I tend to look for meaning in things. I look for recurring patterns on fake marble flooring and printed fabric, I find a rhythm quickly, and I am often struck by how one person may smell like some unique combination of things. My husband smells like firewood and ice cream to me. Like any of us with our eyes open, I look for lessons and stories in each of my days. We listen, that is what keeps us connected. Sometimes it can be hard to understand just what life is telling you, and it can be hard to see what is actually before you. But sometimes, the universe speaks to you so clearly that if you are listening at all, you just cannot fail to realize what has been said.
It was mid January, and a clean and gentle snow was blanketing Chicago, my frozen city. It was that time of year when people stumble groggily forth from their holiday reverie, with a few extra pounds and a fuzzy sense of getting back to getting 'bout it. I sat on the Brown Line train, looking at the snow and working myself into a very bleak mood. I was trying to fight it; it was not the time for negative juju, and I knew that. I needed to think positive. I needed the universe on my side. I needed this to go my way.
You see, I had just had a pretty good interview for a really fantastic job. Or maybe it was possible that I had just made a large tactical error in an interview for a fairly promising day job. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure I wanted that job or why I'd applied for it, if I could do it, or what I was doing with my life anyway.
For the past five years I have thought of myself as an actress. I've made a pretty decent go of it, but getting married, turning thirty, and an increasingly burning interest in every single career field except my own were muddying the waters of my intention, skewing my perception of my life's sacred purpose. I knew I wanted more. More challenge, more security, more money. As for my ultimate personal grand design, I was on a bit of a walkabout. But I did know one thing I needed while I figured this out was a more engaging and challenging "by day" job. The one I had was all right, but I wasn't making any impact on the world, and I wanted to make a difference while I earned my money. But best intentions aside, it is very hard to explain and successfully pass off the potential scheduling demands of a working actor and still seem like a reliable candidate for employment in the straight world. But I had gone into that interview fairly certain that I was preparing to transition out of acting anyway. And yet I had brought it up, in the middle of the interview, plunked it right down on the table, raised a big red flag on myself, and brought an otherwise sensational interview to an awkward impasse. Why did I bring it up in the first place? What was I doing?
The minutes passed, the stations passed, but my storm would not pass, and as the train rumbled on southward I dug myself deeper and deeper into this hole. In a moment clarity I decided the thing to do to help myself regain balance was to go to yoga class. I had never yet failed to emerge from class without a little smile and a sense of quiet, rich inner balance. Yes, yoga class...this is the action from which the answer will come. However, there was an hour and forty five minutes between my deciding to go and the beginning of class, and in a moment of profound stupidity I decided the thing to do in the mean time was to go to Chipotle. And then maybe go get a cupcake. The need for comfort never did advise one well.
I don't think I need to tell you that my Vinyasa Flow class went very badly.If you seek to create space in your body and mind, if you seek to feel the aliveness of your body in your flushed face and stretching limbs, or even if your goal is simply to finish the class, you had better do it on an empty stomach like they tell you to, because there is nothing that will turn your ill-advised supper to a half ton of achy brick in your stomach faster than a hot yoga class. Whereas I am usually to be found smiling and stretching and groaning happily on my mat, that Friday night I was like a big fat baby rolling around and falling over and finally just sitting there and staring slack jawed at the adults in the room. The woman next to me especially. I was done after five sun salutations, she was hanging out in one legged plank pose for bonus points. Every time I looked over, there she was with her foot on top of her head or something and it was just really upsetting me.
After class I trudged to the steam room for some solace. It was broken. I waited a good ten minutes for the bathroom to vacate so I could change. Guess who it was when the door finally opened? That freaking plank pose girl. I pulled my wet socks and leaky boots on and trudged off to the train with my storm cloud. My clean and gentle snow blanket had turned into slushy awfulness three inches deep upon the ground.
I made my way underground to the subway platform and wandered down to the end of the tunnel so no one would see my streaky makeup. And there she was.
She was all the way at the very end of the platform, like maybe she had actually just snuck in from the tunnel. She lit a cigarette. Rude. She took out her phone, and all the while she was dancing back and forth in this manic sort of way. I just could not seem to look away from her.
