18 February 2011

Public Noises

Above all other train lines, the Green Line to Pulaski is in my experience the most filled with the doomed and the desperate. Every time I ride it is packed shoulder to shoulder with varying states of crisis.

Being poor, or irreparably damaged, or both, is always very urgent business, much of which must be conducted in public. The air inside the cars is loud and heavy with cell phone conversations, often not quite one-sided, since many of these talkers have the volume set so high that one can understand at least the interlocutor's mood: frequently just as repetitive and raging, but sometimes reticent, sometimes putting forth the calm, impermeable realities at hand with initial patience which drains away slowly or quickly.

Sometimes you think a new angry conversation has been dialed up from behind or beside you, only to realize that the person sighing violently and saying “God damn” or muttering “enough, already” is just responding to another's rudeness. You are on the same side of the battle but resent the complainer's choice of weapon, resent the added noise.

On two trips today alone – from downtown to Oak Park for a job interview (I'm getting those now, in quantity) and back – I have been confronted in this way with amputated toes, broken teeth, disputes over the custody of dogs and children and, at greatest length, a middle-aged  and violently ugly man sitting across from me methodically dialing every number he seemed to know and barking into it, “TELL THAT BITCH SHE BETTER PICK UP HER DAMN PHONE.” He rarely offered any elaboration, except at one point when he instructed someone to go to the woman's house and regain possession of his shit.

(A week or two ago on the Harlem bus I sat near a man conducting a much more civil-sounding conversation, which did not begin to filter into my awareness until it became apparent that he was trying to talk a girl into appearing in some form of pornography: “No, no, I mean, unless you were planning to maybe run for office some day, or really break into mainstream movies, there's no way it's gonna matter. We had one girl, she's in law school now.” It seemed unlikely that the girl realized that he was laying out his business plan from the bench of a public bus in the suburbs.)

Even less malevolent conversations can be poisonous, if there are enough of them. You may change trains or disembark and then see sickness everywhere -- passing judgment on all the faces whose features disorientation seems to have permanently displaced by a few crucial millimeters -- and feel as though you are the last civilized being in the city or the universe. 

Then you may remember, for instance, the time coming home so late at night, the last traces of a little too much alcohol helping to weigh down your eyelids, when you found yourself utterly unable to determine how to reach the other, necessary side of the train platform. You wandered up and down the empty Thompson Center escalators in a fuzzy panic, descended to street level, looked around, and still were baffled; you ended up taking a longer route home. It may have been months later when you finally returned to the station and realized that you need have only looked up: a perfectly normal footbridge arches over the tracks.

It is not so hard to imagine this kind of confusion becoming permanent. One thing you hear in this bleak chatter is the kind of schedule it is often necessary to keep when you are poor. You may need to travel two hours each way to reach the single, minimum-wage, full-time job you could find a few months after your unemployment ran out. You may need to awake each day at 4 AM. This may cause you to fall asleep on your way home and miss your stop by miles, costing you more time. If you are ill, or have difficulty moving, travel will be that much more tortuously slow.

If you are a woman, you probably will add all this to the time and effort of transporting your children; when you are not with them, you probably will be on your cell phone with the unreliable web of other persons and institutions that share in their care.

Anyone has had to catch a 6 AM flight without having slept beforehand, or a panic attack in a public place, or a particularly enveloping head cold, one of these thorough burglars of lucidity. There is no reason why such a state could not keep perpetuating itself, especially under conditions of enforced exhaustion. In the wrong circumstances life could certainly become an unending bad dream, in which you are constantly exposed in public, made to conform to standards and fulfill responsibilities that are unfamiliar or had been totally forgotten. This could be a reality from which you would not be able to see out, though everyone could watch you writhe and call out in the throes of your dreaming, everyone could glare your way and say: “Enough, already.”

When I transfer to the Brown Line all is quieter. Here too an older black man with a cane is declaiming the history of his medical problems, near-death experiences, and subsequent recovery through Christ, but he has found a flesh-and-blood listener, a younger white man. The listener is polite and responsive. He is trying to do it right, to engage honestly although he would not have chosen this conversation. He is, I'm almost certain, a young liberal with the luxury of enough space and clarity in his life to accommodate problems that are not his own and conversations that are not acts of dire self-preservation. I recognize him, though I would not do quite so well, I think. Us types. What're we gonna do with ourselves and the world. I suspect we take it on as a kind of social service, to sit and listen, a service which is not entirely unrecompensed; we may feel a shameful impulse to tell our friends about it later, inviting them to marvel at our goodheartedness. But the kindness is at least partly genuine, the sense of duty somewhat realer.

The storyteller leaves the train. I've changed seats and without turning I can't see the listener, who remains. But he does not sigh in relief or exchange a knowing chuckle with anyone else who has been listening less gracefully, as I've seen others do, as I might do myself if I were the type to voluntarily make any public gesture. That's good, I think, observing the space around him. That's a start. 

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