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Archive for July, 2013

I reach into my back pocket.  Remove my wallet.  Touch it against the sensor.  I continue moving forward leading slightly with the left hip, pushing against the turnstile.  It rubs against my thigh as it descends.  My right arm arcs forward, up, and back around in a fluid motion that ends with my wallet being pushed down into my back right pocket.  I am in.

It is choreography that no longer requires thought and this finely tuned sequence lasts no more than six seconds and occurs within a distance of ten feet.

I had nearly completed my descent along the first flight of stairs when he caught my attention and despite it being rush hour he and I were the only two people on the landing, if only for a few seconds.  He was on his way up from the opposite platform.

Our eyes met briefly and then he looked away.  They were dark and hovered in orbit under a heavy brow, accentuated only because of his slightly sunken face.  Color had vanished in this moment.  In it’s place, grayscale.  His face neither pink, beige, brown, or olive but just a shade of gray, like everything else about him.

His oversized shirt, unbuttoned, exposed his dirty t-shirt and a leather belt which held up tattered trousers.  In his right hand he carried a tarnished tin pail stuffed with rags and implements with wooden handles that protruded out as though they were stalks from a dead vegetable garden.  His hands, tanned like leather, were soiled too.

My mind took rapid snapshots and compared them to pictures I had seen before, but from where?  An old newspaper clipping or the cover of paperback by Studs Terkel on the shelf of a used bookstore – either one a possibility.  It was if he was an apparition from an account of Chicago’s past.

A moment later he was behind me and living color returned as he headed up to the street and as I moved walked down another flight of stairs, holding on to the red-painted railing, towards the northbound platform.

My one minute repertoire had been interrupted.

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Before the train stopped at the platform he was visible.  At a distance he looked like a dandy –  slicked back hair and a full-sized umbrella firmly planted at his side as though it were a gentleman’s cane.  His posture was precise as he waited for the doors to open.

 

When he sat he placed the curled handle of his umbrella over the partition next to his seat and on his lap he placed an old  canvas gym bag, beige with brown leather trim.  It was the kind of bag that you’d have seen being carried in New York in the late 1990s.  It looked as if he had carried it around since then or if had been inherited from the estate of a favorite uncle.  It had sentimental value or he wouldn’t have carried it.

 

His navy-blue blazer was not purchased at the same time as his dark grey slacks.  From a distance they appeared to be the same color but they were not and even the worst sales clerk would not have let this go unnoticed.

 

The pin stripped shirt did not have french cuffs.  His oxford  shoes were buffed but where not of fine leather nor did they have leather soles.  Roman numerals marched around the face of his watch though its face was larger than it should have been and thus, not even a knock-off from Canal Street but something even less expensive.

 

From his bag he extracted a Blackberry – the final clue that this man was trying to appear impressive and knowledgeable.  He scrolled through a list of messages.  He was putting on a show of some sort, not for anyone on the train, but for the people he was about to see at his destination.

 

If he worked at a desk he’d only be seen from the waist up and under these conditions he’d appear almost perfect.  Respectable.  Staid, even.  Though even with a desk job you have to stand to greet people.  If he worked behind a counter his non-matching slacks might go unnoticed simply because of the added distance.

 

He didn’t work at a start-up company because guys at start-ups wear jeans.  He wasn’t in high-tech because guys in tech don’t wear navy blue blazers.  He wasn’t in finance, as the men in finance here wear only the finest suits.  He may have been in commodities, which would explain the canvas bag bursting at the seams, but he looked a bit old for a commodities trader and commodities traders don’t have to impress the public.

 

This man’s job was to impress people who were slightly below his social rank and to inspire their confidence.  He dressed like the kind of man who would try to sell you an over-priced mattress pad for the sake of a slight bump in his commission check.  The look on his face said that this was his last chance.

 

 

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