I've been traveling the same tracks every day, at roughly the same time, for over a decade now. I see the same people on the same tracks, every day, at roughly the same times. Some of them stand out. Most of them do not. I make mental notes on those that do, knowing that at some point we just might collide. There is a young man that I’ve noticed for quite some time. It’s hard not to, his presence is a visual magnet, the attraction, unavoidable.
If anyone is going to snap, it’s going to be him. He sputters along with a thin veil of tension, throwing facial tics and fits at strangers. Initially I would see him during my morning and afternoon commutes. He was always wearing scrubs of some sort and carrying a backpack, giving the appearance of a medical student, or intern. But over the past year his scrubs have been replaced by a Raiders jacket and brown pants, giving the appearance of guy who is used to being consistently let down. Year after year after year. I only see him in the afternoons now, usually 2 or 3 times a week. Dirt has begun to cling to the high points of his landscape. Erratic behavior becoming the norm, replacing what used to be the lurking potential for weirdness.
I’ve witnessed a half dozen bizarre verbal assaults on wary and weary passengers. Nothing vulgar mind you, but still intense, confusing, at times nonsensical. Once, grabbing at and missing, then demanding an empty plastic water bottle be handed over to him from a harried tech-bro. He got his prize, but not before being vocally put in his place by his victim. Crushing the bottle and quickly shoving it into the pocket of his Raiders jacket, he jumped off the train at Civic Center, stood on the platform looking around in a panic, stopped, glared at the train and waved his hand dismissively, shaking his head in disapproval. Another time, after emotionally grabbing onto the arm of a bewildered man in an overcoat and spouting off an unintelligible plea, he turned foot and ran half the distance of the train car, threw himself into an empty spot next to a horrified middle aged lady (who retreated into her iPhone, pretending that nothing was happening), doubled over with his eyes squeezed shut as tight as humanly possible and pinched the bridge of his nose with a scary intensity. Then began to rock a bit, back and forth, almost imperceptibly. There is obvious pain, somewhere deep in his psyche. He maintained this pose from 16th Street to Glen Park, where I exit.
I’m just trying to get off of this train alive every day. At the very least uninjured and uninvolved. I have 40 minutes to make it from my office to get my daughter from school, and that’s really the only thing that matters to me. I don’t pray, I see no point in it, but I do hope, and I hope that when this cat snaps I’m not around, because I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to get involved and I really, really, really want no part of it. I just want to commute in peace, so I pull my hat down low, slouch a little bit, and feign disinterest.
Yesterday he was at it again, stalking the aisle, picking up trash then tossing it aside. Making guttural moaning noises at nobody in particular. The entire train tensed up, most of them looking away, not confident enough for the challenge of eye contact. You should never make eye contact right? Right. Only I can’t help it. I’m not going to shy away or be intimidated. If he’s going to come at me, I want to see it. I’m already ready. I’ve been ready. Ready for what? Fuck, I don’t know, ready for anything I guess. Ready to protect myself. He lurched by, noticed me watching and immediately diverted his gaze, because apparently the eye contact thing works both ways. I turned to watch him go, followed his path to the doors that divide the cars, and made damn sure he went through them and didn’t stop to come back. The next stop was mine.
As I exited the train, I turned right, right into him as he turned left. I rolled my eyes with teenaged annoyance and settled in to dance the dance of avoidance. I shift left, he shifts left. I shuffle right, he shuffles right. Gritting my teeth, I go into my best urban juke-move. He extends an arm, taking me by surprise, putting his open palm to my chest and pointing at my head with his other hand. I quickly pushed him away and stepped back, trying to find my balance for whatever would come next. Six hundred and twenty three thoughts entered my mind at once. Yes, I counted them. But the only thing that came from my mouth sounded something akin to: “…’the fuck…?”
“Your hat,” he says, pointing at my head again. “I like your hat.”
And that was it. I muttered a rushed acknowledgment, and scurried off, relief flooding my psyche, but also fueling the silent browbeating going on in my head.
My hat, he liked my hat. At the very least we had that in common, because my hat is fucking awesome. It’s a brown Kangol tropic player stingy brim, and really, there’s not many hats around that can compete with it. It adds instant street-cred to awkward white guys like me. I certainly didn’t buy it as a way to attract compliments, and had I known it would do just that, I might have thought better of it, but as it turns out, it’s kind of nice. Two weeks ago a little old lady stopped in front of me while attempting to step up onto a bus, looked me in the eye, and said: “I just love your look…that hat really sets it off.” Which prompted me to offer her my hand and help her up and on to her seat. That exchange, that most human of human moments, would never have happened had my hat not been doing its job up there, covering my furrowed, tired brow, and expanding bald spot. All I really want is to be anonymous, which I am for the most part, but there are times when standing out is unavoidable. There are times when the hat stops becoming me, and I become the hat, its very nature the antithesis of mine, not discriminating against crazies or diminishing the distinguished, both covering myself up and inviting folks in at the same time.