Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

Strangers on a train.

The final resolution of last week’s nerve-wracking blunder now rests in the mood of one person in New York City, who will either understand our situation or be absolutely enraged at it. I’ve been waiting on pins and needles all day to hear what his response might be.

Earlier today, the four people in this office who I might consider my immediate supervisors had to have a quick meeting that lasted forty-five minutes. I spent the whole time wondering if they were discussing what to do about me. Is this ego? It hurt too much to be ego. The meeting turned out to be completely unrelated, as far as I can tell.

I’ve been taking Chicago trains to and from places for almost three years now. It’s an interesting environment, being almost completely shapeless. The combinations of people on each train is never quite the same one twice, as far as I can tell. Even if, by sheer chance, the exact same people end up on the same train, it’s unlikely that they all end up in the same car.

Barring people who I know from real life, that is, outside of the commuter rabble, I found myself thinking about three people who have in some way or another made themselves distinctive during the morning or evening rush.

1) The Engineer-Poet. Usually a fixture on the evening Red Line runs, The Engineer-Poet is one of those who revels in his intercom, as opposed to many who say nothing unless the emergency button is accidentally pushed, even to offer the important information that a Brown Line is waiting on the outside track. He speaks to every stop, gleefully, usually with the following rhyme:

“All aboard, all aboard. You made that big money, now it’s time to go home to your honey.”

Something about this reassures me. I smile. I suspect that this train ride will go very, very smoothly.

2) The Home-Less Man. “Soliciting on CTA trains is prohibited,” says the automatic voice periodically. This doesn’t stop some, including this fellow, who slings his sales pitch from car to car, always the exact same way:

“Excuse me, everybody. I don’t mean no harm. I’m Home-Less. I’m trying to get enough money to buy a sandwich. I’m Home-Less. Anything would help. God Bless You. I don’t mean no harm, I’m Home-Less.”

In Urbana, there were two panhandlers who became somewhat famous to the college students. The first, “Spareanything” spouted his own nickname and little else. The Bicycle Man, however, owned a bicycle, if not much else, and would offer rides to anybody willing to give him some change.

I don’t know if panhandling is like showbusiness [1], although the parallels are obvious. Is it better to be even a little distinctive from the otherwise ambiguous crowd of Home-Less, or is it counterproductive? Are you more likely to give to a homeless person you can identify, or one who you never have to see again? On the one hand, one might be more inclined to give if they have fostered a relationship of sorts with the receiver; but on the other, you’re less likely to be disappointed if you run into this person again and your money didn’t help at all [2].

3) Downtown Venus. There are actually several incarnations of the Downtown Venus, but the first one pointed out to me sticks in my head. Suffice to say that she said nothing worth remembering, but that she looked stunning, from a few feet away, and quite possibly knew this. After she got off the train, a young man nearby turned to his friend and murmured, “I don’t need that this early in the morning.”

Trains are like snowflakes. This is a metaphor that I’m sure would be lost on many.

[1] And indeed, many of the street performers I’ve seen are among the best live acts I’ve seen in any venue. Cambridge, Massachusetts ran the gamut, from a fantastic street juggler, to a one-man band, to a Peruvian folk ensemble, to one sad-looking woman who sang crystal-clear arias from behind a small foam cup. In New York City, I was once treated to the sound of two men playing a cello and a violin, across the platforms from each other, in an acoustically perfect station.

[2] I may have written of this before, but I was once approached by a young man who doggedly implored me for change to get on a bus back to his girlfriend, mentioning that he had just been released from the local prison. To his credit, after I finally gave him a dollar, I never saw him again.

Current music: MP3 list, David Bowie, “Young Americans”

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This entry was posted on March 12, 2003 by in Chicago.
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