He shuffled into the train, a thin, fussy old white man wearing New Balance sneakers over brown socks.
He wore light khakis. He wore a checked button-up shirt under a cardigan under another cardigan.
He looked around, his fine mustache twitching, and found a spot. From his canvas bag advertising the Environmental Law and Policy Center, he pulled a folded-over copy of the New York Times. He pushed his thin bifocals up on his nose, twitched the ‘stache a time or two more and proceeded to read the Times, article by article, in order.
She sat on the bus in one of the inward-facing seats. She was young, Latina, very very cool.
She was old enough for a septum piercing and tattoos, young enough to retain a thin patina of acne. She toyed on her phone, did Millennial things.
She wore a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off. On her arm, a tattoo.
VIII XVIII XX
That was it. No accompanying illustration, no design or pattern. Just those 11 letters grouped into three Roman numerals.
VIII XVIII XX
8 18 20
A code? An address? High school locker combination forever scrimshawed into her flesh? I ripped through the possibilities as the Division bus bumbled through the bottleneck on Goose Island.
When the bus neared Wicker Park and she made moves as if to gather her bag, I asked.
She flashed a broad, full smile as she told me about VIII XVIII XX. It meant 8/18/20. August 18, 1920.
“It’s when women got the vote,” she said.
The man with the kitten shirt is not who I want to be.
He was a stumbling drunk, even compared to the other stumbling drunks of Wrigleyville after a Cubs game. Among this tide of blue, one young guy walked (stumbled) in a dangly sleeveless T-shirt screen printed with the faces of dozens of kittens.
It was a hip shirt worn hiply. He wore a hip hat of hip-cut curly locks. He trod with hipness, dipping between sidewalk and roadway as his leisure and Wrigleyville’s foot traffic dictated.
Hiply, he slammed his fist onto the trunk of a limousine for no reason, continuing his walk as if nothing had happened.
The limo driver yelled something at him from the front seat, but the man kept walking down the road, not looking back at the man whose livelihood he had just damaged for funsies.
The limo driver was a short, somewhat tubby Middle Eastern man dressed in a uniform all of black. Bright-polished black shoes, pressed black trousers, ironed black short-sleeved dress shirt. He got out of the car, watched as the kitten-shirted man continued his hip march and then inspected the damage done to his job.
The kitten man had dented the trunk. For fun. For no reason.
The black-clad limo driver grumbled a bit, got some well-deserved condolences from Cubbie-clad onlookers and then went about doing his job.
The world seems angry, full of noise. It seems a place of loud declaration, rancor and yelling, one where my opinion is just as valid as your fact. Sometimes it seems like our culture celebrates willful ignorance as purity of thought, hotheaded backlash as purity of emotion.
But then there’s a white-haired guy on the train reading the entire New York Times, article by article.
Then there’s a young woman on the bus who has such a deep abide for her forebears’ struggles she had a date needled into her skin.
Then there’s a man who stays calm and professional even when damage is done on a lark.
I want to be informed. I want to respect the past, when the past deserved it. I want to show grace under fire.
I still worry about cancer and racism, about the orange-skinned hateball running for president and about when it’s appropriate to tell people on Facebook to Shuckup about Hodor. But there are people walking these streets who show, not through words or speeches or loud declaration, who they really are.
And who they are is who I want to be.