Riding the EL with the poets

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By Mary Kay O'Grady

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Riding the EL is when I'm part of the diversity that is valued in Oak Park. I love to read my Kindle, but I also love to look at the people - the guys who prefer to stand by the door all the time, the people who never look up from their book or paper, the working stiffs, the ladies who lunch, the kids who talk and talk and talk, the babies who smile and laugh and make me smile and laugh, the jerks who yell on their phones, the ones who doze all the way home.
 
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone. Maya Angelou

I've always liked T. S. Eliot's poem on aging, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Some of the lines remind me of how I feel when I ride the EL alone at night:

 
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair . . .
 
I've developed strategies that I hate, but that I figure might keep me safe. I try to board with a crowd, which is easy in rush hour or coming home from the Symphony, but not so easy on a night when there's no sports or music event in town. I sometimes head for the first car because that's where the conductor is and can presumably call for help if anything bad is happening. If I'm alone on the platform, I try to stand or sit near other people.
 
As it turns out, most of the disturbing things, which seem to on the increase, happen during the day. 
 
I recently I got on the Green Line at Harlem on a Sunday afternoon. A guy got on shortly after and asked me for change. I said I didn't have any. I try to carry a few bucks in my pocket, but I often forget.
 
. . .giving money to the poor.
The worthy poor. The very very worthy
And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?
perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim
Nor -- passionate.
Gwendolyn Brooks
 
Then he went to another woman, who argued with him and then got up and got off the train. He followed her off the train. None of us turned around to see what was going on on the platform; we had on our EL faces, pretending to look through people and minding our own business. 
 
Humankind cannot bear very much reality. T.S. Eliot
 
Then the woman got back on and sat down. He followed her back on and stood over her. She jumped back up and got off. Mind you - the train had not yet left the station. I decided to follow her, but the doors closed. I sat back down and he started yelling at me, things like "Do you think I want to be doing this? Did I touch you? Did I hit you? Did I hurt you at all?" I realized that the emergency button was a few feet away from me. I didn't move. I was trying too hard not to cry.
 
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. 
Gwendolyn Brooks
 
The Game of Menace
I'm aware that most young people who dress and behave in a "menacing" way are playing a game: they get to scare people like me. In turn, people like me get to feel angry, afraid, guilty and hopeless. 
 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .William Butler Yeats
 
I've developed a quick "scan" to determine whether someone around me is menacing. I note the black hoodie, pants falling down, hands not visible, looking at everyone with a scowl and using foul language, especially in a group. My scan includes the good signs: carrying a backpack, listening intently to earphones, and being on the phone. I figure someone who has a phone is not looking for mine.
 
If I'm uncomfortable, I often slip out the door and quickly board an adjacent car. Recently that backfired when I went from a guy singing obscene songs to a guy who had been sick on himself and was having seizures. I reported the guy having seizures, thinking he needed an ambulance, and was told "he's like that every day."
 
I've pretty much decided that the mumblers, the preachers, and the lurchers up and down the aisle are harmless.
 
Recently I came home on the EL in rush hour. I was seated next to a young man, someone who could be described as clean-cut, probably high school or college age. A woman stood above him, sixtyish I'd guess, weighted down with purse and tote, and swaying as she held onto the strap above her. I turned to him and said, " Are you sure you want her to stand?" He replied "Are you sure you do?" I said "I'm over seventy." He turned back and took a large book out of his book bag, and opened it to begin reading. It was Milton's Paradise Lost.

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