I met Ann on the bumpy Amtrak from Lincoln to Denver, but her name might have been so many different options and I’m honestly not sure. I am being hopeful in deciding I wouldn’t have misread Ann, so her name is hopefully something else.
Ann was Deaf. I was so excited to encounter a Deaf person in the real world that I signed “good morning, I’m Eric” to her, easy shit, the second after I figured it out. When one of my many majors required two years of language, I had jumped at the opportunity to study American Sign Language. I took the two years, it’s about enough communication to gossip in middle school, basically. Just enough utility to count, talk about stuff like school, stuff around the home and shopping centers, clothes and romance.
Ann’s eyebrows raised and her face lit up, “you sign?” Then she gestured to herself, tapped her fingers to sign “name” before her fingers blurred to spell something I didn’t catch that time or the times after until I let myself cross that forgetful and inept line to faking getting it.
I had this part of the conversation down, because the Deaf community is one of the most welcoming I have ever encountered. While I can count the times I’ve been able to use Sign on my fingers and toes, it has always been a genuine and warm encounter. They have usually followup and ask where I leaned to sign, how long, and if I have any Deaf friends or family. This is a nice and casual way of letting them know what basically what level you can communicate using.
I once had a Deaf Uber driver, too. We sadly didn’t get to talk much because of safety or whatever.
I had shuffled in attempted quite at 1 AM onto the second level of the train car and next to a slumbering woman with white hair, Ann. She had poked me in the shoulder to get past me to leave in the morning, and poked me awake again when she got back, too. It wasn’t until the ticket check, watching her initial confusion and then silent understanding and compliance that I worked out that she was Deaf instead of a rude bitch. We met and had our introductory conversion, in which she refused my offer to write out her words when needed.
Ann was from Denver too, and on the way home from visiting a friend she had from back in college, some 40 years ago. She stressed to me the importance of maintaining friendships, and I got the impression she was recently retired and doing a lot of traveling and catching up. I didn’t catch her husband’s name, either, but he worked at a brewery. Her tote was well packed at her feet, topped with yarn and a book. She opened up her purse and a plume of weed scent reached me and I smiled and took the peanuts she offered.
The talk was punctuated by taking turns spelling out the unknown words and then her showing me their sign. “How else will you learn?” I felt lucky for the opportunity, and we eventually settled into a lull, rattling along on the bumpy tracks.
I’m not sure if coincidences are special of if I just don’t talk to enough strangers to know if they’re common. I had signed to Ann “food cart’s open” when the garbled voice had come over the intercom announcing it, and was feeling useful when a voice from the next row over said, “hey, can you hear me?”
I looked over to see a blonde buy in a polo flapping his right hand in my direction. While Deaf people sometimes wave, raising your hand slightly and flapping your hand like clearing smoke or a fart is the go-to to get someone’s attention. Also, I personally grew up in a very anti-pointing environment. Brandishing an index finger earned sharp looks or a yell-muttered “don’t point!”
John pointed to Ann and signed “is she Deaf?”
We were all floored, the chances had to be insane that three people of any level of American Sign would be on the same train, let alone the same row of the same car. After alerting Ann, she stomped on the ground and was so excited. ASL’s grammar and meaning is really in emotion and expression, so her eyes became giant round bubbles below her sky-high eyebrows. It’s the reaction you’d want when surprising someone for their birthday or christmas, every time.
On top of the random luck, John was also studying to be an interpreter. He taught me a few signs and I could not believe my fortune.
Then Ann rooted in the tote at her feet for a pan of brownies that greeted me with a familiar dank smell that had been absent from my week in Nebraska. Using napkins as plates, I felt like there was no way I could be on a wrong path.
I’ll always accept coincidences or luck.