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Dec. 11, 2019

James Brinkmann: Stranded strangers

Dec. 11, 2019

James Brinkmann is pursuing his master's degree in music performance in the College of Music. He is most recently based in Chicago and his research focuses on audience engagement, creativity and pedagogy in classical music.

It’s 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2 in Chicago’s Union Station. Dozens of Michiganders are waiting to board the daily Blue Water 364 train to head home and rest for one day before another week starts. An announcement begins. “Blue Water 364 is delayed by 30 minutes.” We board the train and continue to wait. Three and a half hours pass interspersed with announcements. We’re still at the station due to engine failure.

The conductors offer the option to deboard and get a refund or to be rebooked for the train and bus tomorrow. At this point, many of us just want to get to our destination. As I’m talking on the phone with my parents, I mention that renting a car is prohibitively expensive.

A dozen heads turn to me, and a few people say they would chip in. My heart races a little as I think, “I don’t know these people, but maybe it would be affordable. Is this safe? I don’t feel threatened by anyone. Breathe and don’t get ahead of yourself. First things first. Where are we all trying to go?”


East Lansing is our common destination. We decide to entertain the idea and begin quickly researching the costs. There is a new determined energy buzzing in the train. Someone is calling a friend who works for Enterprise. Another is looking up the Uber costs to Michigan. I am searching online. We consider our options. All the downtown car rental companies are closed. Would an Uber driver even take that request?

I found an SUV online at Midway Airport, and the costs would even out to our train refund. The airport is only a 30-minute Uber ride. Six others instantly commit to chipping in. I nervously press “submit reservation.” It has been decided: Seven strangers are driving from Chicago to East Lansing. We are leaving at 9 p.m. CT and hope to arrive around 2 a.m. EST.

We quickly deboard the train and one person orders an Uber for us. As we wait for our Uber, we realize we haven’t introduced ourselves yet. It turns out we are all current Spartans — undergraduates, graduates and faculty from the sciences, humanities and arts! Our laughter about this realization eases some of the tension. 

Our Uber driver arrives. We all cram in and set off for the airport, sharing our story with our driver Faisal. Thank you, Faisal.

At 9:52 p.m., we locate our massive SUV and set off on our 3 hour 40 minute-journey to East Lansing. As we are exiting the brightly lit garage, a car flashes its lights. We stop. He reminds me to turn on the headlights. Thank you, driver, for flashing your lights.

We talk about the ridiculousness of this situation, where we are from, why we were in Chicago, places we’d like to live, research interests, culture, music, psychology and environmental concerns. You know. Basic conversation.

Our reasons for visiting Chicago are varied, as are our places of origin. From South Korea to India to different regions of the United States. The first few hours fly by with conversation, and then we stop for food and to switch drivers. 

As we are leaving the parking lot, a cop pulls us over. Goodness… just what we need! He tells us to turn on our headlights. We all laugh empathetically. Thank you, Police Officer.

By 12:30 a.m. five people are sleeping. What a night. We turn on some music, enjoy a little silence and then quietly chat for the last part of the trip.

A few minutes after 2 a.m. we finally return to MSU. After sharing contact information, we thank each other and simply go our separate ways.

I wake up the next day and wonder, “Was I dreaming or did that actually happen?” Yes, it did. It was a frustrating travel mishap turned adventure. Upon reflecting, I feel like it is more significant than that, which is why I share this story. It was a real human experience that will stick with me for a long time. 

Seven strangers banded together to help one another get home, and we learned about one another along the way. Not only did they help me return home but they also gave me a positive reminder about our common humanity. 

Perhaps we aren’t really strangers. Rather, we are people crossing paths as we simply do the best we can in our lives. This experience continues to make me wonder, “Who is around me on the bus, at the restaurant, in Meijer and walking on the street? What is the impact we have on one another?” I may not talk to any of these people, but this adventure is one of many that reminds us we all share something fundamentally important — we are human. 

As I write this, we are approaching one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, and many people are a little more tense than normal. The thing is we are all just people traveling from one place to the next. Travel mishaps will happen to you or the people around you. Perhaps we can all be a little kinder and more understanding of one another. After the holidays, we can continue this kindness. In a country and world that struggles with division, let's take a step back and recognize our shared humanity. And take time to thank a stranger.