All the passengers shifted in their seats when he got into position.
Some suddenly found the window enthralling. Others looked down at their hands with vigor renewed. Those of us lucky enough to already be facing away from the man in winter gear slumped lower in our seats as he took his stance in the open area between the doors of the Blue Line from O’Hare.
“Excuse me,” the man said loudly.
We knew what was coming. He was going to ask for our money.
He was going to talk about how he needed work, or how he had work but then lost it. He was going to yell to the car how rough it is and God bless, God bless, anything will help. And then he was going to ask for our money.
I was tired. I had just gotten off a intercity bus before I got on the train. All I wanted was to go to my home without having to interact with this city. But Chicago is a rude town and even on that little sliver of land the town annexed in the ’50s to get to O’Hare, it finds a way to intrude on peace and potential train-ride naps.
So I slumped. I slumped and I stared at my hands and I waited for the loud man to go away and let me sit in quiet, watching the highway go by. I would say “Sorry” and put up a hand when he would come by, making eye contact of course because I’m not a monster. Then he would go to the next car and I would look out the window and forget the man ever existed.
That’s what I thought, at least.
The man got mad.
He yelled that he could see us look away, which made us look away harder. He yelled that he was a person. He yelled that slumping down in our seats and looking out the window was rude. I forget the words he used but for the next ones.
“Is it because I’m black?” he yelled.
My instant thought, which I still stand by, is that it wasn’t because he was black. It was because he was a crazy man on the ‘L’ yelling for our money. On that cranky, tired night, I would have ignored a white man screaming for my cash just as hard.
A group of high school kids gave him a buck or two. They were black. The man got madder after that. It proved his theory.
I admit, willfully ignoring a human being is not my proudest moment, but in addition to being tired and cranky, I was facing the other direction. Turning to look the man in the eye as I didn’t give him cash wasn’t going to fix anything. My girlfriend was going to try a new fish recipe that night. I thought about that instead.
The man started yelling again about race and human decency and how he could still see us ignoring him. He yelled and then… he stopped.
I didn’t turn to look — by now I was locked into looking away — but from context and what I could overhear, I figured it out. A white man had given him cash. Apparently, a lot. Enough to make the man stop. Maybe it was a $20. Maybe it was a $10 or just a $1 handed over with the validation and respect he wanted.
The yelling man was impressed, at least. He thanked the man sincerely. They traded a few quiet conversational jokes. Then, the yelling man left the car. That impressed me. I still think he was an asshole for calling us all racists when we were really just classists, but he did fulfill his part of the contract. He left once he got some cash and validation.
The group of high school kids chatted a bit with the white man who had given the guy some money. They asked what neighborhood he lived in and said words to the effect that he did a nice thing. It was a nice thing, nicer than the rest of us in the car. But given the chance, I would have acted the same way I did.
Smiling and happy, the white man got off the train.
“You don’t get that on the Red Line,” one of the kids said after he left.