Every time I go to or from school, it’s on the train. Good old, smelly, rotten CTA train rides; four bucks there and back if one chooses not to include parking at the station. The Orange Line is usually safe. Most of the time I listen to my iPod or read a book just like everyone else, but some days something happens and I can’t help but take notice.
This is one of those days.
On my train-ride home from school, someone shouts and across the train, what seems like miles of strangers lined up end to end (but really is only five people other than me), a tall man with shaggy brown hair stands. He wears a tan vest, like something you’d see a fisherman wear to hold his bait and other junk, and underneath that is a black T-shirt. He looms over a girl who is probably my age and for all I know she is going to the same place as me, and he demands that she give him her money.
No one else looks. On the train, people tend to mind their own business. Things happen and people are expected to keep this element of privacy. I respect that privacy along with all the other passengers as I put my head back down and listen to my music.
It is night outside of the Orange Line and the street lamps flash by the windows in a haze of monochrome light. Snow blankets the streets and frost covers the windows. I am probably the eighty-seventh person that day to sit in this seat. Advertisements flank me left, right, even above and below, and I am forever surrounded by strangers, yet no one pays any mind to the girl as the vest wearing man accosts her.
The train slows down. In only a few seconds, it will make one of its many stops on its journey back to Midway. The guy with the vest jams his hand into the girl’s pocket, nothing sexual as far as I can tell, and he pulls out a wad of cash. She struggles to retrieve her money, and as she grabs and claws at him, he pushes her head into the window. She puts her hands on her injured head, and while she does this, the man takes her purse and runs past me to the door.
In my head, I rise from my seat and stand in front of the man blocking his path like a lineman on a football field. He stops and looks me in the eyes and then back behind him. He sees a chance to run away, but when he turns to make his escape, I grab him by the shoulders and pull him to the floor. He drops the money and the purse as he clambers to his feet, and when he finally gets there he swears in anger.
He swings at me, but I dodge it like I’ve been a fighter since birth. I punch him once in the jaw and then send my knee into his stomach. He cringes in pain and stumbles back a bit. Then he pulls a knife out of his pocket and says, “Get outta my way, kid.”
I keep my cool and shake my head. “Not until you give that girl her things back.”
Then he lunges at me with the knife, but the train slows down and pitches from side to side, sending the clumsy mugger tumbling into some empty seats. I kick the knife from his hands and then grab him around his neck and pull him to the doors. As the signal for the automatic doors sound, I throw the man out of the train and he rolls onto the pavement. The people who were waiting at the train-stop simply walk around him and enter the train as if nothing happened, and then the doors close and the train pulls away as the mugger lays unconscious in the cold night.
But what really happens is I let the guy run by me. He gets to the doors and calmly waits as the train comes to a full stop. The signal for the opening doors sounds and then I stand up and face the man, this time in reality. The purse hangs from one hand while the other hastily shoves the wad of cash into his pocket.
“Hey,” I say to him as he starts to walk out the door.
He looks me over and the automatic voice recording on the train says, “Doors closing.”
The mugger sticks his foot in the door’s path to stop it from closing and he glares at me. His stone cold eyes seem to lower the temperature of the car, and I swear that I can see my breath.
I look back at the girl. She is frightened and sobbing into her arm and no one even moves to comfort her.
Then I turn back to the man and return his stone stare and I say, “N-nevermind,” and sit down. The robber escapes the train without looking back and two new strangers pile in and take their seats. Neither of them gives the crying girl a second look.
So many unknowns; no matter which way I face, I make awkward eye contact with another John or Jane Doe. For such an unsocial place, this is the only kind of interaction between people; commonly approved of in an unspoken pact. Passengers on the Orange Line, or any other L train, know what they’re in for. And that is why no one looks at the girl. She has broken that pact by calling out for help.
These events are just another piece added to the whole; it is my part to play in this train’s history, and as the train makes its last stop at Midway, the automatic voice informs all of the passengers that they must disembark.
People grab their belongings: suitcases, laptops, backpacks; a man wheels his bike out to the platform, but I sit on the train and look back at the girl as she tries to compose herself. Wiping some tears from her cheek, she stands up and walks toward me on her way to the door along the same path that the robber had taken just ten minutes earlier. I stand as she walks past me and she stops with her back to me. She looks down at her feet and she sniffs. “Don’t feel bad,” she says as she stifles a small cry. “At least you did something.”
In my head, I say, “I’m sorry.” And she turns to me, tears still in her eyes, and I wipe them from her cheeks. There are other people with us, other passengers of the train. They are all crying with her, and someone lays a hand on her shoulder to console the girl.
A woman says, “I’m sure the police will catch him, honey,” and a man says, “Someone mugged me last week, so I know what you’re goin’ through.”
Then she stops crying and she smiles because these people care after all. Everyone understands one another, whether there is any real interaction or not. Because at the most fundamental level, everyone is human, and all humans know what it feels like to be hurt.
But what really happens is no is there with us. She leaves the train in silence, solitude, and tears and I never see her again. We go our separate ways, not just her and me, but everyone else on the train. All of us lost in the haze of monochrome light.