I have been fortunate in my line of work. On the odd occasion, I have been able to travel a little for training. Once I was sent to just outside Chicago for two months & I loved it.
I wasn’t exactly reenacting Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I made as much as I could of the evenings by taking the train into Chicago as often as I could.
This particular evening, I was on the way back from the Art Institute Chicago (OK, so maybe I was reenacting Ferris Bueller) & the train was completely packed out. There was hardly a seat left. I think there had been a baseball game on at Wrigley Field because the whole place was full of jerseys.
It was late. Ten-ish. The latest I had dared to get the train on my own. So I did what I always do on public transport, I used a book as a barrier. I buried my head & hoped that no-one would try to chat to me. It didn’t work but then I’m glad it didn’t.
A Korean woman sat down beside me with two young boys & a girl. The kids, who were between four & seven, sat behind us beside a rather bleached blonde lady.
How did I know my seat buddy was from Korea?
Because for the next 20 minutes she described at length how she had moved from North Korea to arrive in America only that week. She & her two sons had fled to the US to live with her sister-in-law. How she was hoping to receive political asylum.
She was lovely.
Maybe I particularly liked her because she mistook me for a local, which is every traveller’s dream. Not only that but she complimented me.
‘All you Americans look like film stars.’ She said.
Readers, I do look like a film star.
However the film star I most resemble is early 80s Tom Cruise, when he had the dodgy nose & crooked teeth. Long before he became a gleaming Scientologist automaton.
She was being too sweet & too kind. Because of her general loveliness & her story of fleeing a dictatorship, I happily lost myself in her conversation. Every sentence she spoke was word-perfect English & after each sentence, she would apologise for her English.
It was then I realised the train wasn’t moving.
I looked at my watch, It was nearly 11pm. The train should have arrived at my station by now. Instead we were stuck somewhere & nowhere. The kids behind me were getting a little bored & a little rowdy, so the Korean lady took her niece on to her lap. The boys continued to bump into each other on the seat.
The train sat on the track for another ten minutes before a conductor came through, telling us there was a technical fault & we’d be moving as soon as it was fixed. The Cubs must have won that particular game because every one on board was rather drunk but still merry. I noticed the boys had quietened down behind us, but they were staring across at the lady who was sharing the seat.
That’s when I started to pay attention to her. She was swaying, which was scaring the kids. And me.
They started to tap their mum on the shoulder. Mum ignored them, too busy chatting to me.
The lady in the seat behind us was transgender. I don’t mean the sophisticated, glamorous transgender ladies we are now used to seeing in the media like Caitlyn Jenner. She was more of a dodgy version of Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.
She wore a low cut, clingy top with bra on show along with a thick, black hairy chest. Her bleached blonde wig was slipping back on her balding head & as the icing on the cake, she was wearing a lace, see through white skirt atop of Y-front underpants. As she rocked back & forth, her wig slipped further. The kids tapped me on the shoulder as their mum wasn’t listening.
That’s when it started.
‘When you’re alone & life is making you lonely, you can always go…
So started 30 minutes of the lady singing Downtown. Her voice was gruff & gravelly as any Johnny Cash impersonator. All low & raw but with no soul.
‘Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city,
Linger on the sidewalk,
Where the neon signs are pretty…’
She got louder & louder as time went on. Everyone else on that packed train was silent. Completely silent.
‘How can you lose?
The Lights are much brighter there…’
The boys, completely petrified, then flew to our seat & somehow I ended up with them both on my lap. We were in this together now I guess.
So for what felt like eternity, I clung to two boys that had somehow had the courage to flee the most dangerous country on the planet, only to end up on a train with a transgender Petula Clark fan serenading them.
It was very surreal.
Eventually the train moved & the singing ceased. When we pulled into my stop, it was nearly midnight & the three kids were asleep. I quietly said my goodbyes to the mum but I did see them all again. By some twist of fate, I bumped into the family twice on the train before I left Chicago. The boys greeted me by climbing on to my lap each time.
It’s one of the few times I was glad to be the person that strangers reach out to, I still could’ve done without all that singing though.