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Strangers in a Train Station


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Sitting, waiting for the commuter train, crossing legs and uncrossing them, a loud tick from the station clock every 60 seconds when the minute hand advanced, trash on the floor, smoke in the air. The train into town was late; the C&NW cares little for off-hour schedules.

It was raining, and there were puddles of water near the door and below a broken window; dribbles seeped down the discolored wall. I sat on an ancient wooden bench whose built-in armrests meant you couldn't lie down. My rucksack was on the seat segment next to me; beyond it, a pimply youth with greasy, badly cut hair gnawed on a franchise hamburger. Behind us, two middle-aged women discussed their husbands' jobs and their children's schooling; a half-dozen other people, working-class people, were scattered around the ugly little room. I was trying to read my book but was anxious about the train; I hate to be late. I kept pulling out of my printed alternate world to see whether anybody else knew anything about where the train could be.

Into the darkening waiting room splashed a young guy--in his early 20s, perhaps--in white chinos and a sodden navy blue windbreaker, hair plastered over nondescript features. Every eye swiftly looked him over, then looked away, back to the Sun-Times or the Tribune or the conversation. He sat for a moment, fidgeting, then got up, looked out the window, paced the length of the room.

"Hey!" he said. The would-be passengers stirred, looked up, then away. "Hey!" he said again. "What's going on here?" I burrowed into my book, scanning the same gray blur of a paragraph over and over, attempting to shut out the moment.

"No, hey, really! What is this? A funeral? C'mon, let's talk! Hey you, where you goin?" to an older man with thinning white hair who sat, unsure where to look, patently embarrassed. "You going to work? Whaddya work, the night shift? Hey, tell me about yourself. I want to know, I really do!" His quarry mumbled a few monosyllables, then held the Sun-Times up to cover his face.

The guy in the soggy windbreaker was unabashed. "No, hey!" he shouted to his reluctant audience, pacing again, his arms extended, his face reflecting a fervor like an evangelist's. "No, look! This is a great opportunity to get to know some of your fellow human beings! Don't just sit there and pretend I'm not here! Speak up, willya? Say something to me!"

A heavyset middle-aged man in scuffed work boots, worn pants, and a slick graying pompadour slowly stood up from the newspaper vendor's empty stand, where he'd been squatting with a paper cup of coffee, and pointed a thick accusatory finger at the speaker. "What is this? You in the theater or something? You an actor, that why you're doin' this?"

"No, no, I'm not an actor. It just seems kind of dumb, you know, everybody sitting here and not talking to each other."

"Some people," announced the man with the pompadour to the room at large, "some people don't got any sense." He turned to the speaker again. "You sure you're not an actor? This is for TV, right?"

"No, no, really. I just thought we should all talk, not pretend we don't exist." His eyes swept the room, searching for support. I held my book in front of my face. Don't let him single me out, don't let him talk to me. Just leave me alone. He seized on an old woman in a polyester pantsuit and a blued hairdo in tight, shiny bubbles who sat taking in the scene open-mouthed. "Hi, what's your name? Where you heading tonight?" She shrank back in dismay.

"You know, I can't believe this," said the nonactor. "I can't believe how you are ignoring me. Why don't you say something? Why don't you get involved?"

"Hey, buddy." It was Pompadour, coming to the woman's rescue. "Don't go bothering people, OK? Leave the lady alone. You some kind of religious fanatic, or what?"

"I'm not hurting anything. I mean, jeez, I just don't believe you people. I just ast her . . ."

Pompadour grabbed him by the front of his windbreaker; there was a soft gasp around the waiting room. "You don't get it, do you? Listen. I told you: don't go bothering people." The moment was electric: ten strangers locked together at the sight of a burly middle-aged man with unfashionably long sideburns holding a kid half his age by a very damp jacket in an undeniably threatening fashion.

Outside, the rumble of the overdue train shook the building as its headlight cut through the rain. "It's here," said a young guy in a cheap business suit. He said it more loudly than he needed to, clearing his throat. "It's here."

Pompadour relaxed and let go of the kid as we all pushed past them, through the storm, onto the train.

Only one car was open, but I didn't see either of them board.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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