Real Life by Sue Granzella

Real Life

Sue Granzella

My left butt cheek was the only part of me that could fall asleep on the cold cement floor of the Guadalajara train station. I sighed, scooting a few inches closer to the back that was pressed against my own. I’d wanted to see as much of “real life” as I could during my last week in Mexico. Leaning butt-cheek-to-cheek at three in the morning as part of a long chain of strangers, with the rain streaming on us through the badly leaking roof, I was acutely aware of how real it felt. Rubbing my bleary eyes, I yawned.

Just a week earlier, in July of 1989, my traveling buddies had flown back to California, and I’d headed to the Uruapan train station to buy a second-class ticket to Morelia, Michoacán. My upbringing in Napa, California, had been frugal, but despite my learned thriftiness and simple lifestyle, I did have enough money at age thirty to pay the very low cost of a first-class Mexican train ticket. I didn’t want to ride that train, though. Ever since I’d been a Catholic elementary school kid and heard visiting missionary priests describe how people (especially impoverished people) around the world lived, I’d wanted to understand better the struggles that other people face. My parents each did volunteer work around town, both with elderly people and with low-income people, and I grew up with the knowledge that life was a lot bigger than what I experienced. I appreciated my own circumstances, but my desire to feel more connected to others outside my own sphere only increased as I got older. I felt like my life would be richer, more filled out, more complete if I had experiences that would show me more about how others lived. The grittier aspects of life for those who didn’t have it easy—that’s what I thought of as real life.

So as a young adult, I found jobs and volunteer positions that enabled me to brush up against some of the “real life” I craved. In my twenties, I worked in Oakland with immigrants and refugees, and this further opened my eyes to a world very different from the comfortable one I’d known growing up. I began longing to understand more of what these people had left behind in their home countries. So that summer, when I was thirty, I had chosen Mexico for my vacation, pledging to visit the villages from which my immigrant friends had come, to see some of their “real life.”

At the train station, I sidestepped some spindly-legged five-year-olds who were selling pieces of chicle (gum) at ten for a penny, and clambered up the metal steps of my car. A first-class Mexican train had cushioned seats, but in the second-class train there were rows of worn wooden benches instead. The car had an almost festive feel, though. Children outnumbered adults by about three to one, and most of them chattered noisily. Women in faded cotton flowered dresses spread out picnic lunches, busily handing tortas to men in leather boots caked with dried mud. A skinny ten-year-old with a cardboard box strapped to his shoulders snaked in and out among the travelers, peddling his baggies of juicy sliced watermelon and mango. Since my Lonely Planet book had shouted at me in bold print that underno circumstances was I ever to succumb to the temptations of fruit from street vendors, I reluctantly turned away from him.

As we lurched into the start of our journey, a fluttering collection of little white flags hanging from the windows of our car cheerily waved good-bye to the station. Not until we had built up some speed, and the breeze was ruffling my hair, did I realize the little flags were cloth diapers that resourceful mothers had hung out to dry.

As I scanned the car for a seat, a round woman with a sun-browned face and smiling eyes waved me over to sit next to her and her husband. He was as thin and angular as she was round, his heavy leather belt cinched in tight. Within ten minutes, Lupe was plying me with bananas and hunks of coarse brown bread. Within twenty minutes, she was eagerly dictating directions to their home in the countryside. I was glad my Spanish was good enough to catch “after the long fence” and “past the second road in the field.” I assured her that I would try to come in a few days for a visit.

The rest of the day’s journey passed in similarly hospitable fashion. As the crowded and dilapidated train creaked and groaned past rivers and valleys, the occupants of my car called out one to another, strangers-turned-friends, ooh-ing and aah-ing in appreciation of the lovely scenery. Women who I suspected were younger than they looked called out, “This side!” when the sights on the right or the left were especially striking. Teenage boys made space for grown men to glimpse the world out the window. It may have been just real life to them but, to me, the easy friendliness of the people was how I envisioned heaven. I found myself feeling proud of the people in my car. Second-class? I think not!

