Argyle (Red Line):
The press of humidity is relentless — in the shade and the sun, on the street and above it on the L platform where we wait on wooden slats for the rusty cars to approach. Minutes pass. The blown-out glare of headlights remains stationary on the horizon, obscured in a distant haze, tantalizingly near and far at once.
Futilely, we fan ourselves, but air this thick with vehicle exhaust, grit and moisture doesn’t feel any cooler, even at a higher speed. Sweat beads gather at my temples, behind my knees and in the crease of my elbow where it bends so that I can protectively grasp my purse straps. A gradual splash of relief tells me that the sweat running down my cleavage has pooled in the shelf bra of my dress.
It isn’t even noon yet.
The hollow sound of high heels ascending the concrete steps heralds the entrance of a drag queen and her boyfriend from the shadows below. She is gap-toothed, knock-kneed and homely, hiding her left eye demurely behind a long flat-ironed lock of black hair. He is gay-skinny, his tapered jeans bagging up and falling past his butt with only a canvas belt to secure them. I can’t look away from the contrast of Girlfriend’s needle-thin ankles and the python balls of calf muscle gathered above them.
She assesses us for a moment before turning to the right and sauntering down the platform with Boytoy in tow, his arm around her waist. I feel her eyes run up and down my simple black sundress, sensible sandals and turquoise cardigan. Tash is in Croc skimmers and a black skirt with a button-down shirt to shield her from the sun.
We’re so wholesome-looking that we could audition for Sister Act Three.
Girlfriend, on the other hand, is dressed to shake her money maker, even if there’s nothing on her pre-op body to shimmy. She slings a small white boom-box over her muscular shoulder and presses play, blaring the tinny notes of “Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It],” which somehow moves the humidity around us in ways that all of our fanning couldn’t.
Beyonce’s voice spills onto the platform as Girlfriend dances up and back, fluttering the layers of her strapless electric blue dress with every turn. The hollow clip-clop of her 5-inch stilettos on the wood brings my glance downward to my modest feet. My nails are painted a purplish black, a shade called Lincoln Park After Dark, and I wonder if it got its name from the dimly lit neighborhood only streets away.
“Uh-uh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh…” croons Beyonce. Tash and I cannot resist stepping up and back in rhythm and neither can the pudgy white guy in the Cubs hat and khaki shorts. His boxy hips move from side to side above his thick sport-socked ankles. From the waist up, he pretends to be oblivious.
Stealing another glance, I see that Boytoy’s face looks more feminine than Girlfriend’s, even when framed by closely shorn hair, a tank top and jeans. His fine cheekbones are worth coveting. The gaping space between the top of Girlfriend’s dress and her flat, ebony boy-chest underscore the fact that she’s missing cupfuls of womanly softness; skinny Boytoy seems not to care.
I wonder what her name is –Destiny, Leticia, Sharonda– and what it used to be… maybe DeVon, Trey or Lawrence. Her glittering blue eyeshadow matches her dress.
As the song switches to “I’m a Slave 4 U,” she slides the boom-box to her other shoulder and looks over at us. Girlfriend’s bored disdain translates with a nearly audible snort: Look at those fucking straight-ass bitches, wasting what God gave them.
She flips her hair over her shoulder, smirks and thinks, Shit… I can do better than that.
Adams & Wabash (Orange, Blue, Green, Brown and Pink Lines):
I see his feet and legs first, bent at the knee, resting akimbo atop each other, like he’s dead. He’s wearing scuffed New Balance tennis shoes that were once white and off-brand stone washed jeans, whatever they had at Goodwill that day.
My eyes travel up his body, his arms bent awkwardly at the shoulders and elbows. He is both sprawled out and curled up on the sidewalk, his head resting on a grimy backpack propped against the station wall. Lank and hungry-looking even while asleep, he reminds me of a praying mantis that someone squashed with a rock.
His chalky cocoa skin is smudged in places, more from gathered patches of dead cells than actual dirt. Head thrown back, his bearded chin juts toward the sky. I pause because he’s beautiful in a broken way, patches of curly white beard hairs mixed in with the black ones. He’s not very old in years, just time-worn, street-worn. My heart feels ragged looking at him.
People jostle by me on Adams. They’re on their way to work, to eat, to shop. They don’t have time for me or for him.
Part of me wants to take his photograph, but it feels like exploitation, not art. What would I do with it? Show friends or post it on my blog? Evidence of my time in Chicago, look at this homeless man, isn’t it sad, etc. Instead, I toss my phone into my bag and look at him for another moment, taking his picture with my mind.
His shirt is blue with red horizontal stripes. It’s torn in places.
