Returning home on the Chicago Red Line, I met a passenger who made the trip unique.
|I rode the Red Line recently. That fact, in itself, isn’t too fantastic. I live in Chicago. The city has color-coded trains that cut across, under, and above the urban landscape like needles drawing thread to connect patches of cloth.
Now, I don’t often take public transportation. Most places I need to go are within a reasonable walking distance. When I do, however, I can’t help but observe the people sharing the journey with me. For a time, we all have something in common, although many don’t realize it. Most try to separate themselves from the silent masses around them as much as they can by retreating behind a pair of headphones, checking Facebook on their iPhones, or staring at that patch of gum on the floor to figure out who it looks like.
I enjoy observing people as they make their commute. I’m new enough to the city that the concept of public transportation still fascinates me and I still find it exciting to take the train someplace. We didn’t have a lot of buses and subways back in my hometown. Still, if I live in this city another fifty years, I don’t think I’ll ever lose my interest in the little things people do to bide their time while in transit.
The journey to my destination this evening was rather uneventful. Silent, staring citizens slipped swiftly past serene city scenery. I watched them carefully to ensure no eyes made contact. People don’t like to know they’re being observed.
The man to my left stared down at the bag on his lap the moment I sat down. He didn’t move, as if frozen in some hypnotic trance by the metal buckle, the entire time I was on the train. The woman in the seat in front of me chomped, as ladylike as possible, on a box of strawberry flavored Nerds before she quickly tucked the empty container away within the vast cavern of her purse. To my right, another woman flipped quite contentedly through sheets of paper printed with Asian symbols I couldn’t distinguish.
The train stopped. The robot spoke. The doors opened. People filtered in against the flow of those seeking to exit. A chime rang. The robot spoke. The doors closed. The cycle began again with new faces and new silences.
“This is Belmont.” Chime. “Doors closing.”
“This is Fullerton.” Chime. “Doors closing.”
Eventually, I reached my destination without having said a single word to anyone. I weaved through the incoming wave of new passengers as they looked for a seat that was not only empty but had a vacancy next to it as well. The chime rang. My fellow passengers and I parted ways. Our silent union was severed by the doors sliding closed.
The return trip began as any other. I inserted my fare card to safely pass the turnstile guardians and descended the slick stairwell, dampened by wet shoes that had traversed the rain soaked streets, to the subterranean tunnels that cut through the city like so many wormholes. It was later in the evening. The loading platform wasn’t as lively as my initial journey. Those who were there were already reinforcing their bubbles for the ride. Cell phones surfed the Internet. Earbuds rested snugly against the auditory canal.
Eyes stared forward at the advertisements on the opposing wall, only glancing away momentarily to check for the distant lights that would herald the arrival of the train. Nothing. Back to the ad. I can’t believe people pay that much for an apartment. Down the tunnel. Is that the train? No. Back to the ad. Really, that’s just ridiculous for eight hundred square feet. I don’t even make that much in a month. A roar echoed down the tunnel followed by a rush of cool, moist air. We clamored onboard.
The passenger load was fairly light and I easily found a seat near the back of the car. Then again, it was getting late on a weeknight. Most people were already where they needed to be. The first couple of stops were business as usual. The doors opened and new passengers boarded. The cycle of the subway was in full motion.
I moved my knees to allow a man in a puffy black coat to sit comfortably in the perpendicular seat just in front of me. He was probably in his fifties or sixties, stocky but not fat, with short grey hair. Our relationship began like any other commuter affiliation. A quick glance sized up our fellow traveler before we retreated back into our thoughts or, in my case, the reflection in the window where I observed another passenger’s facial expressions as he read something on his cell phone. It must have been humorous. The man in the black coat looked at me a couple times with fierce brown eyes but didn’t say anything. I continued my secret vigilance.
