It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the commuting residents of Chicago are stuffed like sardines on the red line train heading north. Many of them started at the city’s center. They descend from their high-rise offices in a trance induced by the eight-hour work day. Their journey home takes them to lower elevations still, as they plod their tired, boot-laden feet down the worn, cement stairs feeding into the subway station. They stand impatiently on the platform with hands stuffed in pockets. The weather has not turned to the full force of a midwestern winter, but it’s the end of October, and there’s a palpable chill in the air.
When the train arrives they crowd to the sliding doors in anticipation of their imminent opening. They rush in and the metal doors close once again, swallowing them into the depths of the city, only to emerge above ground several stops later, once they’ve crossed over to the north side. Everyone is too tired and too consumed with anything but the present to engage with one another. The predominant sound within the train is not chatter, but rather the sound of the train’s own velocity as it shoots forward into the sunset.
I am no different from my fellow passengers. We are united by our internally-imposed isolation. Those of us who are lucky enough to have snagged a seat look down at screens of smartphones, electronic reading devices, and the occasional paperback novel. I am among those standing, within the pocket of open space beside the sliding doors. For us standers, our selected form of exile must be hands-free so that we can remain balanced as the train churns forward, stops abruptly, swoops precariously against stretches of curving track. So we choose technologies that wire us into a private world of sound: hip and colorful over-the-ear headsets, cushioned earbuds, the generic white plugs that come with Apple products.
I feel pensive on this day, and so I listen to bluesy music with wistful verses and notes drenched in nostalgia. The singer croons, let the sea sing to me, a tune of solitude. I indulge myself the strange joy of melancholy and let the music consume me.
The doors part open at the Argyle stop, and I find my attention drawn back to the world. Two men enter, each in wheelchairs. They are able to cross the gap between the train and platform by a portable ramp that has been placed for them by a CTA employee. The last image I have of the station as the doors close is that of the uniformed employee speaking into a walkie talkie.
The standing passengers make way for the men in their wheelchairs, so that they can station themselves against the empty row designated for people with disabilities. They both look relatively young to me. No older than mid-thirties. My thoughts wander. What happened to them? Did they know each other before they were struck by whatever accident or illness that stole their mobility? Or were they hit by the same disaster, and thus became tied in friendship by shared fate? Or perhaps they met afterward at some sort of physical therapy group or support network for people with disabilities, and they are going home from one of their weekly meetings.
They chat with each other amicably from across the aisle. I see the movement of their lips, the animated glimmer of conversation in their eyes. I don’t hear them; my headphones are still firmly in place. The song continues: I wish to sail along your blue port; I wish to know from where you come.
They look out of place somehow, these two men, in a way that I can’t put my fingers on. Maybe it is the awe that’s written on their faces, exposing them as newcomers that have not yet been indoctrinated into the ways of the Chicago Transit Authority. Their features somewhat resemble mine, which are often described by my puzzled American compatriots as “ethnically ambiguous.” I wonder if they are Arab, too.
My curiosity gets the best of me. I turn off the music and attempt to listen in on their chatter. Sure enough, they are speaking in Arabic. They share notes on the best places to get affordable groceries in their neighborhood, they inquire about each other’s families.
Then one asks the other: “Will you be okay to get home once you arrive at your station?”
“Yes, don’t worry brother, I will figure it out.”
The first one nods, and the doors open up to a CTA employee placing a ramp into the space between the platform and the train. I see a walkie-talkie in the employee’s hand, and I realize that its function is to allow employees to communicate across stations regarding arrangements for these two passengers to enter and exit at their designated stations.
The first one turns to his friend and showers him with a stream of blessings, in the way that the Arabic language requires people to greet each other and bid their farewell. Then he rolls off into the night.
The second one remains on the train. He looks a bit confused, and I want to help. But I feel too shy to admit I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversation. Instead of gathering my courage to address him directly, I feign a phone call with my grandmother, “telling” her in Arabic, I’ll call you later, I am on the train, please forgive me.
Somehow, this embarrassingly forced strategy achieves its desired effect.
The man turns to me in excitement. He politely excuses himself and asks, “Inti arabiya?” Are you Arab?
“Yes!” I tell him
“This is so great! Could you help me get off at the next station? I am not really sure where to get on the elevator to the street.”
“Of course,” I respond. In a moment of serendipity, we learn that we’re both getting off at Loyola, just one more stop away.
We get to chatting. He asks where I’m from, and I respond that I’m Lebanese-American, from Michigan, and then he shares that he is from Syria. “We came a year ago, but I never take the train. It’s a lot harder than taking the bus, with the wheelchair.” He explains that he is coming from an English class, which he takes at one of the refugee resettlement organizations in Uptown. I ask if he likes Chicago. “It’s nice,” he says with a gentle smile, “just a little cold, that’s all.”
We arrive at the Loyola platform, and sure enough a ramp has been set up for him by a walkie-talkie-wielding CTA employee. I walk ahead of him, leading the way to the elevator as he wheels beside me. “I am still learning how to read English, so it’s hard for me to follow the signs.” All of this said without a trace of bitterness, with the smile on his lips somehow reaching his eyes. I can’t imagine navigating the city in a wheelchair, being unable to read, and having limited means to ask others around me for help. Moreover, I can’t imagine doing all of that with good humor at the end of the day. I keep these thoughts to myself as we carry an amicable conversation about the city that we’ve both adopted as home, but under very different circumstances.
We part once we reach the ground. “I know my way from here. Thank you. God bless you.” I return his blessings and wave goodbye.
The frigid darkness envelops me as I walk home alone. But I am shielded by warmth and light, the glow of connection. I wrap myself tight in this new understanding, that we can begin to cross even the widest gaps with just a portable ramp, with just a few words shared in the here and now.