Thursday, May 13, 2010


Peter stood with a bouquet of flowers as we waited for the light rail. Peter wore cargo shorts, a button-up camp shirt, and clean black tennis shoes. Peter paced back and forth from the moment he got to the street corner until he took his seat on the train. When I sneezed Peter said "God bless you." Heartily, like he meant it.

Where was Peter going? Naturally that was my first question. You can't judge a book by its cover and you can't judge a guy by his light rail stop. A connecting bus can take him just about anywhere and there are a hundred possibilities on top of that. Roseville Road? Don't be so sure. Wherever he was going he was about to make some lucky lady very happy.

Or was it a girl? Maybe the roses were two days late for Mothers' Day. Maybe they were meant to lay at a grave, though this possibility didn't seem likely. His poor taste in shoes made me dismiss the possibility that the bouquet was for a man and I was startled by this uninformed and unfounded conclusion. His boyfriend might be just as embarrassed as I was by Peter's pedestrian taste, or he might not care at all which would just serve me right for stereotyping.

The pacing though, why the pacing? It wasn't weary enough for the flowers to be for a jilted wife. It wasn't self-conscious enough for the flowers to be for a secret lover. (Peter wasn't dashing enough to even have a secret lover, but there I go jumping to conclusions again.) The pacing seemed just nervous and blissful enough for a fresh new romance (hence the hearty "God bless you"), a second date maybe, or the follow-up to a promising third.

Yes, Peter was in love. At least in like. The orangish-pinkish roses were bound to be just sweet enough to make up for whatever stupid thing he'd said. The way he didn't walk on the outside of her or pull out her chair when the host finally seated them. The awkward thing he'd said that was and wasn't about her body, and did and didn't reveal what close attention he'd paid to it. Flowers seem to do the trick. And if not, the relationship was skating on thin ice already.

I had so many questions for Peter. If you wear shorts in the spring what do you do when it gets even hotter? What do you do with your hands while you're using that Bluetooth device? I wanted to tell him he'd left the price tag on the bouquet's cellophane wrapper but maybe that price tag would tell her (or him, of course) more about Peter than any number of successful dates ever could.

That he left the tag on flowers. That he wore crew socks with shorts. That he paced nervously, sat with a bouncing leg, and nearly leaped off the train at his not-so-final stop. With a bouquet of useless things he's not sure why you like. He's actually not completely sure you do. But he's trying, X amount of dollars worth, to make you believe that you are even a fraction of what he sees in you. So excuse the obvious hat hair and the pale, knobby legs. Love might be staring through wire framed glasses into your not-yet-believing eyes. God bless you.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I looked around a few times to make sure that my observation was correct: there were no women in this train car. I'd never seen anything like it but part of me was surprised I had noticed so quickly. Still I wonder why that was.

The seats around me were occupied by a group of lively and puckish teenagers whose music, though not anything I would have chosen to listen to, was a welcome addition to the journey. Strains of rap songs accompanied what was usually a quiet, smooth ride. This time it was neither. The train, obviously experiencing difficulties, whined to a stop between stations.

"Damn, y'all, the light rail stopped." The rest of the group laughed at the commentary of the kid I assumed was some sort of leader. He looked like he was the oldest and he seemed to have final say over what song they would listen to next. Obviously. After I'd chuckled at the politics of juvenile social groups I stopped to consider whether the groups of friends I spent time with had such leaders. Obviously, was the answer. I began paying closer attention.

The conversation seemed to center on their individual and collective plans for the rest of the day and it became clear almost right off the bat that no one had any. So, the question became one of how to fill the day.

"I just don't wanna go home, my mom is pissed."

"Your momma's always pissed."

"My brother said come over sometime."

"He don't want all of us to come over."

"He don't care."

"I bet he does care when he sees our ugly ass over there."

"I got that party tonight."

"Dude. She don't even want you at that party."

"She said she did, man, what the hell?"

And so on. All these plans were dependent, of course, on that train starting up again, a possibility none of us was going to take for granted at this point. Sure, it had only been ten minutes, but it was hot.

