He was a delicate, old man with skin like yellowed paper. His entire image seemed to fade into itself, with his eyes, hair, fingernails and clothing all overly worn and tired. He wore an old cap that used to be white, a cream-colored jacket now dirty and mustard looking, and beige pants with many ruddy stains. His skin wrinkled and cracked over his hand bones as he moved his fingers over the words on the tiny piece of paper he was trying to read.
Downtown Los Angeles on a Friday at 6:00 in the evening is mostly just a mass exodus of business people heading out of skyscrapers and into either local bars or their cars to commute home to one of the beach cities they probably live in. In a brown tweed skirt and jacket somehow I have managed to become one of them, and a handful of us head for the subway- that in L.A. means you probably cannot afford either the bar or to live in a beach city. I was new to the city and found myself in a very foreign predicament. Coming to L.A. with only artistic-type work experience in my background, I had accepted a job making coffee and sending faxes so that I could pay the rent for an apartment that was twice as expensive as the one I had left in Chicago and half as comfortable. A couple of weeks into my new life, I slid into an easy routine of leaving the office right at 6:00 and catching the subway at 6:14. I would pick up the red line at the 7th and Metro stop and ride it until Wilshire and Western. Those first couple of nights I picked any open seat on the train car but then on that second night I saw him.
He was sitting in the very first seat to the left when you enter the train. These side-facing seats are reserved for people with disabilities, pregnant women, or the elderly. At least, they are supposed to be. Sometimes a selfish or unaware young person will sit and stay there even though one, two, or three elderly people might enter the train, look for an easy seat, find that there aren’t any available, and have to push through the crowds of standing passengers to find an open seat in the center of the car. But this man must have boarded the train at the start of its line at Union Station because he always had the same seat to himself. On my second night of riding the subway, I heard a women scream and it caused me to look up from my seat to see what was happening. I craned my head to the left towards the door where a cluster of passengers was exiting at the Wilshire and Normandie station. It seems that the woman had just shrieked in laughter as she was smiling and talking excitedly with three other female friends. As the cluster of passengers moved through the exit, my view was clear and I saw him: sitting, reading, moving his fingers over the paper.
He was reading from a piece of paper that was about the size of a postage stamp. His eyes were black and large and were sunken into his skull, and his cheekbones protruded way out past his ears, stretching his silvery thin skin taut across his face. From three rows away I could see a map of tiny blue veins looping and intersecting along each exposed inch of his body. There were dark brown liver spots on his quivering hands that were the size of chicken eggs and the bones of his knees were knobby and gnarled and were barely hidden by the worn out fabric of his stained beige pants. I watched him form each word in his mouth and stutter to whisper it to himself. In his lap sat a white plastic grocery bag that appeared to be empty. By the time the subway pulled into the Wilshire and Vermont station, the train was nearly empty itself. There was me, and him, and a small group of Korean girls who stood quietly in the back, ready to exit. The train lurched into the station and the old man wavered a little back and forth. The train steadied and he rose to get out of his seat. Before he stood he tucked the little piece of paper into his jacket pocket. He clenched his hand tightly around his white plastic grocery bag and softly left the train.
My stop was next and as I walked home that night I thought about this old man. He did not seem clean but he did not seem without home or mental clarity. I ruled out the possibility of him being homeless. I wondered what one could read on a piece of paper so small and then left it at that- just thinking he was another eccentric character in a city full of eccentric characters.
The weekend came and went and then it was Monday again. I was back in my high-rise office suite, surveying the lobby area surrounding the front desk, and watching the clock tick, its hands moving towards 6:00 ever so stubbornly slow. I filed my work for the day and got ready to leave. It was raining and I had to buy an umbrella at the drugstore downstairs before I could walk to the subway. I almost missed my usual train and would have had to wait a long time for another, but I ran to catch it and got on the train just in time. The train was crowded so I just stood in the center aisle with several other damp passengers, all of us eager to go home. Almost immediately I recognized the old man, sitting in the same place he was the last time and again reading from another very small piece of paper. He was wearing exactly the same clothes and it felt to me like this man was always there, permanently, just riding the subway and reading from bits of paper, like a ghost trapped by one very significant memory from his life that he can’t move past. This time I was close enough to see that the piece of paper was nothing more than a very small section of a page from a book. It looked as though this certain book was ripped into hundreds of tiny pieces and that he was just reading from one of them. Once again, he also had the same empty-looking white plastic grocery bag resting in his lap. Now my curiosity was getting the best of me. Did he reuse the same bag to do his nightly shopping? I couldn’t figure it out. I strained my eyes as hard as I could to try to make sense of what he was working so hard to read. The Wilshire and Vermont station came up and again he floated away from the train without gaining attention from anyone else. I had no luck and had to go home hungry for more information and a sense of whom this person was.
