I grew up in Singapore, so I am always trying to learn about America. I learned much while interning for 12 weeks at The Chicago Tribune and taking a 45-minute ride on the “L” (Chicago’s nickname for its elevated public train system) back and forth each day.
My first impression on the L train was how polite and reserved people are. Most are neatly dressed, with ears surrounded by headphones and eyes focused on iPhones and Kindles. But that’s 9 a.m. on a weekday. Inevitably, I also had to ride the L late on a weekend. At midnight, I thought the L would be scarily empty. It turned out to be as packed as a 6 p.m. rush-hour weekday.
Bodies—sticky with sweat and leaking alcohol fumes—crammed limb against limb in the vehicle. The worst night was when the L malfunctioned and stood still for half an hour. The air ventilator shut off, and as we waited, tempers steaming, the stench of intoxicated breaths and body odor heated the compartment so much that the windows fogged up.
Before me teetered two very drunk ladies in 5-inch heels, gossiping loudly about their awful, prudish roommate. To my left, a hairy, bare-chested man, also reeking of alcohol, leered at the unaware females. To my right, a blonde started giggling hysterically, then blithely lit up a cigarette and sucked up all remaining oxygen in the sardine-tinned, motionless compartment.
As the L remained stationary, people started screaming and beating drunkenly on the door and windows. A group of women behind me, also drunk, screamed profanities at the girl for smoking. Finally, movement. I survived by getting off at the next stop and walking home, but I’m convinced my lungs and heart aren’t the same.
Not that drunk people ride only on weekend nights. At 4 p.m. on any Cubs game day, the inebriated pack into the L again in broad daylight. I once sat in front of a young man decked in Cubs attire, drunkenly pole dancing and angering the man behind him.
More non-alcohol-induced stories: a man urinating in public into a plastic bag. A pale boy, clearly mentally ill, chatting gibberish into the air, concluding each loud, gasping “Aaah!” with a crunch of hard pretzels. Another mentally unwell man, laughing and galloping and hitting the side of the train like a drum set.
I watched all these scenes without knowing what to think. I tried not to stare. At times I was aghast, at others alarmed, annoyed, or amused. But these initial reactions tended to fade away after weeks of such experiences. Chicagoans seem to have seen it all, so they waste no energy reacting at all.
But here’s a scene from one Saturday night when a young married couple took the seat next to me. They were formally dressed in suit and heels, when a blind old man stumbled from one end of the compartment to the other with his walking cane. He introduced himself, begging for money with a raspy voice. People on the train edged away, looked at anything but him.
The couple next to me took one glance at each other, and the husband called out to the blind man: “Come sit with us. If you can wait a bit, we’d love to buy you something to eat.” I eavesdropped as the couple and the man conversed casually. There’s something different about this couple, and not just their kindness, I thought. They have to be Christians. And indeed, the couple started speaking of the gospel, and inviting the old man to their church.
We were all watching. I was sitting still, soaking it all in. Across from us, two college students were watching as well. This couple wasn’t just witnessing to the old man. They were witnessing to all those who watched—and as my heart swelled, I met eyes with the students, and saw from their smiles that their hearts also were touched.
The couple got off on their stop with the blind man. Even on a weekend night on a train in a dangerous, cosmopolitan city, God shines His moment of grace.