“Excuse me… ah… excuse me… ah… ah… ah…”
I waited, wondering the proper amount of time before I could tell him I had no change. It took a few moments before I realized he wasn’t asking.
“My watch… has… my watch has… my watch… has run out of time,” he said.
I looked at him for a moment, then glanced at my phone.
“8:36,” I said.
He smiled politely and licked his lips, tongue darting out of the fleshy gap where his lower front teeth would have been. A few of the teeth to the sides survived, creating a somewhat hypnotic tooth tunnel as he spoke and licked dry lips.
As the train rumbled through the Blue Line tunnels, he talked about needing a new charger for the phone he had just called a watch, about $25 being a good price good price for a… charger. Charger.
Each word was penance to get out. He seemed drunk, but didn’t smell like booze.
He was white, with wiry sand-gray hair sticking at attention across his head. He had a mustache definitely, but it was hard to tell if the beard stretching over his sunken cheeks was intentional or a product of an unshaven week.
He had a fresh-ish wound over one eyebrow, two marks about an inch apart colored an indigo black, possibly a touch of infection, possibly just unfortunate scabbing.
Thin. Sallow. Eyes bulging and cheeks sinking into toothless jawholes. He claimed he worked in market research for William Blair, old firm, big firm, here in Chicago, dates from the… dates from the… dates from the Great… Great Chicago… Fire.
“I go to places and… see… see what the market’s like there. Which you can do by phone so why go there?”
He said the new boss they put in today, is, he’ll just say it, a dickhead. He’s a dickhead and people today were about to storm out. It’s a good job good job he said, good pension good pension. His best friend’s mother got him the job, good pension.
He couldn’t have come from work at a financial firm’s market research group that day. Beyond the tooth tunnel, the unshaved sinking cheeks and the semi-fresh head wound, he was not, could not be dressed for William Blair.
He wore old Guess jeans that sagged around ass that way only the old and starving muster. His red plaid shirt was new, though, and a chain necklace peeked from underneath, not a usual accessory for a street person. His nylon bomber jacket, I would see when he would later get up, was a Chicago Fire Department castoff.
We talked about bosses, shared some stories. He talked about the man the dickhead replaced, great guy, didn’t waste anyone’s time. If he said a meeting would only go 30 minutes it would only go… great guy, good guy, good pension, William Blair.
The more he talked, the looser he got. Sentences started coming more naturally to him, his cadence improving as he laughed about just not getting what his new boss was thinking, or at my story about an old boss’ 4 a.m. emails.
None of his work stories involved emails.
No one can hate a boss that much after one day.
He hadn’t shaved in weeks, dressed in casual castoffs, switched between calling William Blair a company and the name of the great boss the dickhead replaced. There was a real William Blair. He died in 1982. He formed the company in 1935, not after the Great Fire.
The man’s work stories were legit office nonsense though, meetings and bad succession and dickheads getting promoted. He was nice, so nice, wishing me a good night when he got up a stop ahead of me, sloughing to the car doors in sag-ass Guess jeans.
“Have a good night too,” I called after him.
I think it happened. The best friend’s mom, the 30-minute meetings, the dickhead boss, market research, the good pension good pension. I think it all happened.
I think it all happened years ago.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think he rides the train thinking it was all just this morning, a watch run out of time.
Talk politics with me at “How to Steal an Election,” a booze-fueled tutorial I’m running with Atlas Obscura and the Room 13 speakeasy a week before the election. Swill craft cocktails while I take you through decades of COMPLETELY LEGAL voter manipulation in Chicago and elsewhere. Fun, civics and the best damn Old Fashioned I’ve had in years. Tickets are going fast.