My how time flew. We’re heading home today after a week-long Spring Break vacation to visit Washington DC. Most of this post was written during the time that I spent riding on the Metro train from our hotel in Alexandria, VA to our destination in DC. This has been a fantastic trip, with many stories I could tell, but I have one in particular from Tuesday.
We spent the afternoon in paddle boats in the Tidal Basin enjoying very pleasant weather and the frequent airplanes and helicopters flying overhead, with the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House, and the famous cherry trees, milky-pink blooms fading to green, surrounding our view. We finished the day with a close-up of the breathtaking Washington Monument, and then headed back to the closest Metro station to return to the hotel. It was about 6 o’clock.
The Smithsonian station is only one stop from the central hub at L’Enfant station. When we made our way through the turnstiles to get on the train, it was only moments before our first train arrived. We boarded quickly and all but Joy remained standing near the door, since the ride was brief. Soon we were standing on the platform of L’Enfant station, searching for signs to point us to our next train. Joy, though, was frantically rifling through the contents of her bag, head down. When she looked up, her face was ghostly white with desperation, and as we felt the wind of our train’s final car pass by, she screamed, “I think I left my purse on the train!”
The grown-ups here, Kim, Gaga (Kim’s mother) and I, all had the same response: “it’s gone, sweetie, I’m so sorry!” Joy began crying and took off running towards the station attendant’s post, not giving up so easily. The attendant was kind and calm, and explained that there was nothing he could do immediately. We would need to wait until the train reached the end of the line, and he could then check if a passenger had turned her purse in or if an employee had found it.
At this point Joy was distraught. She was shaking and crying, makeup streaming down her face, cursing herself and her life. It was here that I remembered who we are. Or at least who we profess to be. Perhaps with no other alternative, I suggested we do what should be natural for Christians in times like these, I told Joy we should pray. My 16 year old daughter looked at me longingly, the child in her beseeching her father to fix this problem. Then the young adult responded, “that’s not going to do any good.”
Stunned, but not surprised, I prayed out loud that Joy would find her purse.
It almost sounds silly now to write this. The contents of her purse consisted of a driver’s license, a debit card, some retail royalty cards, and maybe $40. All of these things are replaceable, but to Joy these were her personal items and to lose them and have someone else possess them was a tragedy. It was a personal failure.
Kim, Joy, and I took a seat on the dirty tiles of the station floor, like typical dispossessed people, and waited, perhaps half an hour, until the attendant informed us that no one found her purse. It was indeed gone.
So sullenly we boarded the train to head home. On the train, Joy recovered a bit, finding some perspective. She showed us pictures from the day and we shared some laughs.
I’ve been carrying with me a book called Well Known (knownproject.com). It is a series of questions composed by my friends Kaitie and Jared Bryant and is described as “A pocket guide for deeper conversation.” I brought it with me to spark conversation as we traveled together, but I frankly still haven’t finished the entire book. There are 5 chapters, and the questions get increasingly intimate the farther along you read. Curiosity overtaking me, I turned to the last page (5.20), which is shown in the featured image of this post: “If someone asks you what you believe life is all about, what would you say?”
I read this to Kim and Joy, and without much thought, Joy answered “Jesus.” Now, I’m not saying she didn’t mean this, but someone who has grown up churched knows all too well that “Jesus” is in some way an appropriate answer to almost every question asked about life, whether or not you believe it. We just laughed, and I pursued no further.
We reached our stop a little after 8 o’clock. As we descended the escalator, we realized that Joy no longer had her Metro pass and would thus not be able to leave the station without buying a new card or an act of kindness from the station attendant.
Joy knocked on the glass of the kiosk to get the attention of E. Howard, as the nameplate on the window read. He tried to speak with us via a microphone and speaker, but these were non-functional, so he pushed himself away from his desk, opened the door, and came outside to talk to us. When Joy explained the situation, he asked for her name. Her full name. After she answered, he visibly lightened and pronounced that her purse had been found back at Smithsonian station where our journey had begun. He urged us to leave immediately and to find “Mr Brown” when we got there.
Though tired and hungry, we re-ascended the escalator to trek back to the starting point of our adventure. We figured that Mr Brown would be in the kiosk closest to our entrance point, so we bee-lined there and found a genial young man in the booth who excitedly produced a green, vinyl, zippered bag containing Joy’s black and white Vera Bradley purse. This time I saw slight tears of joy from my daughter. Mr Brown explained that only moments after we boarded the first train, someone found her purse by the wall where Joy had only briefly sat before we had hurriedly hopped on the west-bound train. He explained that he used her rail pass to determine our likely destination and had called Mr Howard to be on the lookout for us.
Joy filled out and signed a required form, took her purse, and we set off homeward again, relieved but exhausted. I began to sing aloud “riding on the Metro-oh-oh,” lyrics from the song “Metro” by Berlin. I queued up the song on Spotify, placed a bud in each of our ears, and we leaned against each other as we enjoyed the classic song while the train rocked down the track.
At 9:20 we descended the escalator of our King Street exit. Joy held her purse up triumphantly to show Mr Howard that it had been recovered. He immediately left his booth to meet us below. And then this large, African American stranger did something that really surprised me. I don’t know what body language Joy had spoken, but he opened his arms and hugged her firmly, very unlike two people that had known each other for only 60 minutes. He told us how happy he was, that he was touched when he heard that a young woman was distraught having lost her purse. He told us that he had prayed for her. This man didn’t know anything about us but hated the thought of “good people” being put out by the loss of such an important personal item.
Good people. We encountered several that night. The kind attendant at L’Enfant station who first tried to locate Joy’s purse. The unknown person at Smithsonian station who found it and turned it in to Mr Brown, who made the extra effort to get Joy’s bag returned to her that night instead of simply placing it in lost and found, which might have taken days to process. And Mr Howard at King Street station, who cared, and directed us, and who gave Joy the reassuring hug of both a stranger and a friend in a scary world where you’re afraid there are too few good people. So few, in fact, that not even prayer can help.
You can make your own judgment as to whether prayer had anything to do with what unfolded that night. And I’m sure Joy often wonders if this Jesus person really is the answer to questions, like 5.20 of Well Known, that don’t have easy answers. After she had resigned herself to replacing her license, canceling her cards, and losing the other personal items of value, I admit hearing her answer “Jesus” rang pretty hollow. But there must be more flesh and blood behind what her response would be now, something to penetrate the heart. I can’t answer for her, but there is for me. Had there been a mistake and she had returned to King Street a second time without her purse, I’m certain she still would have found a hug waiting for her. Because the reassurance conveyed by such gestures isn’t about happy endings to bad days, it’s that there is love and even control outside of the God-world it may sometimes seem we’ve created for our own comfort and safety but abandon upon the crash of reality. Three hours on a subway train and we found more than a lost purse. Good people and a critical question, circumstance and timely coincide, kindness and, yes, prayer, working together to give us hope, we found just one more reason to believe. Yeah, I think this is what life’s all about. I realized it as Joy looked up and said “thank you.”