First 100 Days: A Train Wreck / American Carnage

By Betsy Nettleton


Betsy Nettleton

My parents love the El train.  They come to visit, and my dad asks, “Can we ride the train?  It’s so much fun to ride the train!”  I sigh and we get on the Brown Line, the rich people train, as one friend dubbed it, and we ride around and look out the windows and my parents think they are getting to see Chicago.   It’s an amusement park ride.

I shouldn’t complain.  The train has been good to me.  There was a time when I read on the train.  I used to nap on the train.  I trusted humanity; I felt safe enough to sleep.  I met my now husband on the train.  I had seen him nearly every day, standing on the end of the platform.  It turned out we’d lived in the same apartment building for years and never knew.   One day, I saw him in our building elevator and I blurted out, “You’re the guy from the train!”   To smooth over my embarrassment, I regaled him with a train story.  “Can you believe,” I asked, “The things people do on the train?  One day, I swear, I saw a man throw up and act like nothing happened!  And then…”   We hit my floor and I was still talking as I walked out of the elevator.   It took him a while to figure out my name, the talkative but socially awkward girl from the train.

But now, I walk when I can, grab a cab when I can’t.   Things are changing.  I don’t like the train.  People seem angrier.   Standing still and listening to “Beep!  Beep!  Beep!  We are experiencing a delay!” is not my idea of a pleasant commute home.   Clients come late and apologize: “I was stuck on the train.  I thought I left in time.”   Earlier this week, a client blurted out, “Did you know, Homeland Security is searching people’s bags at the Addison Red Line stop?”   She made a joke about the coming apocalypse.   We tried to laugh.  It was Valentine’s Day.

It was Valentine’s Day.  A lonely client asked if I had plans.  My only plan was to ride the Red Line home.   I’d decided that a cab seemed wasteful; I’d decided I should rejoin humanity. I had on my protective gear: my iPod and my hat with the “Make America Love Again” button.   I was lost in musical reverie and averted eye contact when I noticed, sigh, again, that we were not moving.  I turned off the music and looked around.   There was a train catastrophe.  The CTA officials were in our car, trying to cajole an obviously troubled man back out of our car.  “Come on Larry… get off the train… you don’t belong on the train.”  This was news to me, as I’d never seen anyone who did not belong on the train.   Nothing before had ever been off limits: gambling, smoking, masturbating, carrying around a giant cross and preaching.   The Red Line was the sanctuary of the outcasts; the longest route, it offered a safety that the other rides did not.

Larry was not in good shape.  His pants were falling off, he was far too thin, he was dirty and grey, and he smelled like alcohol.   He was mumbling and laughing to himself.  I might have been the only therapist on the car, but I don’t think it took a therapist to recognize homelessness and emotional distress.

I continued to watch.  Larry started to attract attention.  He moved up and down the car, feinting and lunging, unsure of himself, a trapped human being.   Reactions rippled through the car.  One man stood up and positioned himself nose to nose with Larry, a bantam rooster, a puffed up simulacrum of a person.  He glared at Larry and stared him down.  Other people started laughing.   The train officials called out, “Cover up your purses, ladies!  He wants your money.”  A new passenger walked onto the train.  He assessed the situation and loudly joked, “I hope he doesn’t have a gun.”  Somebody else responded, “Nah, he just wants some crack.”

I wanted, so badly, to help.  I wanted to go up Larry and tell him, “Hey, it’s OK, let’s just get off the train.”  I knew that probably wasn’t a wise choice.  What was Larry’s emotional state?  Who was I to play the hero?  I didn’t even understand the situation. “If you see something, say something.”  I was definitely seeing something, but what could I possibly say?   What options did I have?

I still don’t know, but, I don’t think I chose correctly.  With my shoulders slumped and my eyes full of tears, I walked off the train and hailed a cab.  I hoped nobody had seen my button.  “Make America Love Again,” indeed.   What good had I done?  “My sense of humanity,” sang Bob Dylan, “has gone down the drain.”  I think my sense of humanity disappeared on that train.   I watched the people around me mock someone who had already been beaten down.  Is this where we are going?  I want off this ride.