Riding the 7:10
I thought he was dead. He lay on the cinders between the railroad tracks. He didn’t move. Neither did I, frozen in place by what I’d just seen.
The 7:10 had come roaring into the 95th Street Station like it did every morning in January, 1958. Commuters lined both sides of the north bound tracks heading into the Loop. It was bitterly cold and my breath rose in an icy cloud as I waited for the train to come to a stop and take me to St. Ignatius High School on Twelfth Street.
There was always a frantic, scrambling rush to get on board. The train had already made numerous stops in the south suburbs and the old, steel commuter coaches were nearly full as it pulled into 95th Street. If you were among the last to board, the seats would be filled and you’d have to stand all the way to the LaSalle Street Station, a half an hour away.
A few of the more daring young men, in suits and flapping trench coats, sometimes grabbed the steel hand rail next to the stairs at the front and rear of each car and leapt aboard before the train came to a complete stop, running up the steps, through the door, and down the aisle to find a seat before the older, less nimble men and the women, in their high heels, came aboard.
This was a dangerous maneuver, however, requiring audacity, athleticism, and sheer, macho bravado. I had often thought about trying it myself (I hated standing in the car, studying Latin conjugations and vocabulary, jostled by commuters turning the pages of their Tribunes.) but I had never dared. The train’s speed was intimidating and its steel wheels offered no hope of mercy at a misstep.
I had seen the boy who was lying between the tracks before. He was one of the regulars on the 7:10 but he wasn’t one of the young, trench coat warriors, recent college grads, on their way to work at the Mercantile or Stock Exchange before heading off to law school at night. He was a greaser, one of those hard boys who couldn’t get into college and was working as a mail room clerk or a runner, the job a favor to his father or some uncle who took pity on him.
The other young guys looked at him with the same disdainful sneer they gave me, a high school nobody, as I stood in the aisle, studying blue, Greek vocabulary flash cards, the train lurching down the track, making it difficult to maintain my balance with my book bag between my feet. We shared their contempt as outsiders, but I didn’t think we had much in common.
He was tall and wore his dark hair long, combed into a DA. I knew my mother would call him a hoodlum. His face was acne-scarred and he smoked a Lucky Strike cigarette with a cynical scowl each morning as he waited for the train to approach. He’d flip it aside as the engine roared past and then, just when it seemed the train was still going too fast, he’d jump, grab the handrail, and the momentum of the train would pull him aboard.
Once his foot hit the step, he always looked back at the still waiting line of commuters and sneered with a greasy, triumphant smirk. He thought he was hot shit and I admired and envied his arrogance. He was all the things I wanted to be—daring, reckless, rebellious, brazenly bold—but I was too young, too timid to take such a risk. I knew that triumphs are transitory, failures are always just around the corner, and at fourteen, I wasn’t ready to face a public failure. But my man, the hoodlum, clearly didn’t share my reservations.
So I wasn’t surprised when he made his usual leap for the platform that morning. What surprised me was he missed. He reached for the handrail. It eluded his grasp. He hung mid-air for a moment before the support beam at the end of the car caught him mid-chest and, spinning him around, smashed him into the ground face first, where he lay motionless.
I was sure he was dead but a few seconds later his arms moved and then he slowly lifted his head, saw people watching him as he lay among the cinders, and painfully raised himself to his hands and knees, embarrassed to find himself sprawled along the ground, a living illustration of failure. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and staggered to his feet with a look of bewildered pain and stunned disbelief on his face.
He was in shock, not quite clear what had happened—he was about to board the train on his way to work and the next thing he knew, he was face down in the cinders, slammed in the chest by a mighty, steel monster. He turned and stared for a moment at the train, almost as if he didn’t believe it was really there and had assaulted him.
He was no longer the tough guy, the bad ass. He was a loser, beaten into submission, and the sass had been slapped off his face, which was ashen, and his eyes were full of fear. He realized he had almost died and he was terrified. He was also bruised and slowly bleeding along his forehead and cheek where the skin had been scraped away. His coat, clearly new, probably a Christmas gift, was torn and stained. His oily hair was no longer neatly combed but splayed around his head with manic chaos.
He watched the other commuters board the train. Some looked at him briefly but once they saw that he was alive and on his feet, they were content to move on, not wanting to be delayed by a damn fool teenager who should know better than trying to jump on a moving train. Others never noticed that he’d nearly died, too absorbed in their papers or not spilling the coffee in their hands or just thinking about work or the kids and all that had to be done that day. They didn’t notice, didn’t care, and moved on.
He turned and staggered off toward 94th Street. I assumed he was going home. I knew there would be someone there who cared about him and would take care of him, see to his wounds, and help him get better because I could see his lunch which had been torn from his hand by the force of the impact and was now lying on the ground.
His sandwich gaped like an open wound, its wax paper wrapper split, the top slice of rye bread thrown onto the cinders, lettuce and tomato slices trailing off into the dirt. The bottom piece of bread was covered with salami and neatly coated with yellow mustard. It was a sandwich which whispered love, tenderly and carefully made to please the boy’s lunchtime appetite. I could see his mother standing at the kitchen counter in the gray light of early morning making this for her baby. I felt bad for the kind mother I pictured, knowing how upset she’d be when he came home, bruised and bleeding. She’d try to comfort him and he’d push her away, needing to be the tough guy, hurting her with his lack of appreciation for her love and tender concern.
And I felt sorry for him too, realizing he’d be embarrassed at his mistake, humiliated by his failure to board the train but unable to hide it from his worried mother, his scoffing, head-shaking father, and his teasing, annoying brothers who would never let him forget the day he “kissed the train.”
I ran up the steps to the last coach, the conductor waved to the engineer, and off we went, the boy slowly limping out of sight. That was the last I ever saw of him. His tough guy approach had gotten him nowhere except in trouble and he probably lost his job while recovering. I felt bad for him as the train lurched and picked up speed. I also realized you can’t leap into the jaws of danger and expect to come away unscarred. When you take on something that’s big and powerful, you often get hurt.
And then I forgot about the tough guy and his brush with death. At fourteen, that’s easy. But now his shocked, stricken face sometimes comes back to me and I realize that something ended for him that cold, January morning, some buoyant, childish innocence that would never be recaptured, and I wish I had walked him home, let him know that I shared his loss, and ushered him into the consoling arms of his weeping mother.