Most interesting of all, though, was the man sitting on the bench next to me. The only other person nearby that wasn't a part of the prevailing group. My fellow outsider. He busied himself reading what looked like an unbelievably sterile company newsletter of some kind. I checked more than once to see if he was awake because I couldn't believe that he was.

The group's negotiations continued in much the same vein. I concentrated on the man. He was obviously old enough to be the grandfather of anyone in the vicinity, including me. He wore a t-shirt tucked into the elastic waistband of his pants and the crook of his cane rested on his wrist. The wrist that held the newsletter. The newsletter I couldn't believe anyone was actually reading.

But was he? The more I concentrated on the man who I'd now decided was named Walter and who had been riding this train since before any of us were born, the more I noticed him react along with me to the activity in the car. He chuckled with me as one kid told another who sounded like his brother how to properly wear a beanie (a ridiculous hat in that weather). Walter rolled his eyes with mine when one boy assured another that his cousin could buy them some beer. And we shuddered in unison as one of them alluded to a sexual encounter with another's big sister.

Walter was listening as keenly as I was. Or maybe he was trying as hard not to listen as I was trying to appear casual through my eavesdropping. Walter had grown old on this train. He had seen his children and, in turn, grandchildren grow, walk, talk, laugh, deceive, break laws, break hearts, cry, hurt, change, and love. That, coupled with his own experience with all of the above, gave him every right to look tired and to escape into the solace of very, very boring reading.

Maybe he wasn't amused. Maybe he saw the sacrifices he'd made passing by like the stark South Sacramento landscape through the window. But maybe he was laughing at all of us. Not just the band of scrappy up-to-no-good teenagers but also the uptight always-in-a-hurry recent graduate who wondered how much longer this delay could possibly be.

Walter's life was probably a simple one. And he probably knew much more than any of us. As hard a pill as it is to swallow, old people know stuff. The train soon got moving again and the kids got off at the next stop. They laughed and shoved each other, looked at something in the trash can, laughed some more, and sauntered into moving traffic, expecting cars to stop while they made their way across. Cars stopped. The kids smirked, in no hurry. I really wonder what happened with them next.

I wonder too what happened to Walter. Why didn't I see him get off the train? It reached the end of the line and I hurried off to catch my bus. I looked back at the congested crowd of passengers clustered outside the now closing doors of the train. No Walter. I tend to think he hadn't quite finished his newsletter and wasn't getting off that train until he had. He wasn't in any hurry either.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Preston and Danielle

No one said a word to one another except for these two. They were sitting far enough apart that they had to raise their voices to be heard, making it nearly impossible not to listen in.

Him: a self-assured, spray-tanned guy with a mini laptop and a classic douchebag haircut. Her: the kind of girl men are referring to when they say they like a woman with "meat on her bones" (a description I've always found somewhat alarming), a very pretty girl whose confidence was trying hard to measure up to his, who wore several earrings in each ear and had a spray tan of her own.

I caught them mid-conversation. "Kindergarten, huh? That's crazy," he said. "Alright, see, what you gotta do is just really stock up on that trail mix with the M&M's in it, kids LOVE that stuff."

"Oh yeah?" Her posture was casual and her eyes floated around his perimeter, only occasionally making contact with his.

"Seriously, I was all about that stuff when I was that age. What is it, four? Six? Yeah, but my kindergarten teacher would always bring it in for us and I'd just go for it, you know? I bet you don't believe this but I was seriously a chubby little guy."



"So, trail mix?"

"Really, I just went for the M&M's. I'd pick those out before anyone got to them."
Somehow, I had no trouble believing this. I laughed and looked around the train; someone else HAD to be hearing this. But no, not the sleeping man, the nervous woman, or the couple that sat in silence, hands clasped.

When I looked back the girl was twirling a gold band in her fingers. "How come it was on the middle one?" she asked him, a new edge to her voice.

"It doesn't fit."

"Uh huh."


