The trains twist up and down this cramped coastline at the edge of the world like Dickinson's spectres—noisy, burly, greedy for more than their share of sound. They shake and crunch and shudder and tumble along tracks that tie down this tired city in knots of rusted metal and rotting wood. They spy in windows and under bridges as they wander, warned off by chain link fences iced with barbed wire, tossing up angry blue sparks at each stop.
I board at Howard.
A man in third-hand clothes is doing the rounds, begging alms from one car to the next. A Gold Coast lover is slyly sliding a hand down the long, long leg of his dearest Trixy. A Vietnamese housewife holds a shouting match with her dead mother over a cellphone. A construction worker holds his head in his hands, alone, the Virgin Mary sketched into his back peaking out from under his shirt collar.
I sit down feeling I have seen these things before.
A driver who cannot stand silence mumbles through the loudspeaker about bad dates and bird flu. At Belmont, he reminds riders not to forget their saxophones. At Merchandise Mart, he is replaced with static punctuated by the recording of a Midwestern man on too many uppers. I ask the businesswoman beside me who she prefers, but she won't look up from her copy of How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).
"Soliciting on CTA trains is prohibited. Violators will be arrested," the recording reminds me with a meth inflection. I need reminders.
I switch at State and Lake, watching deadset jumpers scale the spines of office towers as I wait for the Green Line train. A common problem of urbanized societies. Waiting.
There was someone I waited with here, earlier. I said "I love you" as the train arrived, I think, but he didn't hear me over the sound of screeching wheels grinding to a halt. This probably explains everything that came after. The scent of old cigarettes on his lips and the hard-on I had to cover over with a copy of the Reader is all else I remember of him. Like most mislaid memories, I've tied these to the closest convenient point of disembarkment.
At Garfield, twilight riders file in with the smell of cinder. Someone has set fire to the schools and churches. I see little girls crunking under a streetlight between 39th and 40th, their faces wild with smiles. I am struck dumb with beauty, so I open my notebook, but there's blood on the page corners and it isn't mine. There are many things we so soon forget.
The man beside me tells me about his condo on the lake and the grenades he keeps in his closet. Then he asks me for a spare dollar.
At Cottage Grove I get off and the details slip away, the lines between the dots thin into nothing, the things that make sense of this city get lost in the dark.
I ride trains to remember.