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What Humanity Sounds Like On A Speeding Train

I would tell you that few things can move me to tears, but anyone who knows me would surely chime in that I was lying. Despite my best – and still feeble – attempts at pretending to be a woman of steel, I am at best made of porous mesh with alarming tensile strength. It all works its way in, out and through me, one way or another. I am rather like a living version of a toddler’s sensory toy; feed in stimuli, watch what comes out. It is immediate, and usually predictable.

On a virtually empty El train into Chicago this morning, sunshine making even the metal rails – worn with countless frightened grips wishing for solitude and stability – gleam, fresh. The sound of two young men singing brought rapid, but gentle, tears to my eyes. (Actually, this entire blog post is really just a vehicle for me to put the video of them somewhere so that others can see it. And hopefully trick you into reading about why it is illustrative of things that matter so greatly.)

It was an uncommonly serene ride, faces rather predictably staring straight ahead to avoid eye contact, or into tiny electronic screens; portholes to elsewhere. And then their voices cut through, forcing eyes up, heads up, attention to narrow towards the two of them. They stood across from each other, smiling as they sang. Hands intended to guide their voices into a smooth landing together, but worked as well to funnel otherwise disparate attention into a single note.

It was their train, their voice, and it was undeniably empowering to see them own the space. Not least because they certainly fit that image that the media tries to tell us to fear. Black, which we’re constantly taught is a caution sign at first sight. Hoodies, saggy pants, you name it. Someone, somewhere would tell you these kids were thugs. (Even I would want to smack that person upside the head.)

I knew they were performing for us, but not why. I wanted to record them, but it is not my place to do so, so I didn’t. And then they announced their names, sold their CDs (which I bought for more than they asked because I didn’t have a smaller bill, and fuck it, they made my day.) And so they offered to sing again. And this time I asked if I could record them. You’re welcome. Look them up.

But more than that, I started thinking about how important it is that we live together, in close proximity, infinite moving puzzle pieces that come together to form moments and then pass. Each moment imprinting something on us that we’d never get alone. Or in a car during rush hour. The more we are forced together, the better.

Should I tell you about the mountain of a man, all tattooed and pierced, with brand names all over him as if they were secret messages to alert warring factions about memberships and strategic moves. About how his daughter held her bottle with both hands, teeth on the nipple and he made cartoon faces to make her laugh, and she did, with all the force of her tiny body. How he held her steady, on the moving train, as she tried to balance on legs only just accustomed to standing at all. How, in that interaction, he wasn’t just a fierce looking man walking down the street, but as human and downright mushy as any of us in the gaze of his child. (Also, apparently helpless against the pull of the magnet that all babies seem to have in their heads, bringing adult lips to them in a kiss, over and over and over and over again.)

(Just out of curiosity, what color, in your mind, was the man I just described? What did you picture?)

Indeed, the streets of Chicago are comically crowded with every variety of human. And in the tidbits of conversation that filter past, you hear things you’d never think of on your own. Nothing of great importance, but things serving as reminders that our worlds are so different. A child who was just on a train for the first time. A parent explaining a sculpture. A couple wondering how they’ll pay rent. Visitors from another country, remarking how new everything in Chicago is. (The whole country, I dare say, is new, compared to most of the rest of the world.)

No one was talking about soccer carpool or their days in the office or….

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but it is so refreshing to be reminded that our tiny lives are barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things. I could stand in the same spot on a corner in this city and yell every detail of my current trials and fears, and it would still be but a tiny smudge on someone else’s day, a few words as they pass by. Or a seed that might grow into a larger thought.

While none of it matters, it’s only when we’re forced together that perspectives other than our own can seep in. And those tiny experiences change our world view, whether we want them to or not.

How they change them is up to us, of course. I’m sure that someone at first enjoyed the singing of the young men, and then was disappointed to find them selling something. I, on the other hand, thought it quite entrepreneurial. Hustle of the best sort. “This is my gift to the world, and it has value.” Indeed it does. And no one can speak for you better than yourself.

I live in such a rich, white city. People always protest that characterization, but if anyone tries to describe Seattle to you in almost any other way, they’re delusional. I am lucky enough to live in the one area that can rightfully be called “diverse.” “The South End,” which is said with pride by those of us who live there, and a sort of adventurous rush by those who don’t.

