Charles Henry is not a bum off the street. I know this because he told me twice.
The first time was at the Blue Line Western stop when he meandered up to the bench I had claimed for sipping coffee and eating Combos.
“Excuse me. I’m not a bum off the street,” he said, holding out a small leather clutch full of diabetes testing supplies.
I lied about not having cash to preempt what I assumed would be a litany of woes. He thanked me as he wandered off. The train came, rattling us east toward the skyscrapers.
Trains. I could, and some would argue have, write treatises on public transit. I find the motion relaxing, the psychology intriguing.
We gather together to ignore each other, deliberately swathing ourselves in headphones and books, sunglasses and windows to pretend we’re alone but, holy crap, there are like 50 people in the same room with us.
I wonder about all the people. I wonder who wonders about me.
The elevated became subway. A door between cars clicked open and slammed. Charles Henry shuffled to the center of the car.
“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” he announced. “Hello, my name is Charles Henry. I’m not a bum off the street.”
Each of us, to a person, shrank.
We shrank into our seats, leaned into smartphones and coffee cups, into suddenly intense conversations that had previously been time-killing chitchat. Books and windows switched to fascinating as each of us pulled into ourselves, away from the world and from Charles Henry.
We lied to ourselves that he wasn’t there. We prepared ourselves to lie about not having a cent to offer.
The announcer voice telling us the doors were closing drowned him out for a moment.
“-a diabetic, so anything could help me get up to the twelve dollars and fifty cents that I need for-“
This time, it was the clatter and whoosh of the train through the tunnel that interrupted the story. It felt wonderful, like a warm blanket protecting us against the elements.
We hated how he broke into our make-believe solitude. We hated how he shattered our peaceful lies. We hated being forced into a moral question, forced to judge a man’s character, if he was going to use our dollars and coins to fight diabetes or if he was a liar like us and was going to spend it on booze and drugs.
We hated him a little for reminding us the world is bad when we just wanted to play pretend that we were alone on a train.
“Please and thank you please and thank you please and thank you,” he recited as he walked through the car, collecting no money from the people he passed.