When the weather becomes bitter, the homeless take shelter on the trains. It smells…indiscribably bad. Alcohol and body odor and unwashed clothes. But they curl up on a few seats and sleep, not bothering anyone.
Unlike my fellow regular commuters, who- aside from purchasing the latest technology- have not kept up with this wonderful invention called a headphone. Or use the other termed volume control- out of respect for the ears of the person sitting two seats down from you who really does not agree with your crappy idea of good music. I am so tempted to find my most obnoxious band and blare them right back. Then there’s the people who hold firm in the belief that yours and the cars before and behind must listen to their vastly inappropriate phone conversations (STD’s, anger management classes, suicide threats, murder threats….). The homeless might smell, but they’re quiet and just sleep (well, except for Eilene, but she’s another story).
A couple weeks ago, it was -20 degrees. I did not go to work that day. My supervisor emailed us, saying we were deemed not all that important employees, and work was optional. I opted to stay warm. Tuesday it was -10, but warm enough that I commuted myself to work, looking very much like the kid in Christmas Story. There were six homeless people in my train car. Way more than the amount of regular commuters as people continued to just stay home. The homeless were bundled up and sleeping soundly, hoods drawn over their heads or thin blankets cocooned around them. How is it that the train is the safest place for them to be? The warmest place? And the CTA isn’t heated. I arrive at work colder than before I boarded the train. How often do they really sleep? Is it a nightly thing like all the rest of us partake in, or is it by chance?
That particular train ends two stops from where I need to disembark. I hate catching that train in the winter. It’s typically only a five-ten minute wait for the next train to come by. But the station is outside with only one three-sided shelter that has some overhead heaters. The homeless never wake up when the announcer tells everyone to get off, that it’s the end of the line. I’d think they’d want to avoid being discovered, as there’s ‘No Free Train Rides’ signs all over. I don’t know how they get on. Anyway, it usually only takes a couple pounds on the train window by the conductor and security, or one of them yelling over their heads before they wake up and exit. But that day was the first I’d seen where two people did not stir. The female attendant was yelling at the top of her lungs at them. One woman remained motionless, the other attempted to rise but stumbled back and just sat there, looking very confused. Mental illness confused, maybe. Or just sick? I couldn’t be sure. I noticed her right away when I first got on. Sound asleep, sprawled across two seats, possibly a large woman, or just bundled up into as many coats as she had amassed. And she had several clear garbage bags of blankets on the seat beside her and the floor at her feet: the origin of the smells. As verified by the female security who quickly jumped out of the car for some air before reentering through the second door to get the first woman to move. The male conductor had finished his sweep of the other cars and got on the car and added his even louder voice to the woman’s, trying to rouse the two women. This is all occurring before the only heated, three-sided shelter I and the rest of the next-train-waiters are shivering under. I turn to the woman beside me and wonder what happens if someone flat-out refuses to leave? What do they do? She shrugs, just as bewildered.
The woman without the bags finally wakes. She gets to her feet but falls again, very unsteady. She goes back to sleep, wakes, tries to rise, falls, sits and stares. The two employees turn to the other woman, holding their noses, swearing, yelling and yelling for her to hurry up. I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the women. Sick? Maybe drunk? Mentally impaired? Or all that and a few more? Seeing their states, hearing the anger in the employees’ voices, feeling the discomfort and general anxiety of my fellow waiters: we need to get to our jobs, but we can’t until we catch the next train, which can’t arrive until everyone on this train is off so that it can leave- it was such a convergence of wills, of opposing needs. They just wanted to sleep, and stay warm. I can’t be angry or resentful. I looked at the employees and thought back to The Depression, when men termed ‘The Bulls’ wandered up and down the tracks and brutalized and murdered anyone caught hiding in a car. Scenes from ‘Journey of Natty Gan’ were playing in my head. What happens if they won’t get off? What if others decide to get violent?
The woman with the bags eventually shuffles off. She stands off to the side of the shelter, a very dazed, distant look on her face, in her eyes. The woman besides me does something that shocks me a little. She looks directly at her and starts talking, very soft and sympathetic. About the weather, maybe. I don’t remember. The other woman still can’t hold herself upright. She rises, falls, over and over, with the employees just shouting continuously. Eventually, she makes it off the train, and then disappears. I don’t see where she goes. Maybe she made her way onto the opposing train.
We’re plummeting to sub-zero again. This last year is the first time I’ve commuted. Usually I’m tucked safe and warm and distant in my car. Now I see. I walk past them in the summer, sleeping under the highway overpass on my way to the station. They walk through the train cars asking for money and it’s painful to see. I look at my fellow commuters, plugged into their distractions that keep them isolated from humanity, and it pisses me off. I wish I can help, though I won’t ever give them money. But I make eye contact and tell them I’m sorry. I can at least give them acknowledgment and respect. What are their stories? Would I really want to know?
With my kids in the car one day as we drove that same route, I stopped my car beside a woman and handed her all the food we had in the car, along with the boys’ extra juice boxes as we’d just left from an outdoor concert. I wanted my boys to see, I wanted them to not be so distant, so removed and safe in our car. Humanity is a convergence of stories, of needs and triumphs and rock-bottom despairs. You can’t plug yourself into a magical device that keeps you safe from downfall, from suffering. There is no ‘sucks for you’ acceptability.