True to my word, after visiting Morelia and Patzcuaro, I boarded a bus to visit Lupe, my friend from the train. Following her directions, I hopped off the bus where two dirt paths crossed the road, just past a tiny market. The bus lumbered off through the fields and left me coated in a cloud of dust, trudging past the long fence toward Lupe’s house. As I walked, I wondered about the wisdom of what I was doing. Here I was planning to stay overnight with a family I’d chatted with—in my less-than-sparkling Spanish—for two hours. Had I even told them my name?

Over the next twenty-four hours, I was enfolded into the warmth of their family. Bouncing along in a small wooden cart pulled by a donkey, I was given a tour of the dusty roads of their settlement. The eldest daughter taught me how to wash my shirt down at the creek without ripping the fabric on rocks. We snacked on nopales, slivers of cactus pads swimming in tangy limejuice. Lupe kept her promise to teach me how to make authentic chiles rellenos lightly fried in a golden batter.

After dinner, we sat outside in the quiet of the black night. We sipped hot chocolate made from warm milk that had sat on the stove all day, after Lupe had bought it fresh that morning from a man down the road who owned a cow. Technically, “we” didn’t sip the drink; I was terrified of its unpasteurized tastiness. Which would be worse: to spurn the beverage and offend my hosts or to drink it and possibly contract some horrifying gastro-intestinal disorder? I could see the writer of my Lonely Planet shaking his head in disgust as I chose the indecisive middle ground—touching it to my lips again and again, but actually ingesting only a few drops. If Lupe noticed the unchanging level of my chocolate, she never said a word.

I’ll never know just why Lupe embraced me so fully into her real-life world that I’d stumbled upon. I only know that her graciousness stayed with me long after she waved good-bye from that dirt path under the next morning’s hot sun.


The long bus ride from their field to the Guadalajara train station took until midnight, the second half through a heavy summer rain. My trip was nearly over; I would hop on a train the next morning and ride it three days to the California border. Despite the late hour, I’d decided to stop and buy my ticket right then, rather than wait in a morning line. Grabbing my daypack, I ran through the pouring rain, from the bus to the station entrance, and yanked open the heavy door.

I froze. A sea of humanity was sprawled all over the cement floor, except where the sieve of a roof was gushing too much rain. Babies slept in mothers’ arms and wizened old men leaned against stone columns. I asked someone what so many people were doing there at that hour and he informed me that they needed train tickets, which wouldn’t go on sale until six a.m. I felt betrayed; Lonely Planet had not prepared me for this.

Waving adios to my hope of a good night’s sleep before the morning train, I found the end of the snaky line and claimed my spot of cement. Then I learned a bit about my neighbors for the night. The stocky fortyish man with the pointy cowboy boots was heading north to look for work with his cousin. The old woman, with few teeth and a deeply creased face, was going to Arizona to see her son. Wrapped in a black shawl, she explained that she had financed her trip by selling crocheted doilies, two for roughly a quarter.

Then there was Pedro, a skinny teenager heading for California. His legs were impossibly long and his jacket sleeves five inches too short, as if he had grown into his manhood too quickly. His serious, take-charge energy and penetrating gaze seemed older than seventeen. I’d never known a seventeen-year-old driven enough to set out alone for a new country. Was he the eldest, determined to provide for his family? I mentally filled in the blanks and suspected that the quiet confidence he exuded was warranted. I got the feeling he had lived much in his brief life. When he spoke, I heard an adult.

He explained to me that Mexico’s recent election had spawned civil unrest, prompting a flood of people northward; this scene at the station was definitely not the norm. Pedro told me there were no flights north out of Guadalajara for three days, and every bus north was sold out for a week. Even train tickets were limited, and as I looked at the number of people in that cavernous hall, it began to dawn on me that I might end up stuck in Guadalajara, unable to get home.