She laughed, unsure, and gave him back the ring. The train made its way across a particularly noisy section of track and I didn't hear the words they exchanged as he slipped the ring back on. Something mildly humorous, a coy retort, then something outrageous enough to get her eyebrows up that high.

"Wow. I've never heard that one before." She didn't seem amused anymore but he didn't seem to be apologizing.

"Well, you're young. Give it some time, you'll hear worse than that."

"You're not that much older than me."

"I have a lot to learn too. Seriously, I didn't say I didn't."

"I've seen a lot, okay? Trust me, you have three kids you learn a thing or two."

He nodded, pretending he knew what she was talking about. Something told me these three kids were news to him. As shocking as his wedding band had been to her? Maybe.

What could it have been that prompted her to say, "I've never heard that one before?" What hadn't she heard? What hasn't she seen or lived through? This twenty-something mother of three with no wedding ring of her own and, by the looks of it, a vacancy she'd like to fill with a man. Even, perhaps, with a shaved-legged, Billabong-wearing, cocksure young urbanite on the train.

Maybe it was something simple and offensive like, "If it were up to me I wouldn't wear it at all." Or an attempt at something wittier: "Ironically, that's the finger I use most in my marriage," or "I only wear it to attract the ladies." Her strong reaction made me think it was something even worse. Maybe, "That's not the only thing of mine that's too big," probably followed by, "seriously."

The conversation soon turned down a less interesting road. Evidently he rarely rides public transit but his bike is in the shop. "I know you didn't ask, but I feel obligated to tell you: it's a Honda RVT 1000"

"Wow. How much did you pay for a bike like that?" Now it was my eyebrows' turn to raise at this surprisingly personal question.

"Nothing. Seriously."

"Hmm. Lucky."

And that was that. No questions, no clarification. The ambiguity hung in the air. The train pulled into the Arden/Del Paso station and he got up with a simple, "Wow, we got here FAST."

He would have to have a name like Preston, one that makes you question at first whether you're going to like him. And then, like the girl who was now looking more alone than the rest of the train's lonely passengers, you'd hear so much more than you wanted to hear that you're done asking any questions at all. There was a spring in his step and a wife waiting at home for him. She'd tell him about the voicemail message from the motorcycle shop: "It's gonna be a couple more days, looks like." He'd tell her he didn't really mind the train and she'd kiss him and run her fingers through his Ryan Seacrest hair.

"Meat on her bones" must have had a name like Danielle. She didn't resent how it lumped her together with thousands of other girls, girls without three kids at 23. And she never went by "Dani" or anything else. She reveled in both syllables, in the coveted femininity and normalcy they lent her. She was beautiful but I don't think she believes that. The earrings and tan weren't a testament to her self-esteem; they were a defense against any accusations to the contrary. Attention from a guy like Preston seemed to breathe life into her. I wonder if the kindergartners do the same.

Danielle didn't escape from their encounter quite so unscathed. It seemed the minute Preston disembarked she curled back up inside of herself, cuddling into the corner of her bench, facing forward, and marking the time until she too could get off of this train. Her arms were folded across her chest and she nervously ran this tips of her fingers back and forth across her lips.

"How sad," I thought, then looked down at my own folded arms and legs stretched out to discourage anyone from sharing my seat. Danielle seemed at every stop to look through the windows as if she were asking herself, "Should I get off here? Is this where I want to be?" Ultimately, she and I got off at the same stop and went our separate ways. She probably went home to her three kids that her parents helped her care for, fixing herself a sandwich and sitting down to watch the "Wiggles" DVD for the thousandth time.

She'd refer to Preston as a jerk or some even less savory name the next time she went out for drinks with her girlfriends. And the next time she put on the low-cut short brown dress with ties at the shoulders she'd prepare for, expect, even hope for another jerk to come along, at least for a few stops.


The smiling lady sat across from me. Or, I should say, I sat across from her. When I got on the train at Cathedral Square she'd already been sitting there for I don't know how long. I didn't think twice when she flashed me a warm smile as I sat down; it's one of the hazards of accidental eye contact. I didn't pay much attention to her after that, after the train shuddered, then groaned, then set out on its way.