A while ago, my daughter and I were driving somewhere, and I was telling her about a terrible accident in which a small child was hit by a car a few blocks from our home. I said something about it being an Islamic holiday. “Ya, it’s Eid,” she said. My 16 year-old daughter just knew that it was Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. “How do you know that?” “Mom, half my friends are Muslim, since I was little, how could I not know that?”

It seems small, I know, but it’s not. As a result of being surrounded, her whole life, by cultural diversity, her internal calendar and global perspective takes the patterns of others into account. She is an absurdly privileged kid, and she knows it. But she has friends who, when they were younger, would go home and teach their own parents English. She’s innately comfortable with people of all races, religions, styles, incomes…… It’s not tolerance, it something deeper. Is there a word between “understand” and “grok?” Or is it as simple as being a native in diversity?

This matters greatly. As we seek to find a way for us all to live together without violence and oppression, something as simple as being able to hear a voice that is different from yours, from a perspective you don’t recognize, is the most vital skill we can have. As individuals, and as a culture.

And it’s one that, I think, comes from being forced together.

The train ride home was something altogether different, but no less wonderful.

A woman, who on the best of days couldn’t dance with the Devils in her brain – and after a night spent not-sleeping on the streets, various spirits seeping from her pores – was waging battles with real and imagined alike on a crowded and bucking afternoon train. She stood cursing above me, looking as if she was angry at me, but the dialog was with something not there, and certainly not me. She moved on to the man across from me. And then brushed up against another woman who wore her anger like a mink and quickly whipped out sword-like words, as if her threats would be understood. The ensuing face off was surreal, and tiny me perched on the edge of my seat, prepared to break up the violent brawl that seemed imminent.

Across from me, a man with precious few teeth showed them all to me as he grinned, twirling his fingers in front of his hear in the international sign-language for “that bitch be crazy.” He then brushed his finger against his nose and mimed the drinking of probably cheap booze, to say she was not only crazy, but wasted. Which was obvious. As I became more spring-like, he did the “tut tut” with his forefinger, of any parent warning a child not to.

But then the drunk crazy woman left the angry crazy woman alone, staggering off, through the door at the end of the car, across the hitch, into the next car.

She was, at one point, a newborn. Something, lots of things, happened between now and then. We must not forget that. I think that, as rent for our place on this planet, we need to think about the lives of others. On any train, any street, we need to wonder where these people are all coming from and going to. Make stuff up if you have to – and you do, because none of us know someone else’s story – but remind yourself that they all have a story. Glories and hardships, hopes and losses. And that, at every turn, our society either helps or impedes. Some of us become privileged tourists who get to visit the hardships of others and write blog posts knowing that thousands of people will read them. Some of us are virtually discarded and perpetually brushing against the rough edges of disdain. Some of us are presumed thugs, but contain great music.

Would it help if I told you that, when they weren’t singing, those two young men spoke of helping youth find art rather than bullets? (In my mind, I thought it would be great to make a nation-wide nonprofit called Beats Not Bullets, teaching kids to find their voice rather than duking it out with a society that would scorn them.)

The train emptied slowly as we got to the end of the line. I listened to tidbits of other conversations, all amplified as we, together, enter a narrow and tiled stair well that was steep and decaying. Feet slowing to a shuffle because someone is holding us up. It was a blind man, and I’m now nervous for him. It’s a terrible stair case. A hazard for anyone, really. So I went around him, to be in front of him.

The blind man didn’t know I was watching his every step down the stairs, but I was. Just in case. I noticed small things he might trip on, and prepared myself to catch him. But no, I didn’t say anything to him, because he was, in fact, doing fine. He was probably perfectly used to navigating such things. But I felt a sort of duty, to just be aware, and be prepared. And, as a result, noticed hazards all day that would otherwise go unseen. This is what we gain when we are forced together. A granular perspective that shows us things we can fix, perhaps, to make the world easier for others. And that shows us joys we might not know are there, if we’re not forced to see them.

Is not unlike how wide and magical the world becomes looking through the curious eyes of your child.  Kaleidoscopic.

I love that the song they sang was “Stand By Me.” I know that it’s some sort of love song, about a relationship with someone who can protect a loved one. But its message is much larger.

Stand by each other. Get near to each other. Share space and perspective.

It is the only way we are going to live together in any sort of peace. And create space for each other’s gifts.

Which is the only kind of present I really want.

And the only kind of future.


Really, I wrote this whole thing (or, rather, let it spill out of me,) just so that you could watch this video. So do. And share it, because these boys deserve some attention, and  this is the only place you’ll find this video, because I took it, and this is where I put it.


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