My back ached as the night wore on. Mine, apparently, wasn’t the only one; a bunch of us paired off, for a while leaning back-to-back against each other. My partner was the doily lady. I could feel her bony spine against mine; I hoped I was providing her some warmth. Although it was terribly uncomfortable, I secretly loved the whole adventure in the station. It definitely counted as real life. Back home, I wouldn’t have ever had to sleep on the floor of a train station. I could have borrowed a friend’s car, checked a college bulletin board for ride-shares, or just slept on a friend’s couch until tickets opened up. I had options; my days were filled with choice, not necessity. I looked around at all these people and knew that my life had to be more comfortable than that of every single one of them. I felt guilty knowing that, but a little less guilty being a little more aware of what people went through without the luxuries that were part of my daily existence. I could never know what it was like to be an old woman on a wet cement floor, feeling lucky to have sold enough twelve-cent doilies to have a chance to buy a train ticket. Probably the closest I could get to understanding even a hint of her life was to sleep next to her on the cement floor. So I was glad to be doing that. It made me feel a little more alive, more whole.

The pounding rain and the murmur of all the voices must have finally lulled me to sleep. When I eventually awoke, I was startled to find myself lying flat on the floor. Pedro was squatting in front of me.

Get your money out,” he directed. The groggy queue was now shuffling toward two ticket windows, under the watchful eye of a guard with a rifle slung across his chest. My sleepy station-mates didn’t scare me, but this guy with the big gun gave me the creeps.

An hour became two as we inched closer to the windows. Pedro and another man kept moseying up front to see how many tickets remained; the number they reported back was shrinking. Finally, it was Pedro’s turn. After securing his ticket, he turned to me, several spaces behind.

Give me your money now!” he hissed. It wasn’t a request; it was an order. I didn’t question him. We had talked for hours and slept alongside each other, and something in me knew I could trust him. So I, a thirty-year-old woman, instinctively responded to his seventeen-year-old Mexican savvy. I immediately handed over my cash.

He turned back to the ticket agent, and then came back to me. Quickly, he told me that the train had sold out, and that my ticket had been the second-to-last one sold. He handed me my change and my ticket, and as I looked around in confusion to see if the doily lady had made it, I caught his last words to me: “We’ll have to run!

So I ran. I followed Pedro’s lead, and as if in the final scene of a cheesy movie, we sprinted through the doorway, toward the last car of the train that was beginning to lurch and creak, already inching its way out of the station.


That trip, more than twenty years ago, wasn’t a luxurious vacation. There were long, sweltering bus rides, violent bouts of illness, and nights with creatures crawling over me in the uneasy darkness of dive hotels. But along the way, while sleeping and itching and trudging and sweating through the “real life” I had gone looking for, I was generously received into it, as part of a community. The circumstances I placed myself in were sometimes physically uncomfortable, but those weeks in Mexico left an impression on me, which has lasted much longer than has the memory of any bodily discomfort. With the people of the second-class train car, with Lupe’s family, and with my bedfellows on the rainy station floor, I experienced a depth of acceptance, warmth, and welcome that has never left me in the years since. It is that warmth I now remember most from that trip, though I couldn’t know back then how tenderly I’d always treasure its memory.

The end came so suddenly that I didn’t feel badly until later that day, when I thought about all the people who hadn’t made it onto the train. It was all too abrupt and unexpected. All I knew in that last instant was that I didn’t have time to think, and that if I wanted to get home, I’d have to run. And so I did, my grubby orange daypack bouncing awkwardly off one shoulder. I jumped for the step of the last car, caught the railing with my free hand, and was on my way north.

About the Author

Sue Granzella fell in love with writing at age six, but until two years ago she mostly wrote fiery union emails and speeches to her school board. She started taking writing classes after meeting an artist in Massachusetts who inspired her to give in to her passion. She has won five awards for her work, including first place in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her work appears in Prick of the Spindle, Switchback, Rougarou, Apeiron Review, and Lowestoft Chronicle. She teaches third grade in Hayward, loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, and reading the writing of 8-and 9-year-olds.