The Thirty Second Train Pitch
He came onto the train car after we’d pulled away from Sedgwick station. The Brown Line, rush hour, and I wondered just how he thought he was going get through the whole crowd of us packed in shoulder to shoulder, most of us with bags and briefcases and dressed for winter in multiple layers of overcoats and sweaters. Usually that’s what people do when they cross from car to car. They’re looking for someplace to sit on the next car, a car that’s not so crowded or one that stinks less. I already had my back pressed up against the steel pole and the plexiglass. There was nowhere else for me to squeeze to let some dumbass through who thought he could just truck on to the next car while the train was in motion.
But, I heard him anyway. “Excuse me,” and I felt the shift of people move to let him through as best they could. Then he stopped next to me. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, though I didn’t look right at him. “Excuse me,” this time louder, a voice to get people’s attention. “I want to kill myself,” he said.
I met the bewildered gaze of the woman next to me, and both of us elected to look away from the guy with the suicidal thoughts. I’m sure she was thinking the same thing I was: Please don’t do it on this train. Not here. Not now.
The guy shifted his weight from one foot to the other, brushing against my shoulder. “My father is straight up a fucking drunk. He kicked me out,” he said. “I know none of you care. Nobody cares. He thinks I made some bad choices and I have made bad choices. I’m just really hungry.” The lady and I shared another glance, relief in this unspoken conversation that he was just one of those guys, the ones who peddle their poor from train car to train car. She shifted her leather tote, bumped me in the gut, and muttered a quick apology.
“I’ve been sleeping on the street,” the guy continued. “I just want to get a bus ticket to Rockford so I can stay with my cousins. It’s $18.60 for the ticket, and if any of you can spare a little bit to help…” His voice kind of pitifully trailed off. I thought maybe I could help him with some pitch advice. Opening with self-destruction is a bit heavy-handed, and don’t put your audience off by assuming they’re not listening. I kept my mouth shut. “If you have food,” the guy said, “I’ll take that too.”
I reached into my bag’s side pocket and pulled out a Fiber One bar and gave it to him. He had a black tear tattooed in an outline under his eye. He said thank you and shoved the Fiber One bar into the pocket of his dirty parka.
I hoped he would move on then, go on to the next train car to try his pitch there, but he stayed put. He started talking to himself, having a conversation with the only one who, according to him, was listening. “I’m going to have to steal it,” he said. “That would make me a criminal. I don’t want to be a criminal, but that’s what I gotta do. Bust up some guy, take his iPhone, his laptop.”
I didn’t move. I resisted the urge to feel for my iPhone in my pocket. The tattooed tear is what bothered me. To my urban knowledge that meant something bad, that he’d killed somebody. Isn’t that what it meant? It was just an outline of a tear, though. Does that mean something different, maybe that he only hurt somebody and not killed them? I gave him a Fiber One bar. That should count for something if he flips out and starts killing people, right?
Me and the woman shared another glance, and I thought I got what she was thinking: If he flips out, you’ll beat him down? You got this? But, sadly, I was thinking the same thing back to her. You can take him, can’t you? She kind of shrugged and looked away, anywhere but at the guy. I did the same.
When the train pulled into Armitage on the next stop, the guy made for the door. The woman and I looked at one another again. This time she smiled—a what can you do grin. I smiled back, and the train pulled out of the station.