Here in Chicago, the public transportation experience is usually so low key, and on average so reliable, that I don't even think about the few times when I do miss the cocoon of personal space I had when I drove to work every day in L.A. Yes, I do recall the times when I've ridden home on the 'L' late enough through the Addison Stop on the Red Line (for you non-Chicago folks, that's the stop for Wrigley Field...and about a hundred bars inside 3 blocks), where the guy who just got on sitting next to me really could go either way on blowing chunks right there in the train...or not...while asking his booty call on the cell phone whether he should just go ahead, or wait till he gets there (extra mints, cepacol, and some double-mint gum before you get there, right???). Rarely do you get the crazies riding the train during rush hour, you know, the assorted hardcore unemployable - the homeless who don't, or won't, take their pills cuz it means following "the rules" of whatever shelter they'd have to live at to get the free meds (they're the ones who mutter to themselves while looking at you straight in the eye); the gin-blossomed alkies (are they retired, or just layed off and liked living inside a bottle?) who look 70 but you know are in there 40s; and the druggies, usually not stoners (too early), but the tweakers who are just coming down from 3 days of meth-fueled orgies (does an orgasm count if it actually SLOWS your heart rate?). Usually, all these types share some kind of claustrophobia where they avoid crowded standing-room-only trains like the plague.
Today was one of those rare occasions when desperation met bad timing. Sitting behind me was a janglingly raw bundle nerves of a woman, ostensibly transporting a child of about the age of 4 home. It wasn't clear what the relationship was, but I never heard the boy say mommy. The woman was evidently coming down off of something, and it was terrifying to listen to as the panic in her voice got steadily louder and louder. For his part, the little boy was heart-breakingly acting like a little boy riding on the training...pointing out the window, singing songs, and generally well-behaved. The woman though...woah...Phrases like "Leave me alone!" and "Whatever" and "What do you want from me???" were her only responses to the boy's attempts at engaging with her. The only thing she wanted to know was how many stops until hers (Yes...we shared the same stop). The little boy piped in with every stop...Look Fullerton...Why are we waiting so long at Belmont...Addison, Cubbies! When she wasn't saying "Don't touch me" and "Whatever", she recited like a mantra "Almost there" (interjected with "Shut up, already" to the little boy). When my (our) stop came, they both got up and I finally got a look at what everybody else had been observing on the train. The woman was thin...very thin...with bedraggled thin hair and big bags under her eyes. The little (latino looking, I think), was clean, dressed warmly, smiled slightly at everyone who met his eyes, but did not hold her hand ("Don't touch me, what are you doing?"). The look of relief was in everyone's eyes on that train, but especially the woman's. The little boy seemed to be taking everything in stride, unfortunately, as if he deals with this lady a lot. I stepped off the train, walked down the stairs, and never looked back.
Was she a tweaker? A heroin addict? Could she have been a paranoid schizophrenic at the tale end of the effectiveness of her dosage? Any and all of these are possibilities. But that little boy, how he could maintain his good spirits, as if he knew that he had to act on his best behavior just to get through the train ride home, as if he were the one in custody of the woman instead of the other way around...I don't know. I want to believe she just needed her meds, that the little boy just happened to be one of those good little children (if you've been around enough little kids, they're the ones who seem to have a sense of humor, and responsibility, about life even at the age of 2) who knew what he needed to do to make the situation better. Yet, terrifyingly awkward to witness. I see some strange things on the 'L', but this one's going to live with me for awhile.