I watched the city pass by through the window, then glanced around the car. Eyes were turned outward like mine had been, fixed on iPods, or focused self-consciously on fingernails or floor. The smiling lady's were still up, still beaming with the rest of her.

I was a little embarrassed when she saw me seeing her again. I raised my eyebrows as if in innocent, helpless weariness. "Are we there yet?"

When this banal and tedious display seemed to amuse her I assumed she must have children of her own. I imagined in the oversized purse she held on her lap a wallet full of photos, then reconsidered. No busy mom I've known seems to carry photos around with her; those are fodder for grandmas and aunts. And those rough hands, unpainted nails, and periodically flexing fingers were proof enough that I was right about the mom thing.

The workday was done and Mom was probably on her way home. Maybe Dad worked graveyard shifts and the kids played quietly but happily while he slept with the blinds pulled shut. They'd wake him up in "blood or barf" situations, but they knew it was best to let him sleep. When Mom got home, though, and dinner was on the table, they'd rush into his room to wake him for the couple hours of family togetherness they always counted on before Dad had to rush off to work. This early-evening ritual. This daily Christmas morning, children laughing, Dad pretending (just like always) not to wake up, Mom looking on, smiling.

I imagined the dinner table conversation. Her second-oldest, a nine-year-old boy, is crass and self-centered. But his eyes fill up with tears whenever he gets scolded so the smiling lady lets more things slide than she ever imagined she would. Her husband supports her in this, secretly suppressing laughter all the while. The oldest is their daughter who boiled the water for the pasta and hung up the drapes standing on her toes on a dining room chair after taking them to the laundromat with her mom the night before. Both parents worry she's growing up too fast but know that the family needs her help and believes that she's happy to give it. She updates her parents on her school situation as the nine-year-old plays with his food. And the baby, five-year-old Jeffrey, tries to get a word in edgewise between the grown-up conversation and his own incessant giggling.

I imagined how hard it must be for the smiling lady. Her daily alone time with her husband was probably a matter of minutes. And being away from her children all day must be hard, especially for a mother who I like to think is so delighted by the things that they do. Still, all things considered, though time might be short, she has a family she loves very much. And that is enough reason for any amount of smiling.

Of course, I may be projecting my own experience onto this woman's life. Family dinners form much of the substance of what I describe as my "happy childhood." But something in this woman's face made me feel a warmth I've seldom felt outside the dining nook of my suburban family home.

Why the smile? This lady probably had more reason than I did to be tired at the end of a long day such as this. But maybe she had more reason to be happy too. Again our eyes met and I felt like she'd been waiting there for me, that somehow I was making her day.

That's the astounding thing about the people we really love: what they give us is not a handout of happiness or the feeling they're doing us any favors. They offer us an important part to play, somewhere in their world. The satisfaction of a smile on their face.

And so it was. At our next stop another woman got on the train and sat down next to my new friend. They engaged in conversation and I wished I was listening to that rather than the Coldplay coming through my earbuds. When I went to pause the music, however, something stopped me. The fear that maybe I'd been wrong. The possibility that there was no slumbering husband, no mildly-behaved Cratchit-esque children waiting for her at home. She might have been telling this lady about her aging cat or her sister's cancer treatments. Maybe she was being set up on a date that night with a man who'd break her heart or maybe she, like me, was looking forward to her regularly scheduled television programming.

I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and turned the music volume up. A few minutes later when I sneezed I heard a vague and muffled "Bless you" from the world outside my headphones. There really wasn't any way to tell, but without thinking I turned back to the smiling lady and offered a friendly "thank you." Of course it was her. She smiled back at me.

I named her "Connie." I decided her husband woke up earlier than usual to have dinner waiting for her this time. She would give him a kiss that would make the little boys gag and make their young daughter's cheeks turn pink. Then they'd sit down to dinner, making the most of the time that they had.