On most long-distance trains, there is an observation car that’s mostly windows where you can relax and watch the landscape pass.
Here we are, passing over one of the many waterways in Louisiana. Muddy waters, indeed.
I have my chocolates with me and my sign, ready to bribe people, although I’ve found those I meet don’t need a great deal of encouragement.
An older woman passes me, headed for the dining car and I call out that lunch won’t be served for another thirty minutes. “Want a chocolate?” I ask, with what I hope is a winning smile. She considers me for a moment and then says, “Sure. A chocolate.”
As it turns out, I’ll spend the next two hours with this woman. She isn’t quite five feet tall, with light hair and a heavy accent. She says she’s getting off soon, in Lafayette and I ask what she’s planning to do there. Frankly, that’s the only question I needed to ask. I could have kept silent for the next couple hours and the conversation wouldn’t have suffered, or lagged, a bit.
Gloria is 82 years old and she’s headed to see her 66-year-old boyfriend, Lynn, a man she says is “not attractive at all. He’s an elf. He’s a little bald elf with ears that stick out.” But, she says, she loves him with all her heart. Lynn is in the early stages of dementia and at times when his mind is skipping like a scratched record, he becomes aggressive. So, Gloria moved in with her daughter in New Jersey and Lynn had to sell his big house in Jefferson Parish and move in with his son near Lafayette.
“My life is a soap opera,” she tells me, “I’m not kidding. I’ve been married five times.” First, she wed a doctor from Palestine, then a Marine Corps colonel. The military guy touched her daughter inappropriately though, so she sent the girl to live with family in Peru and ended the marriage. “My daughter asked me why I never told anyone about him, why I let him get away with it. I told her I was a young Latina at the time, an immigrant. Who was going to believe my word against an officer in the Marine Corps? It’s different now. Women can speak. I might be believed today.”
After the Marine, she wed a cameraman in New Orleans, a high-ranking official in the federal immigration department, and then a German guy. During one of those marriages, she had a passionate affair with a Guatemalan ophthalmologist. “We used to drink. We used to dance. We would talk until the sun came up,” she tells me. “He was the love of my life, but we were both married.” There’s a long pause while she considers and stares out the window before adding, “Besides, I want my Cajun elf. I love Lynn.”
She asks what I do and I explain that I’m a broadcast journalist and an author. I show her my Wikipedia page when she asks for more details. She says, “You’re famous!” I shrugged my shoulders and tilted my head, as if to say, “I’m not really famous,” but she stops me. “Don’t be humble!” she demands. “You should say, yes, I’m very famous and you’re lucky to talk to me. Be like Gloria.”
Gloria has five children of her own and five more that she unofficially adopted along the way, and she travels to see them all over the country. After years in the banking industry, she decided one day that she wanted to work in medicine, so she went to school and became a technician. She ultimately retired from the public health department in California after 16 years of working with patients suffering from tuberculosis and HIV, along with other STDs.
She asks me if I’m staying in Louisiana for long and warns that there is a lot of racism here. “Even Lynn,” she says. “He used the n-word once and I told him! I told him to shut his mouth. If you say something about black people, I will tell you very quickly where to get off.” She explains that she has often spoken to groups of young Latinas and always tells them not to be ashamed of their accents or their heritage. “We are descended from geniuses, you know, the Aztecs and the Mayans. Our cultures are thousands of years old. We can hold our heads high.”
While she’s talking, the dining car opens and we sit down at a booth. She eats a chicken wrap and I have the chilaquiles. Over the course of two hours, I’ve said fewer than a hundred words. Just before she gets off in Lafayette, Gloria offers me some advice. “I’m not the kind of person who likes to be alone. I believe in love, but I never let love take hold me of me and drag me down,” she says. “Nobody’s going to force me to do something that’s not good for me. My life belongs to no one but me. If you’re trying to make me feel ashamed, you’re talking to the wrong person.”
At that point, the train has stopped at the station. She grabs her purse and gives me a hug, tells me she will come visit me in DC. “I have a lot more stories to tell you,” she says, “I have a great life. What do I have to be miserable about?”