It was the middle of the night. There were only a few of us waiting for the train, huddled under the electric lamps trying to catch a little bit of heat and get out of the way of the wind. The Belmont el stop was quiet for a change. The clubs had already been closed for a couple of hours, the drunks were stumbling through alcohol dreams, and the young kids in black clothes and geometric haircuts had been reabsorbed into the night.
The only sound was the wind, and it must have covered the sound of footsteps because suddenly he was standing in front of me, maybe 20 years old, tangled blond hair sticking out from under a baseball cap worn backward, with a kind of softness in his features that could be interpreted as either friendliness or need. When he nodded at me I ignored him, turning to look for the train that I knew wouldn't be coming yet. He paced in front of me for a minute or two searching my face for a crack of recognition. But a moment later I felt his attention shift and looked over to see who had been chosen next.
Standing a few feet away was a heavyset guy in an army jacket and black boots. With his stone shoulders and shark eyes he looked like a bouncer. The kid was walking toward him, nodding in the same manner he had toward me. The man didn't react, but this time the kid held his ground and while a slow, dreamy smile crossed his face he pointed at the man's jacket.
"That's a great button you got on."
A wave of dread passed across the platform. The guy in the army jacket looked at the kid for what seemed like a year without answering. The wind blew again.
"Where'd you get it?"
Everyone looked at the kid. Drugs? I hadn't even noticed the button and I started wondering what was on it. Pretending to look for the train again, I turned in both directions, catching the words on my second look. In small white letters on a black background it said I HATE PEOPLE WHO ARE IGNORANT AND DON'T KNOW IT. Not the kind of saying that friendly conversations are started over.
The guy still hadn't said any thing, though his eyes were coldly eloquent. But now the kid was not only bobbing his head up and down, he was laughing and talking again.
"It's smooth, you know, it's smooth, because, like, the button means other people, but it could mean you too. That's smooth."
I didn't believe it. The guy's breath was shooting out of his nose in tense, measured bursts. His eyes were wide and unblinking, his hands curling into fists. It was like watching a bull getting ready to charge a baby with a red handkerchief.
The kid's head fell back as if he'd been slapped, but the grin was still there.
At first, people had moved closer; now they reversed themselves a step, two steps. I wanted to do something and I wanted to walk away at the same time. Noticing the kid's glove about to fall from his pocket, I decided to take a chance.
"Hey, you're about to lose your glove."
I tried to make my tone casual. I felt the guy with the button staring at me, but didn't return his gaze. I just looked over the kid's shoulder at the brick wall behind him. Down the track the train could be heard rattling toward us. The kid ignored me, shaking a bony finger at the guy.
"Don't ever let anyone steal that button."
The two of them were only a few steps apart now. I felt myself moving with the others toward the train. The kid covered his ears from the screeching of metal, and for a moment it looked as if he were trying to pull his own head off.
"Jesus loves everything."
The cars had stopped, doors open. Reluctantly, the guy with the button decided to get on. Still standing on the platform, the kid was dipping his head up and down like the mating movements of some strange African bird.
"Peace," he called out.
"Fuck you," the guy answered through the closing doors.
I looked out the window; the kid gave me that sad, eerie grin. As the train pulled away he rushed to a spot on the platform, picked something up, and waved it at me. It was his glove. He was waving it back and forth like a flag.