The Man on the Train

It’s very late, and I have to be up very early, but I want to share something that happened just now.

Tonight, I worked a job downtown, and I took the train home. It was roughly midnight, and as I finished reloading my train card, a short, portly man stood at the terminal next to me and talked to himself. His strong lisp and dramatic intonation clearly indicated that he was not going to hit on me.

“What do I do?” he said. “What do I…”

He turned to me, his unfocused eyes watery. “If I lost my Ventra card, sweetie, what do I do?” The sour-sweet smell of fresh alcohol assaulted my face, and I slightly turned my head so I could make eye contact while offering my nose some reprieve.

“Where are you going?” I asked him.

“North,” he said.

“Right. But are you just going straight home?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Just get a one way pass tonight, and tomorrow you can decide what you want to do about your old card.” I leaned against the Ventra terminal and watched him try to untangle a few sweaty, crumpled dollar bills.

“I’m totally getting hit on like crazy,” he said. “I don’t mind being hit on, I mean, I just don’t want to be raped tonight. Unless it’s by someone I know. Stay with me while I do this.”

I laughed and told him I’d stay. Between asking me for help and assuring me he knew “how this thing works,” we got enough buttons pushed for the machine to eject a plastic blue train card and we went on our way. Sure enough, we were heading in the same direction, and he seemed determined to make as much of his way back with me as he could.

At this point, it’s late. I’m exhausted from the fertility hormones I’m on, and feeling very… well, hormonal. But there was something about this guy that told me to stick it out with him. I only needed to ride the train for five stops before getting home. I’d never see him again. So I decided to give this stranger my full attention until geography dictated we part ways.

As we waited for the train to pull into the station, he kindly invited me to get a drink with him at the best gay bar in Chicago. But because I can’t drink on the hormone treatments, I declined.

“What,” he said. “Are you like on some program? Are you… uh…?” He waved his hand in a forward motion, and mouthed “Alcoholic?”. 

I laughed. “No. I’m donating my eggs to a couple trying to have a family.”

He looked at me seriously. “Can men do that?”

“Yes,” I said. “They can.”

“What if they’re positive? Can they wash the sperm?”

Ouch. “No,” I said slowly. “Not if they’re positive. You can’t wash it out of sperm.”

“That’s the thing,” he said, and his eyes quickly began spilling over with tears. “When you’re positive, none of your cells matter.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “You might not be able to – ” I stopped. I was going to say something placating, like, “You might not be able to sell them, but all of your cells matter to the people who love you!” Instead I just said again, “I don’t think that’s true.”

He shook his head drunkenly and reached a finger under his glasses, flicking away his tears. “Ever since my partner died, it just doesn’t matter.” He sniffed and paused. Then, “I have an attorney. For my landlord, because he comes up  behind me and – ” He lightly spanked my butt with his hand. “All the time.”

“Really?” I said. “What a creep.”

“Right. And because I don’t give in to his advances, he evicts me. But I have an attorney. But ever since my partner died, I don’t have a home. Friends say, ‘Where will you go next?’ and I say, ‘Don’t ask unless you’re going to take me in,’ because they don’t really care. Nobody really cares. My name is Danny, by the way.”

I told Danny my name. The train pulled in. We got on the train, and Danny spotted two seats next to each other. Just as another guy sat in one, Danny threw his thumb over his shoulder in a get-a-move-on kind of way. “We need those seats,” Danny informed him, and amazingly, the guy smiled and obliged. Danny and I squeezed in between a group of Loyola students. A small girl wearing a lot of dark blush and crunchy mascara sat next to me.

“Where is your family?” I asked Danny.

“Peoria,” he said. “But they gave me up a long time ago.”

I raised my eyebrows in question.

“They just didn’t want me. They gave me up. When my partner OD’d, my mother told me now I was laying in the bed I made.” More tears. He was talking very loudly now. For a moment, I felt embarrassed by Danny’s loud voice and gestures. Why? Because he talked loudly, and nearby strangers might think I was with him? Because somehow his actions reflected on me? I felt ashamed for being embarrassed of Danny and mentally chided myself. I turned and gave him my undivided attention.

“They gave me up because of who I am. But I’m the biggest activist you’ll ever meet in the world. And I fart a lot. I’ll go up to a family in Wal-Mart and just fart because I think it’s funny.” The group of Loyola students burst out in laughter.

“I don’t think you could make Wal-Mart smell any worse,” I said, “No matter how much you fart in there.”

“Yeah, well,” said Danny, and his chin began to quiver again. He wiped tears away from his left eye and commanded me to wipe his right, so I did. He said, “I told my friend. I told him, ‘Someday-‘” He stopped to calm his breathing. “‘Someday, Jesus is gonna give me a family. A family of my own.’ I love my German shepherd. But I want a family.” His shoulders shook as he bowed his head and cried. I put my arm around him.

“This isn’t happening,” he said. “I’m not crying. This never happened.”

“No, of course not,” I said. “But it’s okay if it did.” Danny nodded and wiped his eyes again.

We arrived at my station. I bid Danny and the Loyola students goodbye, and Danny yelled after me how pretty I was. I blew him a kiss and stepped off the train.

Phew. So just another crazy-train experience in Chicago. But here’s the thing.

Danny might have been drunk, but he isn’t crazy. He’s not morbid, or weird, or anything of the sort. His partner, who OD’d, wasn’t crazy either. People who OD do it because they’re addicted to drugs, and people who are addicted to drugs almost always lack a familial support network. Danny also lacked a familial support network. And, given just the small amount of life I’ve seen thus far, I’d confidently bet that Danny and his dead partner were rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation, and nothing but.

Some people are tired of hearing about this. They think it’s old news, that it’s been resolved, that it’s not their problem. I say fuck that. Because every day, all around you, are gay and lesbian individuals who are hurting because their family rejected them. I can’t count how many friends in college came out and were immediately forbidden from speaking to their little brothers and sisters. Whose parents cut off all financial and emotional support, who took back these kids’ cars, their furniture, their tuition, anything they could leverage to change something that cannot be changed. Some of these people fall into addiction. Some never recover.

You might think this isn’t your problem, but gay kids come from straight parents. If you think your kids won’t be gay, or it would never happen to you, think again. And then think about Danny, whose life is forever impacted by his family retracting their love and support. Danny, who is drunk on a train, crying to a stranger because the love of his life died of an overdose, and he’s lonely and confused and doesn’t know where to turn, even though his family lives less than three hours away.

LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. They attempt suicide because they think they are unworthy of love, and they learn that message from the people around them.

I always see those signs around the city, in giant letters, that say “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.” And I always think, No! Why is that there? Beauty is subjective. But the value of human life isn’t subjective. So send a different message – You have worth. You have value. Your cells matter.

I have to be up in five hours. G’night.

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