I shifted my weight beneath it. Still, it was too heavy. Much too heavy. Sixty-odd pounds of camp gear, $200 cash, and a plane ticket to Vermont. Fullerton stretched toward the western horizon until infinity, an infinity that cars chased or fled with a desperation I could gleefully snub. After all, I was on my way to the Northeast Kingdom for a week of roughing it — sleeping in a bivy, catching my own fish; in other words, getting the hell away from everything I was looking at — fat pigeons, cigarette butts, planes, cars, police cars, trains…
I stood on the platform, eagerly awaiting the Red Line. Beneath me, the grimy hustle-bustle scurried along. I turned from it and saw one of those self-satisfied pigeons, waddling along insouciantly mere inches from me. I made a half-hearted lunge at him, but he barely noticed. Meh. Whatever. Mutual, I’m sure.
I looked for the train. The tracks reached, grasping, for the horizon, and faded away. No train. I looked around. Usually, the platform is full of folks loitering around, waiting for a train or not — but today it was just me. And him.
He walked over.
In violation of just about every social code we’ve managed to create since antediluvian evolution began, he walked over.
“Got a light?”
“Me? No, I don’t smoke.”
He drifted off. Briefly. Came back.
“You wanna buy some weed?”
“Huh — um, no. I don’t even smoke cigarettes.”
He looked away. I watched his jaw muscles flex. To this day, I believe I lack those muscles. He looked down on me.
“Well, yeah. Thanks all the same.”
“Suit yourself.” He waltzed off. Ten feet, maybe. Re-establishing modern civ.
I looked down the tracks. Nothing. A ladder to the sky, in some ways. He came back. I prepared myself for the inevitable.
“Dude, look — I don’t want any pot. I’m getting on a plane anyway, so I can’t — “
“Uh-uh. You wanna guess what I have in my pocket?”
Time froze — perhaps literally — as I sized him up. He was taller by a good six inches, outweighed me by maybe 50 pounds. He had stuffed his hands in his windbreaker pockets, but I was wearing a 60-ish pound backpack filled with long-johns, a little tent, some freeze-dried meal-packets, a knife (a knife! only an inch or so long, but still, a knife), wool socks, my journal —
“I don’t think I need three guesses to know that you have a gun.”
“Damn right. Now give me all your money or I’ma shoot you and shove you on the tracks.”
Was he for real? did he have a gun or was he bluffing surely he was bluffing no one does this sort of thing in the middle of the day at the fullerton el stop because the train a train will pull in any minute a brown line purple line red line south-bound north-bound at this point it doesn’t matter except for missing that flight to Vermont and not saying goodbye to anyone really, I mean really saying goodbye beyond that “I’ll-see-you-in-two-weeks-no-don’t-pick-me-up-because-I’ll-just-take-the-train-of-cours-I’ll-be-safe-I’lljusttell muggers ‘sorry, I’m being safe today so I can’t participate in this dangerous mugging affair’ besides it’ll be rush hour and who wants to sit on I-90 it’s practically a parking lot at that hour” and thinking is this how I want to die? Is this how I want to die? Could some other paying customer please take their place on the god-damned platform? Could some el-drivin’ conductors please arrive at the station? Red Line Purple Line Brown Line, it doesn’t even matter. How long can I stall this guy until the gig is up? Give me a train, any train, any color or direction. No dice. I stalled for time.
“Look, man — I just put my last $20 on my farecard. You can have that if you — “
“Naw, I don’t want your stupid’ farecard. Gimme your money or you’re dead.”
Still no train — what is this? America’s Funniest Home Videos?
“Okay, okay. Be cool, alright? I’ve got $40. Take it — just give me a sec to dig it out.” He doesn’t know I have $200 because who walks around with $200, right? Besides white kids with fancy backpacks and hiking boots and nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon than wait for a train? $40 should do it.
It did. He took my money and stuffed it in that windbreaker pocket of his and sauntered off. About 10 feet away. I could spit farther — if I had the courage or the mouth-moisture.
He stood there and waited. For what? For more money? For a train? My train? The nerve.
So we waited. No train. What is it? Three train lines, two directions — that’s six trains passing through this station. Gimme any which one.
Nothing. The pigeon returned. Don’t mess with me, bird. I’m not in the mood. In fact, get the hell away. Spread the word. Don’t nobody stand anywhere near me. I’m so tough when I want to be.
I looked at him. He watched the traffic on Fullerton as it crept along, surveying all that he saw, holding my $40 in his pocket.
I walked over.
My brain told my legs to stop. They didn’t listen.
“For $40, you just sold me the right to be racist for the rest of my life.”
His jaw clenched.
“I mean, look at you. Nike windbreaker, fancy basketball shoes, gold chain? That ain’t cheap. And that gun? Why don’t you sell it instead of robbin’ people with it?”
He looked at me. Glanced, really. Turned his eyes to me, down and to the right, sneering as if wondering if it was worth the effort to squash me. I waited.
He looked away. My out-of-body experience continued.
“Why would you do that? I feel like crap now. Why don’t you go get a job, like I did? I worked for that money, and you took that away from me in, like, 30 seconds. You feel good about that?” That metaphysical out-of-body experience seemed closer to the literal with each passing second.
“Naw, man; it’s not like that. I got two girls and I gotta feed ’em and — ”
“So you gotta rob me? Maybe I got two girls to feed only I can’t now because — ”
“Look here, look.” He showed me his wallet. Two girls beamed back at me. “I come home with nothing, and they cry and ask why they can’t eat. I can’t do that to them. You don’t know what it’s like to come home to that…”
“So, what? What do you tell them? You tell them you rob people? I get paid, like, $8 an hour. And you took about 5 hours of my life. Why don’t you sell the gun, sell the gold chain, and get a job? Bag groceries or something. Anything’s gotta be better than this.”
He looked away. His hand made its way to his pocket. This is it, I thought. Here’s where I get shot. I could hear the rustling of his windbreaker as he fumbled around. Good God, get it over with. His hand shot out at me. Instinctively, I thrust both hands out as if I could magically catch the gun or stop the bullet with my palms.
Instead, I felt the crinkle of paper.
“Have your money back, man. Take it.”
What? What just happened? I looked down. I had cupped his hand in mine, and in his hand were two crumpled 20's.
“No. Keep it. I’ve got a job. I don’t want it.” Am I insane? What am I talking about?
He withdrew his hand and looked away. I waited. He lunged at me and this is it this time, he’s going to shoot me and press the gun up close to my gut so no one can hear and he’ll shove me to the ground and that’s where I’ll die and the train when it finally arrives will trample me and mash me and there will be a closed casket and —
His hug swallowed me up, his arms seeming to wrap all the way around my meager shoulders. My body ceased to exist; I accepted my fate. The firm outline of his gun pressed against my kidney.
He leapt away, superhero-like, onto a train just as its doors opened. I stood there. Did he shoot me? Still, I just stood there. Finally, I snapped out of it and frisked myself. No wounds, no blood, no pain — I’m safe. He didn’t shoot me — but that’s my train! I stumbled forward before realizing that I couldn’t get on the same car as him.
I staggered down the platform to the next car and managed to fall into a seat before my body started shaking uncontrollably. Each time the doors opened, terror seized me and throttled me. Every time.