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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, December 7

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Praying in Catholic

Two teenaged boys were discussing the death of the one boy's aunt. I think he must have said that he had gone to the funeral the night before because his friend asked him, "Did they pray in Catholic?" I missed his reply. His friend continued to the effect that even if he had been to a funeral home that he hadn't been to a funeral. "It's not even a funeral if it's at a church. When they put the body in the ground, you know, the burial, that's the funeral. Everything else is a wake." Then he asked, "What did she die of?" "Suffocation." "Like drowning," said the friend, "It's all the same." They wanted to know if it was appropriate to wear baggy pants and sneakers. Then they were talking about a girl who met a guy over the summer and had his name tattooed on her back. She doesn't see him any more.


Ask Me, I know!

A girl and guy discussing corn.

They couldn't find the word kernel. They tried the "cob," the "ear."

"No, I mean the little pieces."

They laughed about being 22 and in college.

Plastic Tablecloth

As I boarded the train, a derelict woman was ranting. Loud, argumentative at the front of the car. I heard no response but she continued. She had a large plastic bag at her feet. A huge duffel-thing that couldn't be zipped shut for the quantity of stuff inside. Another large carryall with foodstuffs on top and yet one more large, full, plastic bag. She was black, somewhat gray. Her glasses were missing a lens on one side. She spread out, shook out, a red plastic tablecloth, flannel-lined, the kind we use for camping. I half-thought to reach forward to help her fold it. Instead, she flipped it behind her, pulled it over her head and just sat there beside her belongings. Then she pulled it close, like a shawl and laid her head on the food bag. Next I heard a rustle. Under the cover of the tablecloth, she was eating something crunchy! When I looked back again, she had her head out from under the tablecloth but had replaced it with a tight, clear plastic bag, like a cap.

Taking Charge of the Train

Tuesday night on the way home from class, I had just boarded the "L" at Washington. The automated announcement said, "Doors closing."

A tall, scruffy person, who evidently had been sleeping when the train pulled in, shouted, "Is this Washington? I need to get off at Washington. This is my stop." With that he leaped to the doorway and blocked the door. To no one in particular he repeated that he needed to get off here. While I was wondering why he didn't simply go ahead and get off, he gestured to his collection of bags on the seat he had just left.

"Somebody gotta hold this door so I can get my stuff."

We all just sat there staring at him. I sure wasn't going to hold the door for him. Let him ride to the next stop and come back. That's what I would have done. Have done.

"I mean it. Somebody gotta hold this door or y'all just gonna sit there. Train ain't gonna move while I'm standin' in the door."

Finally a woman from the back of the car went and stood in the doorway in his place. He went to his seat, picked up a bag of clothing and hefted a bag of canned food. Evidently the bag felt too heavy to him and he dumped some of the cans onto the seat. He selected two from the assortment, put them back in the bag. He announced that he was leaving the rest and to "help yourselves."

He thanked the lady who had held the door and with a flourish got off. As we pulled out of the station, he was dancing — leaping and spinning on the platform, one bag in each hand.


For What It's Worth

Pulling my gloves out of my pocket on the subway platform, I dropped a quarter. I looked around in the dim underground light but couldn't see it. I made eye contact with a curly-haired, middle-aged woman and shrugged. I walked about fifteen feet away. Watching her, I saw that she had located it. She looked around quickly as if to make sure no one beat her to the money. She didn't pick it up. She checked me once more. I turned away toward the tracks. Curious, I continued watching from the corner of my eye. She stooped, scooped and pocketed it. I turned back, looking directly at her. Our eyes met, she looked away. Men have urinated, people hawked and vomited on the platform. What's a quarter worth?


When we pulled up to the stop, there was a short line waiting to get on the bus. From the middle of the bus, I watched a young guy pay his fare, get a transfer and step into the bus but staying near the door, presumably to wait for his buddy. I saw person #2 as she paid her fare. While the driver was busy watching her, the first boy handed his transfer, behind the back of #3, to #4. Then #3 got on. #4 stepped onto the bus, used the transfer, high-fived his buddy and they sat down.

Passback Suburban-style

I was crossing the bridge at Cumberland en route to the train. Coming towards me were two well-dressed men carrying briefcases. One was white, the other black. The black man was bouncing on his toes as he walked, a sort of exuberant stride, swinging his arms. His face lit up when he saw me. "Ma'am, excuse me, ma'am. Are you going to be taking the train?" I nodded. "Here you go." He extended a fare card in my direction. "It's still got some money on it. It'll get you on the train." Before I could thank him, he turned back to his buddy.

I wondered if I was looking particularly needy. Maybe it was just his obvious high spirits that had prompted this act of kindness. Then my cynical side kicked in. Act of kindness, my foot! Wonder how little is left? Would it really be enough to get me on the train?

I intended to take it to the fare-checker. Instead, I got in the queue with other passengers. If it didn't have enough, so be it. They would be pissed; I would be pissed. But sometimes you got to go with the flow.

I inserted it into the machine. As I went through the stile, I looked at the readout. Grinning, I walked over to the trash barrel and tossed the card. He was right. It deducted exactly the amount of a transfer, leaving a zero balance.



Another morning as I was coming up the escalator at the Cumberland CTA plaza, I heard an in-bound train announced. I hurried across the bridge with a scant look at the Kennedy traffic below me. With temperatures only in the 20s I wasn't going to wait 10 minutes for the next train if I could help it.

I slipped my fare card into the slot. The machine clunked as usual; I yanked my card. I shoved against the stile and bruised my hip. The damn thing was still locked! I hesitated, trying to decide if I wanted to lose another $1.75 in a ripoff or to miss my train. A rumble beneath my feet convinced me to stick the card in again.

