I rode the El yesterday. It was the first time in a while. When I first moved to Chicago and worked downtown, the El was my reading time. It was part of my fantasy life of living in a big city, getting dressed up for work, wearing sneakers for the commute with a pair of heels in my bag, reading. I chose my books carefully because in the fantasy, that’s how I would meet the love of my life.
Very few parts of that fantasy life lasted for long. It has been years since I worked anywhere requiring a change of shoes (or a commute), and even longer since I wanted to do so. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more susceptible to motion sickness, so on the rare occasions I ride the El, I people watch instead. Yesterday, a stop or two after I got on, a woman got on and sat across from me. She seemed like someone I might know. She seemed like someone I could be in a few years.
She wore aggressively sensible shoes, a beautiful white cashmere scarf, a bright purple winter coat, and a mask that matched her coat. She had short curly hair, gray, but stylishly cut. Sensible, responsible, but fun. This was clearly the look she was going for. She took a book out of her bag. I couldn’t see the title, but the subtitle proclaimed it to be “a racial reckoning.” It was a library book. I don’t know if she was still looking for the love of her life, but if so, she didn’t want to “meet cute.” She wanted to “meet sensible, yet interesting.”
A few stops later another woman probably also about our age got on. An African-American woman, she wore a rainbow-colored scarf, and an old coat a size or two too big. She sat where she could lean against the entry divider and put her bags of belongings next to her. With one hand, she repeatedly shook an instant hand warmer package. With the other, she lit a cigarette. When I was a smoker, I was a frequent ash-flicker. Having a long ash made me nervous. It could get on my clothes, it could accidentally burn someone. Plus, in the old movies I loved, delicately flicking the ash into the ashtray, while looking up at a handsome stranger, was an admirable, sophisticated move, like leaving a lipstick print on a glass.
This woman was a long-asher. She did not flick the ash even once, she just sat there. Smoking with one hand, trying to warm the heating pack with the other. At a stop, the first woman stood up to go. She walked by the smoking woman, looked down at her and said, “There’s no smoking on the El.” She said it the way you might say “This is the stop for Nordstroms” or “Here’s how to make a sandwich.” As though the entire reason this woman was smoking on a train was because she didn’t know it was against the rules.
The smoking woman looked up. Tiredly, with no malice in her voice, she quietly said, “fuck you,” to the sensible woman. The sensible woman stared for a second and got off the train. Later, when I got off the train, I saw that she had not actually exited the train, she had simply moved cars.
Sometimes, we are not the people we think we will be, or even the people we think we are. Sometimes our life does not go where we think it will. But the El almost always does.