It was two o’clock in the morning and I was tired, lonely. I was supposed to be staying in a Washington D.C. hostel that had bedbugs the size of cats, but in the middle of a humid night, I figured I’d be more comfortable waiting for my 4:30 a.m. train in a cracked, plastic chair in Union Station.

I was finally on my way home after backpacking around New Zealand and Southeast Asia for the better part of a year. The train from Washington to Boston was the second to last leg of my trip, and I dreamed of my family and the Maine summer waiting for me, with my 26th birthday just two days away.

I joined the other glum travelers hanging around, still feeling phantom itches and fantasizing about a hot bath. At that time of night, the only place to get sustenance was from the vending machines, and I wandered over to them, still feeling incredibly sorry for myself.

A woman talking on the phone was standing in front of the vending machines, waiting for her call to go through. Unable to see the food options, I tentatively peered around her with an awkward smile, figuring she’d notice me and move aside. When she did move, she looked at me straight in the face while walking a few feet over, clearly and unapologetically angry.

I didn’t hide the fact that I was shocked, turning away with wide eyes. I bought a Pop-Tart, uncomfortably aware that the woman still stood behind me. What was she doing?

When I picked up my bag, put on my floppy straw hat (a vestige from my time in sunny Asia), and turned to go, she told me:


“You know, someone’s going to knock that off your head someday,” she said.

My reply was automatic and pathetic. “Wh-what do you mean?”

She said I was rude, calling me a harsh name and walked away, leaving me spluttering.

Then I started imagining this encounter from her perspective.

She was in Union Station at an ungodly hour, waiting for a train, and trying to reach someone on the phone. Then a blonde, white girl with a stupid hat and big backpack came over, invaded her space, and stared right through her.

No “excuse me,” just intolerable astonishment when forced to acknowledge that a black person existed. How many times this had already happened to her that day?

We both boarded trains that morning, likely never to see each other again. Hopefully hers took her to people who make her feel seen. Mine carried me home to one of the whitest states in the country, my cheeks hot and prickly with shame.

Meetinghouse is a community storytelling project hosted by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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