When I boarded the train from Charlotte to Durham on a recent wintry Saturday, I saw an unusual number of conductors in the car. The men were impeccably dressed, in navy three piece suits with red ties and embroidered baseball caps. I approached one, an older man, to ask about seating. As he dutifully answered my question, I noticed he had not one, but two name badges. And neither said conductor.
Both said “train ambassador.” What’s a train ambassador? I thought. Some kind of security measure?
Curious, I cranked up my laptop and googled “train ambassador NC.” Up pops the North Carolina Train Hosts website. Ambassadors are volunteers who “assist passengers, promote passenger services and answer questions about the route, ground transportation and area attractions.”
I scanned the page for a more detailed description of job duties. Surely they must help take tickets or clean cars or implement security protocols. But that was it.
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In a world where efficiency is worshipped and convenience and speed are paramount, why have volunteers who do not serve any explicit trip-expediting function? Seemed like an odd waste to me. I settled in to my seat and focused on my work as the train sped through North Carolina countryside.
One of the ambassadors strolled up and down the aisle, stopping to chat with passengers. “Are you having a good trip? Where are you headed?”
When he paused at my seat to chat, I learned his name was Buck. I asked what his duties were as a train ambassador. He is just there to make sure we have a pleasant journey, Buck said.
Puzzled, I continued my questioning.
How long have you been in this role?
And is it always the same route?
One Saturday a month, I travel to Charlotte and back.
I marvel at his dedication, especially when he tells me his age: 87. He says it is good to keep busy, and especially so since his wife passed away last summer. Volunteering is one way he stays active.
Our small talk turns to more weighty topics like aging and the perils of retirement. Buck looks me in the eye as we talk, and nothing about his demeanor is hurried. He chuckles when I tell him I can’t wait to move into a retirement home where someone else will drive me places and repair broken things around the house. Buck treasures his independent life.
When I tell him about the retirement facility in Concord, where my grandparents lived before they passed, his eyes light up. “I just talked to a woman in the next car up who lives in a retirement community in Concord.”
When I share details about the place my grandparents spent their final years, Buck becomes increasingly certain it is the same community. He excuses himself to move to the next car but returns a few minutes later and confirms that the other passenger lives in the same retirement facility and knew my grandparents.
I pack up my belongings and just before the train pulls into the Durham station, make my way to the next car and greet an older woman seated at a table there.
“Buck said you might have known my grandparents.”
She says she did and praised them. Her words were a brief but gentle salve for the grief I’ve felt since their passing.
I quickly returned to my car, thanked Buck for his hospitality and told him I hoped we would journey together again.
When I told the story of my lovely train trip to a Durham neighbor, she stopped me mid-sentence.
“So wait, I don’t get it. Was he taking tickets?” No, I replied, he was just there solely to make sure we had a pleasant trip. She looked as confused as I had been.
But what Buck did was more than just make sure passengers had a nice ride. He made me feel important. He made connections. He demonstrated what we in the South often cherish about our culture: hospitality.
Hospitality isn’t a new notion. Entire industries – fine dining and luxury hotels – are built on good hospitality. Making people feel welcome and at ease is a vital practice for many businesses and a point of pride for many households.
Though the concept is old, perhaps hospitality has newfound novelty in its scarcity. In a world that thrives on a 24-hour news cycle and a frenetic pace of life, maybe there is value in someone being present and guiding us to connect with others.
Danny Meyer writes of hospitality in his bestselling book, “Setting The Table”: “Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all.”
Buck understood how something as mundane as a train trip should happen for us and not to us. And one Saturday a month, along the tracks between the Queen City and the Bull City, he reminds us of the importance of just being present with each other, trying to make this journey a pleasant one.
Laura Lee is managing editor for EdNC.org and lives in Durham.