Just as I was about to insert it, a CTA employee said, "Wait a minute. Let me check it for you." He took the card from my hand. Popping over to the card checker, he slid it through. He turned back to me and said, "It didn't charge you." Then he handed it to me. "Try again."

Chagrined at having had to wait, I put the card in. The machine clunked; I yanked my card. I shoved against the stile and passed through, in time to see the train leave the station. As if in response to the slump of my shoulders, the worker called to me, "You're welcome." Yeah, yeah, I know. You were being nice for a change.

Human Development

A young woman had a book open on her lap. She was writing responses to the second page of a questionnaire. Probably a student. As she got ready to leave, I saw that the title of the book was Human Development. While she has been studying humans in a book, I have been watching three small children travelling with Grandma just across from her. Two of them have been attempting to peel fruit rollups from the backingsheets without taking off their winter gloves. A toddler in a stroller has been sloshing a bottle of juice, not a baby bottle with a nipple, a regular glass bottle, with every jerk of the train. She can't get it near her mouth. Grandma is oblivious to all the children. Maybe she, too, reads books about Human Development.

Didn't Ask You

Two old ladies, probably sisters. Both white, same fluffy hairdo, same style of eyeglasses. Both with similar wooden canes. Sitting side by side. Arguing. The word "provoking" and the phrase "didn't ask you to sit here."


Three Minutes

Last winter, I had just left the "L" and was waiting for my Division Street bus. I heard the siren from a fire engine. As I watched, it pulled up to the subway entrance in Algren Park. Firemen went down the steps. James was the next person I saw, coming up.

James is the custodian at this Blue Line stop. For the last year or so, we've "hey" to each other and complained about the weather. I was surprised to see him directing frustrated people to the other entrance across the street. An ambulance made a U-turn on Ashland, pulling in behind the fire truck. Paramedics got out with a bright orange stretcher, pushed past James and went below ground.

About that time the #70 came along and I boarded, not knowing what had happened. On my trip home, I saw James emptying the recycling bin on the platform. I said, "Had a little excitement here this morning, didn't you?" He said, "Yes. Yes, we did. Damn fool fell down the stairs. Broke his leg. Steps wasn' icy, wasn' wet. He be at the top of the stairs, sees his train, and he start runnin'. Musta missed his step and he fell. Runnin' for the train! That time a day trains come every three minutes. Three minutes! You ain't got three minutes, you got nothin'."

Peanut Butter and Jelly

A young child and a woman who was perhaps her mother got on the "L" at Addison. The girl sat down opposite her mother, next to me. I was scribbling in my journal. She was watching me intently as I wrote. I turned to her and asked if she liked stories. I told her I was writing about my brother's wife who was a very bad cook. To explain how bad a cook she was, I described her making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the peanut butter on the outside. I was rewarded with a tiny chuckle. She dug around in her Scooby Doo backpack to show me her new pencil. She used it to begin printing something on her transfer. When I tried to look, she covered it with her hand. Suddenly her mother was saying they had to get off. Blaming the girl she said, "You should have been paying attention." She grabbed the pencil from the child, "Give me that before you stab yourself with it." (If I were the girl, the danger would be that I would stab her, the mother, with it). The two guys seated next to us helped the child with her backpack. Only then did the mother become sicky sweet — to the guys — while still yelling at the girl.

I saw them, a few weeks later. This time they sat together, across from me. Then the child recognized me and moved across the aisle. "I'm in first grade. I'm six but I'll be seven on January 11, 2003." At least I think that's what she said. Rooting in her backpack she came up with a brand new box of 16 Crayolas which she showed me. Glancing at her mother, she quickly put them back.


Candy — Belmont

I was headed toward O'Hare on the Blue Line. At Belmont a group of unusually dressed people get on the train. The women appeared to be white while the man is deep caramel color. The women had scarves over their heads, long dresses, costume that I associate with Muslims. The man had a round white cap that is flat on top. He also wore a long white robe that had a placket embroidered in gold. Gold-rimmed glasses slid from his nose. His curly, grey beard reached to his chest. They were all wearing sandals.

Two of the women took seats near the door. The others stood. A child, perhaps three years old, clung to the leg of one of the standing women. Someone called to her and she attempted a few steps toward the voice. The train was rocking, which threw her off balance. The man reached a hand to steady her. They began to make a small game of it. The little one was held back as if at a starting line. Someone said something which I understood to be "go." She raced to someone else. Then it was repeated. Her laughter and the pleasure of the women was contagious. I found myself smiling.

Somewhere near the Harlem station, one of the women walked over to the man. She said something to him. The only word I recognized was Belmont. She repeated herself several times. His reply was "Yes, yes, Belmont." She moved back to the other side of the car.

As we neared Cumberland, she approached him again and asked something with the word Belmont in it. This was my stop so I ledt my seat to stand in the doorway. Concerned that they might be on the wrong train (Belmont is back 6 or 7 stops), I asked the man if they wanted to go to Belmont.

He replies, "Belmont? No, no. She asked where we started from, where we got on the train."

"That's good," I said. "I just thought you might be on the wrong train."

"It is very kind of you to ask. Please ..." At this point he gestured and said something to the woman nearest him. She handed him a bag of candy. "Please take a candy from me in gratitude." I told him, "Thank you but I don't want any candy." He tried to pull open the bag but it wouldn't give. "If I can just get the bag to open... I will give you a candy." He put the edge of the bag in his teeth trying to tear it. It still wouldn't open. By now I have reassured him several times, "Thank you. I don't want any candy." He was practically hopping up and down with the prospect of giving me some candy. "Yes! You shall have a candy for your kindness."

That's when the train pulled into my station. I stepped out and said goodbye. As I rode the escalator, I wondered what a difference it might make if kindness were always rewarded.


About the Author(s)

Cheryl Hagedorn is a writer in Chicago.

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