Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Red Line . . .

. . . was especially crowded.

I was riding northbound when the man in a baggy coat stepped into the car. His hair was disheveled. He carried a pile of newspapers under his arm. Taking an empty seat he pulled a single page from the papers, and begun folding it.

It was a late night in October. The delayed train and the cold-air resulted in this bunch of commuters sitting in silence, our faces bitter and red from the cold. Still, at this hour of night, most people on any public transit line just want to be left in peace as they go home. To catch a few hours of sleep before returning to repeat the same rush in the morning. With the exception of Loyola kids heading up to Rogers Park, the northbound commute on the elevated Red Line is usually solemn. Whenever anyone disrupts this flow, you can sense the hate radiating from the fellow commuters. And hear the sigh of relief with the depart of the obnoxious.

The man in the baggy coat handed a folded sheet of newspaper to the old man who sat next to him. Without a word, the old man put up his hand, refusing the gift. The man in the baggy coat continued his offering, shoving it into the raised palm until the old man stubbornly accepted it, placing it on his lap. The man in the baggy coat took another folded news sheet and pulled at it, revealing a paper hat. He put it on and motioned the man next to him to do the same. The old man didn't.

Have you ever stood in a large crowd? Something about being so close to so many triggers the defensive in us. You check to see your wallet is safe. Stand in stance with arms folded. Living in a city this big isn't too different. You create a bubble to further develop your sense of personal space. It better defines when someone is encroaching it, and when you should be aware. The train, the bus, the various lines we stand in on any given day force us into a close proximity. To touch shoulders with a stranger we'd prefer not to.

The people immediately surrounding the man in the baggy coat all held their newspaper hats in hand. The man in the baggy coat pointed at the hats, then pointed at their heads. He then poked at his own, to further drive home his intention. "Wear yours, like I wear mine. Please."

I was in line at an airport, under no particular rush. Ahead of me, talking to the ticket clerk, a man with white hair was asking question after question about the boarding and flight process. He had to be in his sixties, and this would be his first flight. With each question, I found myself growing more and more annoyed. "For the love of God, will you just sit down, man!? You'll figure it out!" I was surprised at my internal flare. Here was a man asking someone for help with something that was foreign and possibly frightening for him, and he found someone who took the time to help. And I was pissed by this scene because I was inconvenienced. I don't think I would have had such a reaction had I never lived in Chicago. When you spend at least eight hours in your office, and the commute is an hour each way, you're left with five hours in a day that are yours. When someone or something cuts into that time, it feels like someone else is wasting your life away for you. This explains why that commute home at the end of the night can be particularly stressful. It's the home stretch. The only thing keeping your home from your office is this train ride.

It was two women, sitting together, who were the first to put on their paper hats. This made the man in the baggy coat smile. He began folding more and more, even faster than before. Soon, the paper hats made their way to me sitting at the far end of the train. And that's how it started. Trickling out from the two women, the hats began drifting onto heads. As the middle compartment filled out, both ends of the car also followed suit. As did the old man next to him.

It was the summer after I first moved to Chicago. It was the late afternoon and I was heading to a place of no particular importance. The riders were sparse, and most of the seats empty, but I found myself next to a very talkative woman who I couldn't peg as being friendly or crazy. Out of nowhere she asked if I went to the Madonna concert. Madonna was on the third night of a three concert stint at the united center. I told her I hadn't made it to any of the shows. "Well, that Madonna. She's something I tell you." Another woman, this one young and hip sitting a few rows away, turned to say that she'd gone the previous night and that it was an amazing concert. A black guy in a workman's shirt added that he'd been trying to see if his boy could get tickets to it, and asked the hip girl how much she'd paid for hers. The crazy lady next to me remarked that it was impressive that a woman her age could still hold an audience like that. "How old do you figure Madonna is?" she asked. Through a difficult accent, the Korean lady at the far end of the car offered, "She is forty-eight. Forty-eight years old." I was amazed that a woman with such a shaky grasp of the language knew precisely how old an aging pop diva was, but more than that - this car was a mixed bag of the peoples found in this city - and for a few minutes, they all found a mutual connection thanks to Madonna. It's the absurd that brings us together.

On the red line, the normally silent car was brimming with conversation and laughter. The people near debated who this person was, and what were his intentions. People that got on the train were immediately puzzled as to the game being run here. Blank in stare, they'd be handed a hat, and put it on without question. This continued until the Wilson stop, were the man in the baggy coat stood up to approach the doors. Without a word or explanation, he stepped onto the platform and took the stairs down to the street. We kept our hats on, and the moment continued after him.

When I arrived at the Berwyn stop, I was the only person stepping out onto the street with a paper hat. It might have brought me in common to the people in the train, but on the street, I was the odd man out. After catching a few stares, I took the hat off, folding it into my breast pocket. The train took off, and I could see the car of paper hats trailing north.


Years later, I'd be on the same car as the man in the baggy coat. I recognized him the moment he stepped on. The ritual was the same, only I made it a point to grab a hat from him as soon as he started folding paper, to help speed up the process. This time, when he stepped off at Wilson, I started clapping. And so did the rest of the car.

7 comments:

Moaning Myrtle said...

i like this. good job. i think you should start handing out paper hats on the subway. you'd be an awesome creepy guy.

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Liz said...

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