There are two types of people who ride the train at three in the morning. People who need a place to pass the time out of the cold, perhaps to find a bit of sleep, and drunk people. It is the day after my birthday and rather than dance and party all night as I usually do to celebrate the day of my birth, rather than being one of those drunkards going home at 3 a.m. on the train, I am taking the long way to the airport to see my father.
He is sick and he says he is dying. I am calling in all of my favors to be by his side, a free flight, multiple days off work. I have forty dollars to my name, anxiety made it difficult to sleep, and I am very tired. The night is empty. Empty of people, empty of cars, there is only the buzz of glowing electricity and the crisp March air. I feel the same emptiness inside me. As I wait on the platform, the night air comes to a standstill around me. The train hurtles through the empty night towards me, sweeping arcs of glittering snow from the platform.
As soon as I step on the train, I realize I don’t belong with the homeless and the drunkards. They subconsciously bristle at my awareness of them, sensing me without seeing me, seeing me without looking at me. I have done this early morning train ride to the airport many times when I have traveled and I forgot about this part. I begin wishing I had borrowed enough money to take a cab to the airport, but instead I am broke and taking the train. It is one of the few times I have felt unsafe in the pulsing, throbbing metropolis of Chicago, because there is safety in numbers and the train car is empty except for a few mounds of sleeping men. If I was drunk, I’d be too intoxicated to be scared, but the fear is on me, and they can sense it.
After a series of stops along the route, one of the huddled men stirs and turns to me. There is no need to speak quietly as no one is around to be bothered. He yells over the seats and across the car at me. “Can you spare any change?”
I shake my head “no” and stare out the window, a tactic that usually works in the daytime. Since it is nearly four in the morning and there are no numbers in my favor, and it is clear by the sight of my bags that I am traveling, I appear to be an easy target and he moves closer, settling into the seat across the aisle from me.
I sit with my headphones on, staring out the window, wondering if I can outlast his gaze, wondering if he will make the first move, because I know I can stubbornly stare out the window for the rest of my long train ride.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m very hungry. If you don’t have any change, do you have any food?”
I sigh. I want him to know I don’t want his company or interruption to my travels, he’s disturbing me. I didn’t expect someone to panhandle me, to shake down my pockets. I sigh because I am very tired and I have been trying to get to Iowa for a long time now and there are going to be more obstacles, but I am so close. I realize I am scared because I want to see my father, I want him to know that I care enough to make the effort to see him, and I don’t want anything to get in my way. I sigh because I’ve lived my entire life in this city and I can’t count how many times some stranger has asked me to part with something. I sigh because I am very tired of being asked for things.
I unplug my headphones from my ears and look over at the man, whose face I could not see in the window, whose face I did not see when I got onto the train. He is staring at me, gently, not too angry and not too earnest, just staring at me, waiting. He has a sweet face broken by a long line of scabbing redness over his nose. And as I look into his eyes, I see the sigh he has waiting there for all things he is very tired about.
And because I am broke, the brokest I have ever been in my adult life, this lucky man has found me laden with snacks. I have two small apples, a nut bar and a package of crackers. This was going to be some semblance of breakfast or lunch for my trip depending on how long I could hold out on food. I pull two singles from my wallet, leaving behind a five-dollar bill, which is the last of my cash for my train ride home in a few days.
I say to him, “I do have some food I can share with you.”
I hand him the money, the nut bar, and an apple. He palms the money and it disappears as he sets the apple on the seat next to him. I watch him, blinking in disbelief as if I am watching it on a TV screen, thinking about how I rarely give money to the homeless because a consistent no feels better than an arbitrary yes. The food I gave him is half my bounty and the better half, considering the nut bar is dipped in chocolate and can serve as both snack and dessert. He eats it first, and carefully, pulling the wrapper away with a surprising amount of delicacy. I turn and stare ahead, wondering if I should continue the pretense of listening to my music and ignoring his presence, or if I must submit to more of him as I am in an empty train car and there is nowhere for me to go.
I glance out the window at the lights of the city, spread out like a blanket of orange polka dots on a blackish blue background with strands of wires canopying above. The sky is dark but marbled with unfurling arms of blue-black clouds, preparing to embrace the dawn of another day. The first day of my fortieth year is happening and I will never be the same.
“Where you going?”
I look back at him, the weariness fading, the irritation fading, the fear fading. He is just a person and I am just a person. What he wants from me is no longer money or food. He is bored and wants to be entertained for a little while and I have been in his position many a night, usually with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And so again, I acquiesce, but this time it is because I see that he is just a person and not any of the other things my mind would assume him to be, not a threat, not something to fear, not a man who wanted to enjoy my feminine wiles for his own pleasure. He is simply a person and he is speaking to me. “You going to work?”
“I’m going to Iowa,” I say, my voice gripped by the early morning stillness, mixed with the knowledge that my father is likely dying. The word “Iowa” has become synonymous with regret and sadness, a symbol of my inability to make time for my family.
He asks, “You from there?”
“Nah, I’m from here,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders. I feel oddly compelled to carry on the interview and add, “I’m going to visit my father.”
The anguish is gone from my voice, but it is still shimmering on my face.
“Oh I see. Your daddy?”
I was startled to hear him use the word my father used to describe himself, the word I only used when I spoke to my father, the word I could never say aloud to anyone else, as it seemed too childish, too adoring, too familiar.
I nod in affirmation as I watch his hand curl around the apple and disappear into his large palm. His hand lifts to his mouth and the apple appears again, poised for biting, but his brow furrows and the apple is gone again as his hand drifts to his lap. His eyes search my face and lock onto mine. “He’s not sick or something is he?”
My face is gripped with the sadness I have been carrying for months, maybe years now, and tears shine in my eyes and I say, “Yeah, he is.”
“I’m gonna pray for your daddy. He gonna be okay.”
Rather than try to explain that my father won’t ever be okay, he can’t recover from this sickness, death has been circling him for years, and that death is the only way my father will be okay, because he’ll finally be free, I look into his eyes and say, “Thank you.”
The apple makes its final ascent as I wipe tears from my cheeks. The train arrives at the next stop, which is closer to the downtown area. Several people come aboard who are on their way to work, and one bleary drunkard staggers past us. Interrupted, the emptiness of the train and the night broken between us, we turn away from each other and become strangers again.
Image Source: David Goehring / Flickr Creative Commons