He trembles with discomfort in his sleep.
His body is surrounded by empty cans and bottles, discarded wrappers and a sidewalk littered with spat-out gum.
He is splayed out with abandon despite the heat, the hard concrete and the loud conversations of hundreds of people walking by.
What does it take for a person to sleep in the street with no fear of being robbed, abused or arrested?
I look down again at my sensible shoes and perfectly pedicured toenails, feeling guilty and lucky all at once.
Route #82 – Lawrence & Marine Drive:
A few stops down, a handsome, mean-looking young man boards and sits near us at the back. He is brown but light skinned, like his pops is white and his mom Latina. He tosses down his backpack and toys with his phone, alternating between texting someone and looking us up and down. He is wiry and tattooed. He is a man with plans.
When he glances away for a moment, I think of Caesar’s description of Cassius:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
Two blue teardrops falling from his right eye suggest that I might be right. As I contemplate them, Tash leans over and whispers, “I forget, do the tears mean people he’s killed or people he’s lost?”
I murmur that it’s the former and she continues, “How is he going to get a job with all those tattoos? Did you see the ones on the side of his face?!” I nod grimly. “You know what kind of job he’s going to get?”
“Highway maintenance?” I quip, picturing him in an orange jumpsuit. He looks like a thug.
“Dish washer,” she says under her breath. I wonder how many guys like him have washed my dishes in restaurants. “The one of the Chicago skyline on his arm is cool, though,” she adds. I nod in agreement. I wonder if he belongs to the Latin Kings.
His baggy jeans are poised precariously at mid-cheek when Young Thug walks to the front at the next stop, leaving his backpack on the seat. We don’t say as much, but we both assume that he has left behind a weapon of some kind; our bodies are now tense, ready to notify the driver if he exits the bus. Instead, Tash and I remain silent when his yellow Timberland work boots return, a friend in tow after he paid for his entry.
Young Thug’s friend is likewise lean and mean — shaved head, sunglasses and cheeks that were either held to a fire or scarred by acute acne. Something annoying and repetitive blares from the speakers of his phone; a video of a girl dances onscreen. He hits “replay” and lets Young Thug have a look, daring someone to complain about the noise.
I wonder if Young Thug told his friend to get aboard with plans for us in mind. Gangsta sits at the edge of the bench seat with his back to us, his legs blocking most of the aisle. I feel trapped. Tash and I are markedly –and uncharacteristically– quiet. Observant. We are deer paused at the edge of a forest, held fast by headlights.
Young Thug snakes a bottle of Heiniken out of his backpack, but Gangsta shakes his head and tells him to save it for later. I ponder what else he has in there. I look at the teardrops again and wonder if he really killed two people, or if it’s a lie to make him seem tougher. Was he off to a Fourth of July barbecue with the prideful weight of two murders on his conscience?
He looks at us occasionally during the rest of the trip while Gangsta ignores us. Is Young Thug appraising our looks or our vulnerability? Both?
Tash and I give them plenty of time to exit before us at Jefferson Station.
Route #147 – Foster & Marine Dr:
Six o’clock rush hour and the bus is full. Tash and I tuck into two front-facing seats while Bettye, her mom, takes the first seat behind the driver. A beautiful young North African woman and her three children take up the seats to Bettye’s right.
Like a koala bear, the littlest of the two girls clings gently but lovingly to her mother, her voluminous ponytail of tight sandy black curls bounces with every move of her head. She tries to avoid her boisterous brother who won’t sit still.
We listen to their conversation –questions about how long it will take to get there, how long ten minutes is– and Tash cannot resist their youth or their energetic curiosity. “Since I don’t have kids yet, Imma boss everyone else’s around,” she grins.
She charms them immediately by talking to them like adults rather than children of four, six and seven. “We like you! Can you come with us?” they chatter when we all get off at Randolph.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” she says. “I’m attending a concert with my friend and my mother.” They are shocked at the thought that someone as cool as Tash would hang out with her mother, perhaps because they didn’t notice someone who would be so cool as her mother obviously would have to be.
“Your mother is on the bus?!” they shout in unison. Tash points out Bettye and the eldest girl cannot stop herself from blurting out, “She’s your mom? Her skin’s so light, she looks like she’s Mexico!’
“It’s Mexican, not Mexico,” Tash admonishes them with a gentle laugh. When we get off, all three of them hug her and their mother bids us a warm goodbye, thanking Tash for directions.
We wave as they cross the street, then amble to an Italian deli to buy sandwiches for a concert on the lawn at Millennium Park. From the bus to the food to the park, Tash makes sure that Bettye and I are taken care of, and I think to myself that she would make an excellent mother.