The man in the nine-hundred dollar suit strolled beside me leisurely, as if he had nowhere better in the world to be than the cluttered sidewalks of Baltimore. We passed by a homeless woman with red welts covering her face. The man took out his wallet and threw her a five dollar bill.
“So, Dave, how about that drink?”
It was getting late, too late to be wandering around town in business suits. I had a change of clothes in my brown leather suitcase that I kept especially for Thursday nights.
“Nah, I think I’ll go home. Stacy has been getting on to me lately about staying out on weeknights.”
“Staying out? But you hardly go out at all!” my coworker protested. I ignored him and slipped into the dirty crowd.
When I emerged from the restroom on South Monroe Street, I was wearing jeans and a blue jacket. I made it a point to blend in to my observatory. I wandered into the subway entrance, purchased a ticket, and climbed on board.
My usual seat was taken, so I took the one by the air vents. It would be harder to hear from this angle, but I wasn’t about to meander in the heart of the train with the weirdoes. Well, weirdoes to the rest of the world – subjects to me. They were absolutely necessary to the formation of my bizarre stories. I had a tiny column in The Baltimore Sun, and I made sure to submit it every Friday at noon on the dot. My boss thought I was a brilliant lunatic, spinning out stories that involved mass murderers living among us or willowy old women that spoke to pigeons in the park. The whole city thought I was a people watcher, and indeed, I was. The only deception occurring was that they believed I took my stories directly off the streets of Baltimore, when in reality, they were all cultivated on this very train.
Was it lying to pretend that I saw a businessman rob a homeless woman of all her possessions, including a five-year-old pack of Ramen noodles? Or that the woman with pink hair sitting across from me now carried two large bags of tomatoes that she would later throw at the Harbor East Theater production of Wicked?
I didn’t think so. I worked one night a week on my journalism, and it fit well into my cozy weekday schedule at the bank. Stacy had no idea of my extracurriculars, so I could do what I very well pleased without her prodding. Mostly, I spent my extra free time at the coffee shop on President Street, buried within the folds of my own mind.
The subway intercom erupted and a garbled form of English filled the trolley. Bored heads turned upwards to get a better angle for listening, although no one would dare pretend that they knew what the conductor was blabbing on about for fear of being asked by their seat-mates. After the speaker cut off abruptly, the train pulled out of the station and headed onward towards D.C.
I cracked open my briefcase and took out my composition notebook. If anyone here knew what I was doing, especially the regulars, they didn’t let it show. Mrs. Clyde tapped her fingers alongside the dirty window the whole way, and occasionally some riders sitting near her snapped their heads up in annoyance. But no one ever said anything. I wrote this down in my journal: “Passengers aren’t confrontational.” Later, this might help me with a story that takes place on a lonely city bus at two in the morning. I could see the character forming in my mind’s eye already: the twenty-something man sitting beside Mrs. Clyde would instead be placed on that metaphorical lonely bus, gazing out the window in deep contemplation. Then, in a social experiment of sorts, I would enter the bus and sit right beside him, ignoring the overabundance of open seats. He would glance up and give me that same agitated look.
Yes, it had to take place on a bus rather than the subway. I rarely wrote subway stories for fear of being caught red handed by some of the regulars. Speaking of the regulars, Diana, the lady with pink hair, was nodding her head to the overhead elevator music. It reminded me of the old days when the guitar player sat on the floor of the train with a paper cup, strumming Beatles songs. Of course, that was back before you had to have a permit to play music in public for money.
And so I rode the subway on that Thursday night, just like every other Thursday night for the last two years. As I watched the passengers avoid awkward eye contact with one another, and as I scribbled down notes that blended reality with my own wishful thinking, I realized something: that I was just a figure lurking in the dark, counting on the personalities of others to illuminate my own.