You see it on their faces as they sit in train station waiting rooms listening to the Richard Bray Orchestra, or as they stand in line looking up at blinking departure signs, or as they wait at the Greyhound station for a bus that may leave too early or arrive too late.
Not so much worry or exhaustion, but anticipation of what the holiday will bring. What is on their minds?
The journey is supposed to take them to a table that will celebrate what is supposed to be the happiest season of them all -- no matter how many problems are sitting with them on their laps as they wait for the perfectly glazed turkey and the sweet, sweet potato pie.
First, get there. Overcome that frenzy before the feast, a feast that starts with the subtle command to create the perfect Thanksgiving that They promise us we can have, if only we could just get there. Then we would be happy and They would be happy and maybe the frenzy would subside, the frenzy that quietly starts building when the clocks are set back and the days grow shorter and darker, squeezing those hours into minutes, and the minutes into seconds until it seems there is no time left at all.
Too little time to catch that bus, get on that train. Too little time to return that message to your mother, invite that friend over, try to get through that traffic light that seems to turn red without first turning yellow, thaw the roast beef, answer the cell phone ringing frantically at the bottom of a dark bag.
The frenzy before the feast, the rush to perfection when you know things can never be that way. But you try anyway. Because They say you can, that you have to, that if there is any time of the year that you can be perfect and have that perfect meal it is This Day.
You wonder whether there are people out there who really are that happy about a Happy Thanksgiving.
Then you see Theron Houston, 57, peeling a grapefruit Tuesday while waiting for a train in Union Station. He and his wife, Toni Houston, 53, are going to Chicago, a 17-hour train ride between them and the daughter who just returned from Iraq. They are taking the train because they are not in a hurry. He can't wait to get on the train and look out the window and see Harpers Ferry and the apple orchards of Pennsylvania. "In a plane, all you see is a stewardess coming by with peanuts."
The train clock says 3:07 p.m. and the Houstons have all the time in the world. And they seem happy. Happy in that kind of way that is not fake but comforting.
You descend the escalator thinking frenzy should reside below ground, and you encounter Stephanie Golden and her husband, Richard, sitting at a cafe table. They are both lawyers in Fairfax, where they work happily together in their own practice. Stephanie is knitting a red rectangle for Warm Up America, which makes blankets for charity. They are going off to visit their youngest son, who just graduated from University of Virginia and is in New York and who said: "Gee, Mom, I don't know how long I'm going to be in New York. So why don't all of you come here for Thanksgiving?" This is the son who shares a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate. Did you know there are companies in New York that just come into these little apartments and build walls, Stephanie asks. "I guess those walls come down as well," she says.
Stephanie is saying everything will be fine, but the trip is a little harder on her because she usually cooks. Now with the kids grown, things have changed. She shrugs. This year they will eat at an Italian restaurant because everything does change.
Some people have everything. Some nothing. Some people wake up happy, and they make happiness out of nothing. What separates them from the rest of the world? Is it money, life's lot, anticipation of a holiday with no requirements, no gifts to bring, no concerts to attend, no songs to sing? The only requirement is to be there and bow a head and be thankful. But first, get there.
At the Silver Spring Greyhound terminal, Winnie Hingherwitz has finally arrived. But she doesn't know where she is going. She says she is 75, and has been waiting two hours for a granddaughter to pick her up. It is now 6 p.m. Maybe her granddaughter forgot. She left the message clearly on the phone. "People usually get their cell phone messages, don't they?" Hingherwitz asks. She is sitting there in brown corduroys. She has brought red and yellow balloons for her great-grandson. But the balloons are losing air. Hingherwitz is wearing a handmade sign pinned to her lapel: "Jesus -- 'He' Cleans the 'Fish' after He catches them." She has traveled from Bricktown, N.J. "I hope everything is all right," she says, her pale eyes worried. "How long does it take to get here from Piney Branch Avenue?"
About 15 minutes.
"The last I spoke to her it was 4:15. I left a message on her cell phone. Why wouldn't a person answer a cell phone?" But now it is 6:15 and the granddaughter is still not there. And she is sitting in the station with the gifts in her bag. She asks another traveler about a shelter on P Street. She is unsure her granddaughter will come at all. "Why wouldn't someone answer a cell phone?"
And there are other travelers waiting with their own worries. Across the Greyhound waiting room is Jay Johnson, 37, of Germantown, sitting red-eyed, not going anywhere so much as leaving. "Family problems," he says. "Me and the wife arguing. I got tired of that B.S." They got into a fight this morning. The first person he called was his mama in Florida, who he says is the best cook in three counties, to tell her he's coming for Thanksgiving.
"It brought a tear to my eyes to let her know I was coming home," Johnson says. ("Come on, baby," she said to this man, who is in fact the baby in the family.)
"We're all mama's boys," he says, sitting under a sign that says "Stop Less. Go More." Eyes wide and angry and tired. No bags to his name. The only thing he brought was running shoes. "You have to have something to run in," he says.
He's leaving behind his wife of 15 years and their three children because he has to get out of here, and he is also leaving behind a job laying pipes. Not everything about this holiday season is happy, he says. He should have known something was up when at the beginning of the month his wife complained that she wasn't going to cook all that food this year.
So here he sits, troubled, waiting. "I just want to get on the bus. Maybe a long ride will help me out. I ain't in no hurry. Maybe I'll come back a different man."
And you want to ask him more, but it is too late, for his bus is coming.
And there is the Rev. Tom Delaney, 33, sitting on one of those chairs outside the station. Delaney is reading "In Whose Image? God and Gender," a book that asks if God could be a woman. "If woman, like man, is made in the image of God, then God's image includes the feminine as well as the masculine," the book says.
Delaney, who is from Liberia, says it doesn't matter whether God is a man or a woman, he just knows that he has found peace in his faith. Delaney is headed to celebrate Thanksgiving with a priest friend up in Willingboro, N.J. He prays for people who are troubled this time of year. "The whole phenomenon of happiness is true," he says. "Some people suffer around holidays like this, fretting and fussing about being happy. Some people could be sad because they are not with a loved one, or there is a death or a divorce."
There is a way to find happiness, he says. And you want to ask him more, but then his bus arrives and he disappears up the stairs on his journey.
But here comes Silver West looking for her cousin to arrive. She is worried about being ready for today's feast. She has already baked a poundcake and a Key lime pie, but the roast beef is still frozen. And for the most part, she is happy. Thankful for the son she had late in life and the husband she was married to for four years, four months and four days before he died of an aneurysm. And thankful for her name.
"People say, 'Did you give yourself that name?' " she says, smiling. "I say no, my mother did. She was very poor, but she said, 'As long as I have Silver, I will be rich.' "
The Rev. Tom Delaney waits for the driver to check his ticket at the Greyhound bus station in Silver Spring.
The Silver Spring bus station is a busy hub for the holiday.