Sunday, first train, 7 a.m.
Standing on the train platform all alone, the attendant snoozing in the ticket box below. I was early. I felt the cold wind against my face. At that moment, I became aware of the wind chill, and my backpack burden, and the need to fill my time between now and the twenty minutes before the train’s departure time.
And so I found myself sitting on a bench on the platform waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for the conductor to open the train doors, waiting for my Sunday morning to begin.
That Christmas morning was clear and sunny, and on the Harlem/Lake platform the wind cut through you. Thank God it was sunny, a real treat for Chicago in winter, and the trains were nearly deserted, but still running on time. From here, the Harlem/Lake Green Line “El” would make its way to the Loop and then down past Bronzeville, Soldier Field, the museum campus, down into the South side, one train splitting off 63rd to the east, the next one west. But at this end of the line, heading east into the city, it didn’t matter which train you took if you weren’t going any farther than the Loop.
You’d think that on Christmas day there’d be such a dearth of riders the CTA would have an even-more-infrequent schedule, but no: about every 20 minutes, a train pulled out of the station. And there I was, catching a train to a job I wouldn’t have much longer.
The deal had been stuck the Wednesday before: Polite words were spoken, but it was clear the people who hired me did not know what they wanted. So this was the deal: work through late December, get the comp days, pick up an extra week’s pay, and then start another job, in the suburbs, at less money than the paper downstate had paid. One step forward, two steps back, after moving to the city four months ago, all expenses paid.
Sitting on a train on a Sunday, pulling out of a station, riding an El I’d no longer be riding, I stated to feel the loneliness of the holidays and the anger and frustration of being let go from a job that I’d left a lot behind for.
Saint Nick had a lot of explaining to do.
Sitting on a cold train platform, getting on a train that had no heat, the waiting passengers were typical: a bum, who’d mooch money sooner than later; a tired-looking middle-aged black woman obviously working two jobs, raising a family, not knowing if she was coming or going, even on Christmas. There was an acne-and gell-haired androgynous pre-adult wearing as little as possible, defying convention and winter, and a middle-aged black man, wearing an old Army field jacket, looking bored and unhappy.
As a regular passenger knew, it was all a matter of taking a seat, avoiding eye contact by peering out the window, focusing on a landmark out the window, shielding eyes from the glaring midday sun.
The the train operator appeared, a blue bundle of unhurried efficiency. His holiday was workday, same as mine. I knew his stroll, his gesture. Holiday pay, no matter what else there was to do. It was better to put the ‘no matter what else’ out of your mind. Do the job. Get through the day.
It took only a moment for the empty train to come to life, the doors open, and the passengers to embark. Then the doors slammed shut, the train lurched, the tape-recorded message began, and another 22-minute ride to the loop and a doomed job.It was the same drill. Avoid eye contact. Withdraw into one’s own cocoon. Even on a Sunday. Even on Christmas.
At the first stop a couple walked on board, looking Sunday-morning fine and easy in each other’s company. The middle-aged black man sitting across from me noticed that he and I were noticing the couple at the same time. He looked my way and nodded, and asked, “What brings you out this time of day?” It was a friendly question.
“Work,” I replied, adding, “Work I’m not going to have much longer.”
He shook his head in that low-down-dirty-shame way. “Ain’t that something,” he commiserated. “Who you work for?”
“Sun-Times” I said.
He was surprised, raising an eyebrow, asking, “That right?”
I silently nodded my head, not wanting the conversation to weigh on my situation, so I quickly asked,
“What about you?”
“Oh, I was at meeting,” he said.
I dreaded the answer. I didn’t feel like talking about Jesus, even on Christmas; I wanted to feel sorry for myself.
“A.A.” he said, announcing the first letter of the alphabet clipped and quick, noticing my expression and seeing I didn’t catch his meaning.
“Oh yeah?” I asked, noticing his clothes were work-a-day and for the first time he might be too young to be looking as old as he seemed.
“Fifteen years,” he said. “Hines outreach campus, over by Lake. V.A.” He again said the last to words like the letters of the alphabet. Vee-Aieh. A veteran.
Some look of recognition must have come over my face because the next question startled me.
“What branch you in?” he asked.
“Army. Vietnam,” he said.
“Not me,” I said. “Too young for that. Just a fleet sailor. In the Pacific.”
“Twelve months in ‘Nam,” he said, like it was a line from his resume. “Came back here all screwed up. Drugs. Booze. Took me fifteen years to get straightened out.”
I nodded my head silently, but I could tell he was still reading my face.
“Going to my daughter’s,” he began, “I’m going to her place today. Didn’t see her for twelve years, never really around much. Her momma died. Her brother died. She’s got a boy, four. He’s my man.”
I could only swallow, feeling like a jackass for feeling sorry for myself. I never told him I had another job lined up, and felt like a heel for letting him think I was out on my ass in a week. He was reaching out to me, and I was turning him down, because I didn’t need his help, and he didn’t know it.
“But she knows I have my meetings and I help with the V.A., talking to other fellas,” he concluded.
“Yeah, I know some fellas in V.A.,” I said, assuming it was code for some of the guys who weren’t exactly making it on the outside, for whatever reason. I added, “Must be nice to see your family.”
“Family’s all I got,” he said.
“Hope you have a good visit,” I said.
“Thanks. Good luck,” he replied.
By this time the train had stopped several more times, and was crossing over Garfield Park. The gold dome of the conservatory reflected a blinding Sunday morning sun. The bum who had been sleeping at the commencement of our journey had made his way up to the first car, plying his panhandling, and was now working his way back to mine. He was a regular, I saw him often, and I knew he recognized me, and not just because he called me “boss.”
For some reason I knew he was going to ask me. The V.A. man saw him and the bum knew not to ask him just from the look on his face. The bum took a step toward me and began his usual ramble when I thrust a five-dollar bill in his hand and said, “Merry Christmas.”
The bum’s glassy eyes lit up, and his smile shifted to something genuine, and he repeated “God Bless” on his way to the back of the car, to take his seat and rest before leaving the train at the next stop.
The V.A. man gave me a look of curious wonder, because he’d seen the bum was holding a five, and after a moment he asked, not unkindly, “what line did he use on you?”
I said, “No line. I see him all the time. It’s Christmas.”
His look turned to a quiet, smiling, knowing one, and he just closed his eyes and nodded, “that’s right, that’s right.”
The remainder of the ride was quiet and uneventful; at my stop I turned to say good-bye to the V.A. man but he was no longer there. I was a little disappointed I hadn’t had the chance to say “Merry Christmas” to him, but the moment had passed. Walking over to Wabash to begin my last week at the paper, I’d forgotten about the cold, and the wind, and the fact I was a lame duck. A Christmas carol popped into my head, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and “angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain” skipped over to the part we had fun with, years before, back in choir: We would sing ‘in eggshell’s with mayo.’ It was silly. And childish. And it made me think that I wished I’d said something to the V.A. man before he left, to let him know I was OK. And I was. I would be. I would be seeing my son at the end of the week, and I had a job waiting for me the week after that. I was all right.
I just wish I’d had a chance to tell him “Merry Christmas.”
But the moment had passed.
I don’t take the train downtown every day any more. It had been months since I had been on the train, especially at 7 a.m., on a holiday. But the riders always seemed to be the same, people with someplace to go, someone to see, caught up in their own world, not knowing or perhaps caring about their neighbor’s doings.
But occasionally, at a certain moment, a stranger will reach out, make small talk, and leave an impression so lasting one cannot help but think of him, whether he ever rides the El again, or not.