The following night was much the same. Tuesday’s workday came and went and then it was six o’ clock again. I boarded the train and there he was, always the same, once again. I took the chance that no other elderly person would need the seat directly across from him and jumped at the opportunity to observe him so closely. I squinted my eyes as hard as I possibly could to see what he was reading. The sight of him like this again, with the same worn clothing, tired body and desperate attempts to read his paper fragments overwhelmed my sense of understanding. I just wish I could talk to him but I get the feeling that he is too focused to be bothered. And he is also so ghostly and intimidating with his black eyes and hallowed body that I don’t know how I would approach him. The train announces its prerecorded arrival at Wilshire and Vermont and as the train stops I get ready to lose sight of the old man, but he doesn’t move. The doors open and he still doesn’t stand. He is still reading. Just as it seems that the doors are going to close he stands quickly and puts his piece of paper in his jacket pocket. He seems to have forgotten about his white plastic grocery bag because as he stands it floats to the floor. He scurries to pick it up and then rushes out of the subway car. The train pulls away and a couple of small ripped up pieces of paper lying on the floor catch my eye. I reach down for them and pluck each one of them off the dirty and dusty ground. The paper is old and yellowed, and overly worn. It is as thin as it could be before disintegrating. Each piece was once clearly a part of a Spanish textbook, one you might use to teach yourself the language. I could see bold-faced vocabulary words followed by a series of definitions. I realized that this man was attempting to learn or to remember Spanish. For some reason he only had these little pieces of it to learn from, and he carried them around in his white plastic grocery bag.
This was something important to him, so I kept the two pieces of paper he had dropped in a safe place until I could give them back to him the following night.
Wednesday’s workday moved by slowly. It was a daunting morning filled with bustling meetings with “highly significant clients” and I was told to accommodate their every need. “Make them comfortable.” They sat in the lobby across from my desk, waiting, checking their watches, making cell phone calls, and mouthing requests for Diet Coke to me while they listened to the person on the other end of the line. The investment bankers I worked for ran back and forth flush-faced and nervous, preparing for their guests. The morning was followed by a relatively quiet and slow afternoon and I stared out of the window of the conference room, wiping down the giant marble desk and rearranging after the morning’s meetings. I thought of the old man and the two neglected pieces of paper I had secured in a white envelope in my purse. At the end of the day I walked briskly towards the subway, feeling focused on my mission. At 6:13 the train begin to pull forward into the station and I boarded, making sure to walk onto the same car I had previously on Tuesday, Monday, and the Friday before when I first saw him. It was easy to remember because it was the second to the last car. I boarded the train and immediately scanned it for him. I had the white envelope in my hand, ready to give it to him. Strangely and ironically, there was no sight of him. I began to worry a little. How could he not be here? I chose a seat near his usual seat, hoping that maybe he would board from a different station… maybe. I sat patiently and waited. There was no sign of him. I sighed in frustration, still looking around for his white and weathered self. Across the car I saw a vision of white reflected in the window glass. I turned around to see if it was him and saw instead a young man in a white t-shirt and khaki pants.
The Wilshire and Vermont station came and went and the old man never boarded or for that matter exited the train. Wilshire and Western was next and it was not only my stop but also the end of the line. I tucked the white envelope back into my purse and went home, hoping he had simply missed his usual train that night or maybe had made other plans.
Two more weeks went by and I never saw the old man again. There was simply no sign of him. I experimented with riding in different train cars to see if he had changed his seating arrangement and even tried riding the train at several different times. After my first month in L.A. I decided to get a car and drive to work. The vision of the old man sat in the back of my mind but I didn’t think I would ever see him again. In fact, I wasn’t sure what happened to him, but I couldn’t bear the thought that maybe he had died. I didn’t like the idea of continuing to ride the train while knowing that he was gone. At least if I drove then I would never really know. Because maybe he went on vacation? I kept the two pieces of paper and I don’t know what I will do with them but I like to know that I’ve kept them safe. And as I see him in my mind, he is still that ghostly figure riding the train and focusing on his words. I figure that he must be fluent by now.