This weekend an old friend came to the city, and we spent Friday night together. It had been a very long time since I had seen them last, which meant there was much catching up to do, and many drinks to be had. Being the now older and wiser folk that we are, when it came time to depart the venue we decided to leave the car where it was, and catch a cab back home.
On Saturday morning, we broke our fast and went to retrieve the car. I suggested that to save us the $10+ cab fare, we ought to take SEPTA to our destination. My friend had never ridden the rails before, which made me feel like an old pro at it. Along the way I regaled a few (of the many) stories about the weirdos that I have encountered on public transit, and how I learned most times it’s better just to wear headphones so that you aren’t bothered (even if your batteries are dead).
After taking the Subway and making the free interchange switchover at City Hall to the El, we arrived at our destination, with car right where we left it and still intact. My friend was headed home and dropped me off at 30th Street Station so that I could run an errand.
On my way back to the El, I overheard a college-age girl on her cell phone, sounding utterly confused and saying to the caller, “I’ve never taken public transportation before. So I take the Green Line to 48th St….”. As she was headed down the stairs towards the platforms I stopped her and said, “you’re gonna lose reception down there, just so you know”. She looked surprised, but thanked me for letting her know.
I finished my smoke and headed down myself, with token in hand. This time I saw the girl at the token machine, still looking overwhelmed and nervous. I thought to myself, “I know that feeling”. I decided that since people helped me when I needed it, I should pay it forward. I approached her and said, “do you know where you are going? Do you need help”? She said that she knew she had to take the Green Line (aka Trollys) to 48th st. I asked if she knew what the cross st she was looking for was, as the trollys pretty much all hit 48th st, but at different places. She noted that she didn’t know, and I suggested that she go back up and call her friend to find out.
During this exchange, the guy at the booth had offered to let her pay for her tokens at the window, as the automatic dispenser was no cooperating with her bills. The girl agreed to go back up to the street to find out more, and walked away without taking her tokens or change. I grabbed the money and tokens, thinking to myself, “this girl is definitely not from the city, and she’s lucky I’m not a con artist or something”. I held onto the money and tokens until she came back. Upon her return, I handed everything back to her, and she said she now knew what trolley she was supposed to take. I watched her walk to the platform, making sure everything was in good order, before heading down to the El platform myself.
While standing and waiting for the El eastbound, an older, scraggily-looking (and possibly drunk) white man came down to wait too. There were maybe 10 other people waiting as well, but of course, I was the lucky one to get singled out. He said to me, “can I ask you a question? Are you in school?” I stated flatly that no, I was not. He replies, “well, I just met a guy who said that he was in school to be a doctor and it was going to cost him $45,000 for the 4 years. I can’t believe that; that’s just too much money it seems”. A third man (a middle age black man, with salt and pepper hair), sitting next to the older man, laughed and said, “I don’t think so”. I also said, “yeah, maybe more like $45,000 per year“. This floored the older man, and he started rambling on about how he just couldn’t believe it, and that he would have to look into it.
El arrives, and guy is still talking, only I’m not really listening anymore. I have learned it’s best not to engage with weird strangers for too long. I enter the train car and intentionally choose a seat next to someone else so that this guy can’t sit next to me… only he chooses the seat in the aisle right next to me and keeps talking anyway. The third guy is also on the train and stands there, watching, and I get the feeling he’s got his eye on me to make sure everything stays kosher. I am thankful for this.
My stop comes up, as I was again headed for the free interchange back to the Sub. I think in my head, “God, I hope this guy doesn’t follow me off this train”, but he’s still talking and follows me onto the exit platform. I say very flatly again, “ok, well you have a nice day”, and walk away from him. As I stand on the Sub southbound platform, who do I see walk onto it as well? That’s right, that freakin’ dude again. However, I also see the third guy too, standing near me, so I feel a little better about the situation.
Old guy waits on a bench a few paces away, and doesn’t engage with me, but is talking to other people now. When the Sub pulls up, the old guy, third guy and I all happen to end up on the same car. The third guy even steps aside and lets me go on first, for which I make sure to thank him. Old dude sits next to me again, but instead of talking to me, pulls out a piece of scrap paper, and starts to write something on it. I look up at third guy, and see he’s watching from the corner of his eye. I look back to the older guy to see if I can make out what he’s writing, thinking “God, I really hope he doesn’t try to give me his number or something”.
While looking at the paper I notice that inside his open wallet is an appointment card for another community mental health facility that I am familiar with. I think to myself, “I KNEW IT!!!” Suddenly I’m not so nervous about this guy and his intentions and relax a bit. I also notice the guy is writing something about $45,000, so I know what it’s about and he’s not about to make things really awkward.
As my stop comes up, the older guy is now talking to a young man about his iPod Touch, and is amazed that the guy is watching the movie Armageddon on it. I get up, wish all parties a good day, escape the madness of underground transit to the city streets above, make the two block walk back to the sanctity of my apartment, where I make mental note to always carry my headphones with me at all times.