#883: It

January 31st, 2018

It started with a joke, not a good joke or a particularly funny one but one of the stock jokes one stranger tells another and then the second stranger chuckles politely, feels a lightly warm moment of shared humanity and then promptly forgets forever that the first stranger ever existed.

But in this case, the interaction of strangers didn’t end with the warm, human, pleasant, forgettable, boring, space-filling, meaningless little joke of jokes. That’s where it started.

“We’re going to get real cozy here,” I said as the packed train shoved me closer to the old man in the woven mohawk hat.

I was standing on the Red Line, he was sitting in the in-facing seat wedged closest to the Plexiglas partition by the doorway. He laughed at my unfunny jokelet, then asked if it was always this crowded. He didn’t know, he said. He’s retired, he said. He was only on the morning ride to head to a doctor’s appointment, he said in a thin, city-worn, untraceably Eastern European accent.

This is the it that started.

He likes to ride trains, he said. He sometimes gets on board a train just to watch the world go by. He likes to take the Metra up through the North Shore, see all the beautiful houses and end up in Kenosha. He’d like to move to Kenosha, maybe, but he knows he can’t.

“I love Chicago. What keeps me here is the lake. It’s beautiful,” he said, softly repeating “beautiful” and casting piercing blue eyes down for a moment. Those eyes were softly glossed with either nascent cataracts or tears from the cold, dry subway air.

He was 74 and was a house painter from age 16 to his retirement, “almost 50 years,” he said. His father was a house painter too. He liked working on the North Shore most, loved the beautiful houses and the homeowners so free with money. “Good people,” he said, telling a brief diversion about a millionaire family that offered to babysit for him.

He was married at 21, had a son soon after, then a daughter. She owns a shoe store in my neighborhood. He said I should stop by.

“Then we got smart and waited six years,” he said, talking about his youngest.

He had a black North Face jacket, a backpack wedged behind him and a knit wool ear-flap hat over a dirty neon yellow nylon baseball cap. The ear-flap hat was a young person’s hat, with dangly little baubles he had tied in a flooping square knot to keep it tight around his head. A riffle-ridge of fringe mimicked a mohawk. It was the hat of a man who — I hoped prayed and projected — was well-attended by a loving, whimsical younger relatives.

He didn’t talk about his wife. He wrung his work-worn hands with his right over his left. I couldn’t see if there was a ring.

He mostly rode his bike, looping paths around the city, slow ambles up the lake that keeps him in Chicago. He had taken the ride up to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe the week before. 20 miles there, 20 miles back. In January. He’s 74.

We talked about that foggy Sunday two weeks before where it looked like God erased the waters.

I should mention I gave as good as I got. We traded intersections and talked about parks nearby, bike rides we had taken, places that used to be at places where there’s a new place there now. We talked about train rides and had a brief side chat with another commuter about housing prices in Kenosha. We talked about marriage and kids and the way my wife and I divide the cleaning.

But it was mostly silence, he or I trying to come up with some new topic that would garner a few more of these precious sentences. We joked warm, human, pleasant, forgettable, boring, space-filling, meaningless little jokes about making each other miss our stops. But there was truth in it. We didn’t want this joke-spawned it to end.

He wished me well, this man who likes riding bikes. This man who laughs with pride talking about his children. This man who sometimes takes trains just to watch the world go by. He wished me well and added unprompted “I mean that.”

“My name’s Paul,” he said at one point, reaching up to shake my hand.

“So’s mine,” I said, gripping a future I hoped would happen.

Read a story from that foggy Sunday

Read a far different story of a stranger

A crying woman’s story I cannot tell

“Just wave at them,” he said. “Even if you don’t know anybody on there.”

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