I had never ridden the train to the end of the line before.
It was late on Sunday evening. Not that I’m the kind of person to go out at 11:30pm on a weeknight, but being laid-over in Chicago for the night was good enough reason to get out of the airport hotel room for a second to actually experience a bit of the city that was claiming me for the evening.
My friend and I rode in to Wicker Park, had some tacos and a few beers, and by the end felt pretty good about the overall experience. The layover had turned out to be relatively enjoyable, considering we were heading to a conference demanding our entire focus and capacity for coffee intake for the next few days.
We returned to the platform, slightly drunk on beer and chorizo, and waited for our 1:20 train back to O’Hare. Standing under the heaters (no, it wasn’t that cold, but we’re from KY, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable), we watched down the track south for our train to arrive.
The train rolled up, looking fairly empty from the outside, so we chose the least populated car and walked onboard.
The smell of ammonia filled our nostrils, thrusting us back into the moment, as we noticed the car was relatively full of sleeping people. Our entrance startled only a few, looking up curiously as though to decide whether or not there was cause for alarm and whether or not they were still in fact asleep.
We sat down, quietly and respectfully, as though we had walked into a crowded church during prayer. While not hostile, there was a sense that we had walked unexpected into someone’s home late in the evening. The inhabitants accepted out presence and went back to their general disinterest in conscious thought for a while.
One man in particular was especially interesting. Sitting opposite us to the left, he was laid over the seat in front of him. His clothes were well worn, looking as if he possible knew a bed some time ago, but hadn’t seen it in a while. His hands were dirty. They were dirty in that way that the dirt appears to have seeped it’s way beneath the layer of skin so as to color the skin in a perma-grime that won’t wash. His fingernails were worn down to the quick, and his hands bore strange, amateur tattoos that weren’t distinguishable in our state.
It wasn’t long until he began to wake up. It happened fairly often, as his bouts of lucidity were random and fleeting. He raised his head, exposing a thick head of dirty blonde hair, matted and unruly. When his eyes opened, he examined his world each time as though it were brand new. Each time there was a moment of skeptical curiosity, as though he were waking from a terrible dream, and questioning his senses as to whether or not this world was as real, or as safe as the last.
He ran his hands over his face, pushing the skin around, reawakening feeling in each nerve. From his face, his hands moved to his head, passing through his hair and over the bald spot indicating some past altercation that made certain the follicles would no longer grow.
At the next stop, a woman boarded, sitting in front of us. She carried with her a number of bags. She sat down quietly, unassumingly, her hood over her head. I never got a good look at her face, but she seemed to be fairly young — maybe early forties.
The man also noticed her arrival, but paid little mind, as he was finally attempting to remain conscious for a bit longer. Disoriented, he reached into his pocket and discovered what appeared to be the lone cigarette in his possession. As you do on the train at 2 in the morning, he lit the cigarette, taking a labored drag before inevitably losing his battle with fatigue. The woman leaned over, getting his attention and, bringing him into the light as far as he had been to this point, asked if he had another cigarette. The question was received, and seemed to pass slowly through a number of the operating systems of his brain, before ultimately returning a simple shake of the head, “No”.
He slumped back over, and she readjusted in her seat, both settling in for the rest of the ride. The cigarette smoke swirled around the car, mixing with the smell of urine to make my friend and me nauseous. Each drag he took was visibly exhausting, requiring a few minutes of sleep between each. The cigarette would hang at his side, or rest inches from yesterday’s newspaper in the adjacent seat.
Finally, about half way through the smoke, he woke up. He met eyes with the woman and nodded his head. After taking one last drag, he reached across the aisle, turning the butt toward her, and delicately handed her the last half. She thanked him humbly, and cautiously took a drag. Before she could question whether or not he intended her to take a second, she noticed that he had already slumped over facing the window. His last cigarette was now hers.
The train pulled in to the O’Hare stop. “This is O’Hare. This is the end of the line. All passengers must exit the vehicle.”
The two of us stepped off the train, with an unspoken gratitude to our hosts for their hospitality. We were the only two to leave. The rest of them were already at home.