I am on the el in the middle of the afternoon. At the end of the almost empty car, in the part that’s slightly separated, and so perfect for sleeping, is an older African-American man. He is standing up and yelling about something. He is not loud, but he is yelling in the way that crazy people yell on the El. Standing in the almost doorway of that part is a younger African-American man. He is in his 20s, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt. He is holding a baby and carrying a backpack. The baby is large, maybe as big as my kids were at 18 months, but he seems younger, maybe a year, maybe 10 months. The baby is propped a little on his leg, sleepy and unsmiling. The younger man is speaking calmly to the older, yelling man.
It has been years since I stood, holding a too-heavy baby with no relief in site. But I can feel this baby’s heaviness in my arms.
I try not to stare but I am desperate to decode the situation. I decide the younger man is trying to help the older man, to get him off the train and get him food or help. Then the younger man says, “We’re at Cicero,” and he starts to walk away and stops by me to ask me for a dollar. He starts to tell me he needs to get on the bus, or something, and I do not even listen to the rest of his story.
I have no right, but I am disappointed. The life I imagined for this baby, with the strong father who stops to help strangers on the train, even while carrying his baby, is not the life this baby is having. This man is not the man I want him to be. I have no right to my anger and so I silently open my wallet and give him a dollar. I know better, I never open my purse, let alone my wallet, on a train, but I hand him the dollar and he walks out through the connecting door. He carries his baby from el car to el car through the connecting door and I am unjustly angry all over again.
The older man comes out of the vestibule and sits exhaustedly on a regular seat. His black t-shirt has something written on it in gold and he is wearing pink clam diggers with a black leggings or knee braces barely visible. It is the outfit of a crazy person yelling on the el, but out here, quiet and tired, he no longer looks crazy. He looks like Iggy Pop. Photographed correctly, in the right clothing, he would look like an aging dancer. Photographed a different way, like a heroin addict. He lays his head back on the seat and closes his eyes.
A few minutes later the younger man and the baby come back through the connecting doors. The younger man plops the baby down on the seat next to the older man. I finally understand that these two are not strangers. The older man lays a protective arm over the baby. A few minutes later, although the baby has not made a noise, the older man picks him up and moves him to his lap. The baby turns his body into the old man’s, placing his tired head on the man’s neck. For a minute, they look like the Pietá and I want so badly to stare, to take a picture, to try and figure out the new story developing. How are these three related? What is the life these men are living? How do they have anything left to cradle this child so tenderly?
I take out my phone, wondering if I could secretly capture the image, and I get a text from my daughter.
“No callback for me.”
About a year ago she decided she wanted to be an actor. She is taking a summer musical workshop through her high school. This is only the third play she’s ever auditioned for. She did not expect a callback for a lead, but she hoped, of course she hoped. I hoped for her. She will say she is not sad. She does not like pity or sympathy.
As I’m trying to decide whether “Too bad” or “Oh, I’m sorry” is the exact right response, the younger man stands up and takes the baby from the older man. The older man gets up, too. The baby is still sleepy, but not asleep. The younger man blows a raspberry on his cheek and the baby laughs. It is the first noise I’ve heard from him. It is almost too deep for a baby that age, but it is glorious.
The trio leaves the train and I still do not know the story.
I know that it is harder to be a 14-year-old girl who did not get the part than to be her mother. I know that it is harder to be the person asking for money than the person giving it. It is harder to carry your child from train car to train car than it is to sometimes wish you could still hold her. I know all of this. But sometimes I think it is plenty hard for us all.