I was sitting on the train, trying to decode David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.. I had been trying to read for it entirely too long when he stepped on the train. Or rather, when he stepped on my foot.
“God damn, mother fucking! I don’t give a damn if I go to jail tonight!”
He reeked of Boonsfarm or some other cheap and fruity booze. Soon the whole train would reek of his wrath.
“And a black man in America. Martin Luther fucking King had his day. I don’t care if I go to jail, tonight!”
He started stripping down, layer after to layer. First he took off a large Pittsburgh Penguins Starter jacket, circa 1991, then a windbreaker, and then he took off a fleece. He threw article after article of clothing on the seat in front of him. He was about 5’4 and maybe 40 years old. I thought about switching seats. His scent was decidedly that of Skid Row Vet.
“Shut up! Just the fuck up! I’m on the train!” He was now down to just a tee shirt, which hung loosely on his thin frame. Piled before him was what looked to be half of the Fall Collection from the Salvation Army on Slauson Avenue.
He stood in the aisle of the train. I stared at my book and made as much progress as I had before his arrival. None.
Some people tried to read. Others just stared, waiting for him to make a move. Usually, things like this happen when I try and convince a friend from the suburbs to ride the train downtown with me. “Yeah, it’s safe,” I tell them. “It’s great and it’s just like the Tube in London. Nobody talks.” Fortunately or unfortunately, tonight I was on my own.
He frog jumped up in the air. He got pretty high in the air. Then he did it again and I jetted across the aisle and back a row. Everyone seemed to be laughing.
“Why don’t you sit down, sir,” a Teenage Girl’s voice called from the far end of the train. “You’re acting like a damn fool!”
“What!? What?” he charged her direction, but stopped and turned back. A hipster, clad in an oversized wool beanie, snug pea coat and skinny jeans stared blatantly. He stared more obviously than the rest. I figured it was because the Hipster was white and didn’t know better.
Retreating back to his seat. The 5’4 Penguins Fan curled up in a ball and started shrieking. People laughed. From the fetal position, which only a man of his stature could have fit, he yelped and sniffled loudly. After several minutes and a couple train stops he popped up, recharged.
“I am sorry,” he whined. “I’m wrong. I accept responsibility. I can’t help myself.”
The ethnically ambiguous Teenage Girl, who earlier told him to sit down, spoke up again.
“You’re going to hell.”
“What? What you say to me,” his voice creaked and carried. He was shocked.
“I said – you’re going to hell, sir.”
He flung himself out of the fetal position. “Jail! I’m not going to jail. You provoked me. You attacked me.” He lunged forward again. “I did whatever I did, but what I did, I did because of what you had prior, prrrrior, done to me.”
“I didn’t say nothing about jail,” she yelled back. “I said hell. You are going to hell.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” he sounded like a freshly pressed Little Richard vinyl, dated 1952. “I am not. I’m not going to hell. You’re going to hell. Not me. I’m not going nowhere!”
Although some passengers looked scared, most stared on amused. Passengers turned off their mp3 players and listened with the their headphones in. Open paperbacks and newspapers went neglected. Even the wealthier downtown residents let their Blackberries sit dormant in pockets and purses. I was facing away from the scene, but I heard it all. The Hipster continued to stare; more so than the others.
“Stay where you are, sir.” The Teenage Girl yelled. “I’m warning you.”
“You provoked me,” he shuffled a few steps forward like a fencer on the attack. “I did nothing to you and whatever I did do, I did because of what you did to me and I had forgave you for what you had said…”
“I’m telling you stay where you are or we’re going to have problems. I’m warning you. If I have to get up; there’s going to be problems.” She couldn’t have been older than fourteen or fifteen.
He shuffled a few steps closer. He had traveled from the middle of the train all the way to the last section of seats.
“You’re the one going to hell. Ha!”
“Man, stay the fuck back.” She stood up and so did her plump Mexicana friend.
Another black man, a few years younger, stood up and walked over to the Penguins Fan.
“Hey man, why don’t you chill,” he whispered into the screaming man’s ear. “Take a seat. You don’t want any problems.”
“You take one step closer and I will beat the shit out of your drunk ass.” The Teenage Girl threatened. The Mexicana giggled. “I will kick your ass, you drunk fool!” There wasn’t an eye on the train that wasn’t glued to the scene. The Hipster was now standing, looming actually, over my seat.
“They’ll call the police and everything,” the younger black man tried to reason. “You don’t want that. You don’t want to go to jail. Just chill, chill.”
The Penguins Fan pointed at the Teenage Girl. “You provoked me!” He lunged his head forward then turned to walk back to his seat. The girls clapped loudly.
“That’s what I thought, you drunk fool. You asshole!”
He sat down with his pile of garments in front of him.
A scraggly looking black man with a beanie holding a crossword puzzle with words like “Administration” and “Progress,” tried speaking with him. “That’s right, take a seat, just take a seat. Take a seat.”
When the Penguins Fan was already seated. The scraggly man leaned over. “You’re making us look bad. Why you making us– all black folk, look bad?”
The Penguins Fan, who was making black folk look bad, started to wail and loudly cried out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I can’t help myself. I can’t. I can’t help myself.”
“Stop crying,” he said. “Stop acting like how everything thinks crazy niggas act. You see any white people screaming on this train? Any Chinese? La-tin-nos?” He pronounced every syllable independently of the last. The scraggly man stood over the Penguins fan until he thought he’d made his point. Then he went back to doing the crossword and shaking his head.
All was quiet for a bit. The Teenage Girl got off the train. From outside she yelled, “Asshole!” and the Mexicana giggled again.
The 10:19 p.m. train to North Hollywood zoomed on. He started wailing again. Passengers couldn’t help, but laugh. He was curled up into a little ball. With his knees to his chin, we couldn’t even see him, but we could certainly smell him. He shouted and howled, at the top of his lungs, sometimes muffled by the seat or his arm and sometimes not.
The man with the crossword puzzle got off the train at the next stop. “Damn fool,” he muttered. My stop was next. I stood up and walked to the door. I wanted to get a peek at this guy, but not bad enough to get near him. It wasn’t worth a confrontation. He cried behind his seat and I waited for a glimpse.
When the train was almost to my stop, the Hipster stood up and took a seat next to the Penguins Fan. I couldn’t understand why. Maybe he was getting off at the next stop too. Though we had passed Vermont/Beverly, Vermont/Santa Monica and Vermont/Sunset, the stops where everyone with a fixed-gear and pervasive tattoos religiously exited.
Then he looked at the Penguins Fan. The Hipster’s head dropped down by the sobs. Ten seconds passed. I wondered what was being said. Then thirty seconds and a minute. The sobs stopped. The Hipster, looked like he was talking to the man who made all black folk look bad. He looked like he was whispering something, like he was trying to comfort the man. He stayed crouched next to the man who had jumped and screamed at the top of his lungs. The man who now laid in the fetal position talking to a white kid in a wool hat and skinny jeans.
I missed my stop awhile back so I got off at the next one. I walked by the pair. They were nearly cheek-to-cheek. When I got off, I stared from the platform and the train left, headed north, with the Hipster who missed his stop and the Penguins Fan who gave all other black folk a bad name.
-The Neapolitan Mastiff