She seemed out of place in this setting because she had what I would politely call a very rural Midwestern look to her. You know what I mean. She was a white woman, maybe in her mid forties. Her jeans were acid wash and taper leg, her sneakers were white puffy hi-tops, her hair was yellow, crispy, kinky, and pulled into the tightest ponytail I had ever seen. She was wearing a man's teal windbreaker. She was doughy, tweaky, and hard looking. Despite those red eyes, she had an air of amusement about her. Like she had just left a really great party or received some wonderful news. I was pretty sure she was on meth. She was like a drunk person in fast, fast forward.
I have long thought that city life confers a subtle but strong jungle mentality on its children. When you come into contact, up close, toe to toe, shoulder to shoudler, with so many scores of hundreds of humans every single day, you learn to form these quick takes on people. It is self-preservation, it is curiosity, and it is human. I know that in a perfect world, we would encounter and approach each and every new person with arms, minds and hearts wide open, to learn from each other in love and without judgment. We have all known what it means to be shoved in a box, labeled and dismissed. And more on that later. But I must admit to you that from the degree of enlightenment I had attained (and not attained) on that night, I saw this woman in a certain way. She was just one of those public transit sideshows, strangely thrilling, always compelling.
She's bouncing back and forth, a little bit faster now, and talking to someone named Hunter who I think might have been her child. She really had some lungs on her. Her voice was loud, twangy, nasal. She is talking to Hunter like we often talk to children, loud and slow and dumb. She is saying that she misses him and will be back home soon, that she is working very hard right this minute but wishes more than anything that she could be there. I wonder where "there" is. She quickly hangs up with him and starts another converstaion, much less contrition and much more sass, with someone named "Daddy'. As the train came roaring into the station she threw her head back and hollared at it, as if to say "I will not be shouted down by the likes of you, train".
On the train I lose sight of her, overcrowded as it is. But I can hear her slurry, jarring voice rising up from the press of commuters enveloping her. After the train empties out somewhat there she is again, bouncing back and forth between the east and west doors, literally running into and bouncing off of them, speaking all the more loudly to Daddy. Honestly, she is making a bit of a scene. I glance around at the other passengers and they are watching her too. I am becoming very curious about what she is saying, because I keep catching these incredible little snatches of her conversation. I am straining to hear over the rattle of the tracks, because while she is speaking loudly, she is also pressing herself up against the door and I'm losing the thread.
"You know I have got to get back on the pole and make some BANK. Cause you know I am a blonde Daddy, upstairs and...gonna give you everything I got baby you know I'm..." and she slips into a gravelly whisper. Her eyes are bloodshot and far away and she is absently fluffing her hair and preening like a teenage girl in her green windbreaker as if Daddy were standing before her, her hip pushed out to the side, a big freaky grin on her face. Her whole demeanor is getting more and more animated and emphatic. She is now kissing the clear partition, leaving smears of lipstick, she is now swinging her ponytail around, she is now doing a slow little grind with her pelvis, losing her balance as the train rocks. Her eyes are half closed and she covers each stumble with a little dance move. She is now talking at full house party volume and then she begins prefacing every single statement with "Yahurme?"
A giggle escapes me. I quickly look back down into my book, but I am listening with rapt attention. In that moment I was looking forward to at least a week's worth of reenacting this woman's antics for my husband and friends. She just kept getting more and more hillarious.
"Yahurme? I'm gonna shave my whole shit down and start from nothing." She said as she fluffed that ponytail. But you're gonna miss my hair, huh? That's right Daddy cause you like to pull it from behind. That's why you fell in love with me, YAHURMEEE?"
I was looking right at her when she turned to do another lap across the train and her eyes caught mine. Somehow I couldn't cover, I could not get the smile off my face fast enough and I felt it freeze into place. The jig was up. We both knew what she had just said. We both knew I'd been listening. And for a moment, we just stared at each other.
She took the phone away from her head. She advanced a few steps, slowly. She bent, eye level with me. We both held our breath. Behind her the last passenger exited the car with a fleeting look of misgiving in our direction. I looked back at Daddy's girl. Her face twisted up into this really mean look. I felt my eyebrows rise in defiance. I braced myself for a "what are you looking at" or "you got a problem" but what she said next totally shocked me.
"Is your life so hard that you gotta sit there and laugh at me?"
