The squirrel on the train platform walked toward me. There was a companionable recognition in the way it trained its beady little eyes on me, and a pointed hopefulness in the way it tilted its small face up toward mine. It flicked its scraggy tail and waited.
The squirrel was looking for someone else, and I found out this week that she’s not coming back.
I live near the Elkins Park station and take the train into downtown Philadelphia several days a week. Lisa worked the ticket booth and knew all the regular riders. When people were buying their tickets, she was behind the glass, but when the line was gone, she’d pick up her keys and step out of the office to chat. If a train was running late, she’d call other stations to try to find out where it was and report back to us. She commiserated with us over the train we all called “the 9:10,” because it was supposed to arrive at about nine, and was always ten minutes late. When the time was changed to 9:12 in a new schedule, I felt like we’d all been vindicated.
She made the ticket office – which really isn’t more than the counter, two wobbly benches, an old orange chair and the SEPTA bulletin board —a cheery place. Hearts and cherubs appeared on the windows for Valentine’s Day, autumn brought garlands of plastic orange leaves, December meant Christmas and Hannukah stickers. Outside on the platform, she wreathed a long-dead ficus in fake green leaves and left nuts and seeds for the squirrels and birds in its pot.
Her fondness for the squirrels has turned the bushy-tailed rodents of Elkins Park into an extremely cheeky breed. One summer morning, we laughed as a squirrel strolled right through the open door among the riders as if it owned the station, to take peanuts from her hand.
Another time, when I set my heavy bag on the platform while I waited for the train, a squirrel jumped right in and then reared up with its little paws on my shin like a hungry Yorkshire terrier.
Sometimes, on a warm and quiet day, I’d find Lisa crouching outside the open door, trying to entice one of the shyer ones by rolling a peanut across the boards.
Little bits of her home life would appear as we chatted over the last few years, while I waited for my train to rumble up. She would mention riding to a new part of town with her in-laws, a special birthay dinner, or that she was sad to have missed a little relative’s school play.
She met my husband awhile ago when we went to the counter together on his day off. “Where’s your hubby?” she asked me next time. “He’s so handsome!” He’s a photographer, and one day, when he strolled the neighborhood with this camera, she let him take her portrait outside the station.
Over the last several months, I noticed that she asked about him more and more. She always wanted to hear how he was doing and when he might stop by again. If she was standing outside when he happened to drive off for work, they’d wave at each other. One day late last summer, she stepped outside the booth and her usually cheerful face suddenly drooped.
“I lost my hubby,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears as she shared that he had died of a sudden illness just last winter. “He was just a baby,” she said of losing him too young.
All the times she had asked for a friendly update on our family life, I had had no idea what she’d suffered. I wonder if the weekly questions and responses brought her some comfort.
A few weeks ago, I stepped in to buy a ticket right at the end of her shift, and she looked tired. Her shoulders sagged and she said she wasn’t feeling well. Her face was pale and I suddenly noticed that she looked thinner inside her SEPTA button-down. I told her to get some rest at home and that I hoped she’d feel better soon.
The next time I went to the station, someone else was in the booth (Lisa’s mother-in-law, I found, who also works for SEPTA). She said Lisa had been taken to the hospital.
After that, sporadic typed notices appeared on the windows alongside the autumn leaf stickers: Lisa was in the ICU and could not receive non-family calls or visitors. But a giant homemade card appeared on the wall, and by the time I passed through late one morning last week, I had to squeeze my own get-well wishes into the corner, because so many other commuters had already signed it.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who missed her. I thought of her in the hospital every day and hoped she was recovering, and assumed she’d be back eventually to tell us all about it. But Tuesday morning, I saw another sign on the door.
How well can you know the lady at the train station? Not well enough that you can get any news besides a sign for all the commuters. But still well enough that the surprise of her passing punches a tearful hole in the day. Lisa sometimes had a childlike quality that made me think the scope of her daily life was small, but genuine. In my unpredictable work day, which ebbs and flows with odd hours and unusual meetings each week, Lisa was a friendly constant.
Yesterday, I left my computer screen and walked to the empty platform where we spent so many moments laughing at the squirrels between trains. I visited Lisa’s tree, where the nuts and seeds in the pot were eaten down to shells. And I noticed that one of my fellow Elkins Park riders had already been there.
I wish I could let Lisa know that her friends are still here, and her squirrels won’t go hungry.