That Time I got Mistaken for a Homeless Person in Grand Central Station


New York City’s Grand Central Station.

A friend of mine was talking about Grand Central Station in New York City the other day and it reminded me of an experience I had there thirty years ago. I had just arrived in the city (for the second time in my life) and I was waiting in the station for several hours to catch a train to join the other members of my outdoors expedition. (If curious, please click on the link for an explanation.)

I sat on one of the hard wooden benches in the waiting area, surrounded by my gear: a large duffle bag, a daypack, and an internal frame backpack that had a pair of Sorrel boots tied to the back along with a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

A man with a kind smile walked among the benches, handing sandwiches to the people who were sitting or lying down and who didn’t look like commuters. When he came to me, he offered me a sandwich. I sputtered a “No thank you, I just ate a muffin,” and he moved on.

I was surprised and a little offended that he mistook me for a homeless person. After all, I was clean and well fed. Couldn’t he tell I was going camping in the wilderness, not camping in a city park? Apparently not. I probably did look like a runaway waif, lugging all my worldly possessions with me.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed relating how I was mistaken for a homeless person in Grand Central Station. But you know what? The sandwich man’s observation wasn’t far off.

About halfway through the nine-month expedition, a certain feeling started. Our yellow school bus would drive through towns in the evening and I’d look out at the homes with lights in their windows. Families would be gathering at the table for supper or watching television together in their living rooms. I envied the comfort, safety and security those people seemed to have. They didn’t have to cook on camp stoves, put their tent up in the dark or move on the next day.

Although the experience was a great adventure, I was starting to feel rootless. And although the expedition gave me the outdoors of America, Canada, and Newfoundland as my home, I was beginning to miss a home of my own – not so much my parents’ home back in Minnesota, but a place of my own.

I suspect that feeling was one reason why I didn’t continue for the second scheduled year on the expedition. I’d had my fill of traveling, and was ready for some roots. So after our bus broke down out West, I headed back to Minnesota and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to travel and explore my own back yard over the years, and was always happy to come home. I’ve been in my current house now for sixteen years.

But dare I say it, as things have changed and my boys have become more independent, a certain meandering wanderlust is beginning to whisper in my ear. It’s saying, the world is waiting . . . . It’s dangerous when that happens. I know from the past that things tend to change when the restlessness begins. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

Don’t be surprised in a few years if you see a young-for-her-years gray-haired lady sitting on a bench in a train station, surrounded by bags, or sailing away with all her possessions in a boat. It just might be me.


4 thoughts on “That Time I got Mistaken for a Homeless Person in Grand Central Station

  1. I can absolutely relate to this, Marie! Having done a lot of long distance hiking I’ve lived out of a backpack for months on end. I was often mistaken for a homeless person (as most thru-hikers have been) and really the only differentiating factor was probably the cost of my gear. I can distinctly remember one rainy Sunday autumn afternoon walking past homes in New England, wishing so badly I could be warm and cozy watching football like a normal person inside! Now I would give the world to be back out on the trail, but that nomadic lifestyle does wear on you after awhile. You begin to long for creature comforts and a place to call home.

    • Hello Josh. Yes, there’s got to be a way to balance it all out somehow — the need to travel with the need for a home. I haven’t figured it out for myself yet, but I do know that I’ve been at home too long lately!

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