She looked straight into my eyes, giving her words time to resonate through my head. The truth of her words utterly shocked me. They hit something that made me feel exposed. And that made me mad. She stepped forward a bit, still looking right into my eyes and she just unleashed on me. "What is it that is so bad about your life that you got that look on your face? Huh? HUH? You bitch! You smiley princess bitch! Jesus is my best friend!"
It had by now become clear that myself and this woman were in a fight. She had challenged me. I felt my hands begin to tremble. But who was this woman to call me out? She's been doing her very best for the last eleven stops to make a pathetic, insane spectacle of herself. If you don't want attention, don't shout to "Daddy" about your desire to get back in the sex trade in the middle of mass transit, right?
I get up because she is really closing in on me, and now throwing up these strange gang signs in my face. I step past her. She tried to grab at me but wasn't moving fast. And as we were approaching the station she yells after me "You smiley princess bitch! That's right my momma's a redhead, just like you. I come from a redhead, I know how to handle a redhead, yahurme!" That was the last straw. I took one more look back at her. She was standing in this "come and get it" gangsta pose and somehow, I still could not get that frozen smile off my face.
Yet inside me this existential rage has stopped my words and rendered me mute. That she has stamped me with "princess", and started picking on my "princess ass", and decided I had no right to even be looking at her, at the loud stupid spectacle she is making of herself. I felt such complete indignation and humiliation at the fact that my (admittedly) girly winter coat had led her to invalidate all the potential concerns of my life. I did also realize that this is somewhat akin to what I had done to her. I recognized the irony of my dismay at having been belittled by this public transit sideshow. But my simple human response to confrontation won out, and it was on. She had attacked me with the front line weapon in her arsenal; intimidation. And I was going to retalitate with mine; my princessness. I was going to teach this woman a lesson about how we behave on the damn train.
The doors open at the station and I go to the next car and hit the big red call button for the train conductor. I say into the speaker "You've got an intoxicated woman in the last car, and she is threatening people." I am not historically a pusher of that button. I have been on Chicago's mass transit for twenty years and I have never pushed that button. I have seen drugs smoked, guns pulled, fights fought and once what may have been a dead person but I have never pushed that button. But this I just could not let stand.
When the conductor came she was another young woman at the end of a weird day and I hailed her, explaining that I was the person who had called. She was astonishingly sympathetic.
"Did she threaten you?" she asked. "Yes. At least the threat was implied. She is definately high, probably on something white." I say. "Oh hell no. Please come identify her." The conductor says, heading towards the last car.
As we enter, Daddy's girl is sprawled out over four seats. She shouted "Does there seem to be a problem, officer?", her eyes growing wide. "You tell me, m'am" the conductor replies. The woman looks past the conductor and focuses on me. I smile big and give her ther finger. As the conductor begins to urge the woman out of her seat and instructs her to leave the train, I high tailed it out of the car and off of the platform fast, passing on my way the puzzled faces of passengers in the open car doors, and the station attendent on his way up the stairs, speaking into his walkie talkie.
I trotted smugly down the street, flush with the feeling of victory. But just as soon as I'd named it victory, the obvious question became; victory over whom? The faces of the passengers I'd passed came back to me, sitting there with the train doors open on the coldest day of the year. And I had to conceed that the conductor had ultimately been the one to fight my battle for me. I'd just....told the teacher. Oh god.
And what about that woman? She was clearly at a seriously dire crossroads in her life. What kind of trouble had I just gotten her into? Having heard that slice of her busted life, shouldn't I have been more empathetic? What kind of help had I given her?
She stayed with me all night. Her words stuck with me like paint on my skin because I knew she was right. What was so hard about my life that I had to make hers harder? Was my own habitual wallowing so evident on my face that even a person as high as she was could see it? I felt that my head had been jerked away from my grinding indulgence in worry and redirected towards all the heartbreakingly enormous abundance of love and blessing in my life, and I began to develop a sense of serious gratitude toward that woman. She had looked me right in the face and said that thing we all need to hear from time to time, and that we never have the courage to say to each other; "You don't have it so bad. Stop making life harder than it needs to be."
If I could go back to that moment when she first called me out I would say to her "You know what? You're right girlfriend, and thank you. But I have to tell you, Daddy sounds like bad people, and drugs will kill you. I'm just saying. You should go home to that little boy."
I didn't get the job. But it was worth the lesson.