The man shifted, reaching for something in his pocket as he glanced at me again. I watched his hand nervously; keenly aware that my back was to a corner and his position in front of me blocked any expedient escape should I have need for one. He pulled out a small cell phone and I calmed myself. He flipped it open and looked at me once more. I was going to return my attention to the window when he did the most unexpected thing.
He started talking. At first, I thought he was making a phone call but he hadn’t dialed a number. I’m embarrassed to say it took me a few seconds to realize that he was talking to me about his new cell phone.
It was one of those cheap pay-by-the-minute phones you get at retail stores. His old government-issued phone had been stolen, he said, and he’d been instructed to get a new one. He liked this one better anyway. The old phone’s battery died after a day. This one could go at least three before he needed to charge it again.
Honestly, I have no idea why he decided to talk to me about his phone. Admittedly, I didn’t care but I didn’t have the heart to tell him to leave me alone. After all, he wasn’t hurting anyone. That is, if you don’t count the paramedic across the aisle to my left who looked at the man as if he had broken some unspoken law of the subway by actually attempting a conversation.
So, the man talked about his phone and I nodded every now and then, adding a “That’s good” and a “Sure” here and there to assure him his words weren’t falling on deaf ears. He grinned and talked about the phone he lost, the number of minutes he could afford, and the lottery ticket he bought that won $500. I feigned interest, but looked him in the eye as I did so if for no other reason than to keep myself from staring at the missing tooth at the front of his mouth.
His one-sided conversation continued. As he spoke about the remarkable reception it had for having such a tiny antenna, there was an unexpected change of subject that revealed why this man valued his cheap cell phone so much. He began to talk of his father and sister and of his attempts to locate them. He hadn’t seen his dad in a decade, his sister for nearly twice that. The phone helped him stay in contact with services helping to track them down. I found myself more interested in his disjointed tale.
He pulled out a folded piece of paper from the same pocket that had held his treasured phone. Gently, he opened the worn page to show me a typed list of his father’s recent addresses followed by another for his sister. He explained to me the process and the expense he’d gone through to get this small bit of valuable information. Though they started on opposite sides of the country, both his father and sister had ended up within a few miles of each other in the same town in California. I couldn’t help but imagine, judging by this man’s age, that his father must have been in his eighties by now and his sister had moved to care for him.
Why this man before me hadn’t been kept apprised of his family’s movements baffled me until he provided a bit of illumination to his labyrinthine plot. It was just a side detail amid his verbose tale that he had been released from a mental institution a few years earlier and he was still trying to get back on his feet. I couldn’t understand all of what he was saying because of the roar of the train and his own inability to stay on a single topic; but I could relate to the emotions behind his words and his reason for speaking to me, a nameless stranger on the subway, became as clear as day.
He was lonely. I could see it in his eyes as he skipped, without any real point of transition, from the subject of his family to the cans of tuna in his sack to the bag of cat food he’d bought at the dollar store for $1.10. The food was only a dollar, he told me. The ten cents was the tax.
I smiled and said, “That’s a good deal.”
He grinned and agreed before finding something else to talk about.
The subject of his words, in the end, really didn’t matter. Their definition had no bearing on why they were spoken. The words, in being said, had more meaning than any dictionary could express. In a world where people ride through dark tunnels in silver tubes in utter silence completely isolated from those around them despite their proximity, this man wanted some hint of a connection with another human being. Words were the conduit for that link.
I can’t imagine the life he’s had. There was sadness welling in his eyes that cut straight to his soul. I could, however, understand his yearning for conversation, any conversation. It is a desire I’ve felt growing in me as I’ve spent much of this past year alone in a new city. Finding this small, yet significant, connection with this strange man was a revelation and I found myself beginning to enjoy his ramblings; if not for my sake, then for his.
He continued talking about whatever came to mind and I listened until my stop came. I was disappointed that I had to leave him to fend off the silence alone once again. I bid him good night and he returned the courtesy. I can only hope he found another sympathetic ear to share the journey.
The sliding doors severed our communal commute.
This time, there would be no repeat.