Grover hates it when they kill themselves.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin,” he said for the third or fourth time. “You’ve got to have thick skin.”
He had joined our conversation on the train. A co-worker and I were purposefully talking about anything but the day’s work just completed. This meant a rather inspired and insane conversation over the Metra aisle about loot, lutes, flutes, flukes and a somewhat brilliant pun on my part about tuna.
Through it all, Grover was squirming in the seat next to my co-worker, listening in and chuckling a bit at our hilarity, but not wanting to be the creepy eavesdropper on the train.
My tuna pun was his entrance point.
“Or it’s like that REO Speedwagon album, ‘You Can Tune A Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish,’” he blurted, finally in the conversation he wanted to join.
He was a heavy man, balding but for a ring of yellow-blonde hair around the edges and a walrus mustache surrounded by three-day stubble. He wore a brand-new Purdue shirt.
“Do you work at Northwestern?” he asked my co-worker.
“Yes,” she said.
“Are you professors?” he asked.
“No, we just work there,” she said.
“I go to Purdue,” he said, pulling the logo on his shirt slightly forward to show us.
He was a senior in college after “a 26-year break,” he said. It took him three years to get his associate’s degree, then he transferred to Purdue. He would have been done already, but a semester’s worth of credits didn’t transfer. So he’ll finish up in spring, then off to four years of grad school.
He told us that in fits and spurts, a bit nervous about talking to the cool kids on the train – I guess we’re all cool to someone. He was awkward and muttering. He stumbled over words and a quick lizard-like tongue would flick out to wet the stubble and blonde mustache hanging around his mouth.
He’s going to be a drug and addiction counselor. He’s going to save lives.
Grover rides the train when he’s bored and on break from classes. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was just on the train.
When my co-worker’s stop arrived, I slid next to the heavy man in the Purdue shirt to hear more.
He works a bit when he can, but mostly he’s in school. He spends his weekends interning for a shelter, talking with addicts about drugs and booze for a certificate program. He’s probably doing more than he should at his level of education, but he’s the only one on call during the weekend.
“Sometimes there will be someone you’ll talk to for months and then you come in and they’ll be gone. You’ll ask and it’ll be ‘They relapsed,’” he said. “Sometimes they’ll graduate the program and be doing good and get a job and then-”
Here he tipped an imaginary flask down his throat and went “glug glug glug.”
“But it’s got to be nice when you can help someone,” I said.
I kept saying that, or variations thereof.
Grover told me sad things. He told me about relapse rates and about the horrible pull of addiction. He told me about people who do well for months, years, but then end up back where their compulsions lead.
He told me about counseling, about the ones who parrot what they think will help them and about the ones who sit like stones for months and then open up to him in a gush of emotion, only to clam up again at the next meeting. He told me about getting to know these guys, about hearing their lives and their struggles and their stories.
And he told me a rough percentage of how many kill themselves.
“You’ve got to have thick skin,” he said.
Grover’s story has no end, no satisfying punchline. I stopped asking questions as we neared my stop in hopes he would stop talking so I could leave politely. I kept mumbling that it’s probably nice when you can help someone, he kept telling me how bleak it all is.
But he’s trying.
He’s going out and talking to these guys. He’s working at his degree, soon to be followed by his master’s, then he’ll do whatever it is that licensing requires – he didn’t mention what that involves. His only complaint about his education is that it’s taking too long.
He steadies himself by remembering that he’s almost halfway to being able to help people.
Grover rides the train when he’s bored and on break. He butts into conversations uninvited and mumbles and mutters through them.
This strange man on the train is going to save lives.