinning at him.

We pulled into South Station at about one o’clock. I walked with him over to some security guards. He asked them where the all-night diner was. He was confident, as if he knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. They told him. I walked him down to Atlantic Avenue, and showed him the bus station on the right, and where he’d find Kneeland Street and the all-night diner on the left.

I left him, and caught a cab for myself, because the subway stops running at 12:30. I still don’t know quite why he got stuck in downtown Boston at one in the morning. But by now, I’m sure he’s safely in Maine, telling everyone about his adventures in the all-night diner.

2 thoughts on “Story

  1. Martin Voelker

    Ah, c’mon, is Boston really that bad at night? I’ve lived in Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville and Medford for 7 years and never ran into trouble. The red light district is a single block! I always found the Boston area to be pretty provincial in some ways. It’s not like NYC 42nd St in the 80s, for sure.

  2. Dan

    Martin @ 1 — You write: “Ah, c’mon, is Boston really that bad at night?”

    After midnight, there are parts of Boston where you don’t want to be, e.g., much of Boston Common (especially off the well-lighted paths) is not safe; parts of Roxbury are still dicey for white folks; many parts of Cambridge are not welcoming to black folk. Yes, Boston is safer than it was in the 1980s — but if you’re from out of town and don’t know where you’re going, you need to be heads-up and aware. You sound like a long-time city person, so you probably have that city-dweller radar and know when to play it safe and when to catch a cab.

    Having said that, if this same scenario played out on Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, that young man would have been ripe for mugging or assault. I do not feel safe walking around Hyde Park alone after about ten o’clock, and I’m six-five and fairly city-wise. So in that sense, compared to Hyde Park, Boston is relatively safe.

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