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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Riding BART: Nadine on the phone

First published on Iranian.com December 19, 2007 

I have a project that takes me to the outskirts of San Francisco several days a week, and attempting to be an environment and energy conscious (admittedly SUV driving) suburbanite, I have been commuting to work using the infamous San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known better to us locals as BART. 

As any major metropolitan mass transit system, BART attracts those homeless people who faced with the physical danger of sleeping outside, literally outdoors at night, somehow scrape the spare change with which to buy a minimum BART ticket to ride the system all day long to catch up on the sleep they could not get standing guard over what little possessions or pets they might have left in the world, that another homeless person or simple thug may covet. Or they may be spending all night drinking and doing drugs. 

And then there are the blessed crazies! In the years I have ridden BART, I have come to be able to look for and recognize the fringe insane wandering freely among us. They pop up subtly out of the corner of your eye, if you blink they're gone, if you can get away with watching them furtively, they are amazing examples of random humanity dancing on the razor's edge of normal. 

Today, as I was waiting for the train, I saw one such example. I have seen her before, she is a nondescript older woman we'll call Nadine. I would say in her late sixties to early seventies. She has short Beatle-cut sandy gray hair, small eyes that you can tell used to be shinier in days gone past. She is dressed in a teal hood-less parka, with black slacks that hide stains in their convenient color-lessness. She has a typical carry-on suitcase, the kind you pull behind you as you scamper off for a wild weekend to New York or Vegas. The difference between homelessness and a weekend romp, is the degree to which your case is over packed. Hers is bulging. Sitting precariously on top on the ledge between the case and the extended pull-handle is a matching large hand bag, straps looped over. 

I have seen Nadine before, years ago and at the time, it only registered for a moment and stayed buried, but seeing her again today, brought the whole episode back, and I had to write it down or risk forgetting it forever. Years ago, I saw Nadine while loading up my ticket from one of the many machines that hungrily take your change, cash, credit cards, or first-born to feed the immense system of rails, cars, conductors, fake engineers, computers, and their computerized robot male and female voices, a seeming city that seems necessary to make trains run these days. 

As I was waiting in line to get to the machine, I saw Nadine standing next to one of the many pay phones on the wall. She was talking on the phone. As I got closer to the ticket machine, I noticed she had a look of concern or confusion on her face. I thought she might be a lost grandma, or had gotten off at the wrong station, or something like that, and was talking to a relative to figure out how she would get home. Having been a boy scout, I am naturally and legally pre-dispositioned to helping little old ladies cross the street, so I listened in to see if I could help her. 

As I listened and could hear her words clearer, I realized suddenly that she was not talking to someone on the other end, but that she was reciting a very descriptive passage from some literary text, that I could not place. But the passages were so flowery and descriptive and irrelevant to a common phone conversation in a subway, that it almost made my head spin! 

By the time, I could process what I had just witnessed, it was my turn at the ticket machine, and I slid my credit card across the slot and added my absurdly large week's amount, and shuffled off like a sheep behind the other cattle. As I passed her, I glanced at her in fear, and as if to put the final cherry on my hallucination sundae, I saw that the phone Nadine was using had a disconnected cord! At that moment our eyes met for just a blink, and I noticed just the barest smile rise in her mouth, as if she was still trying to hide the secret that I had found out. 

Now back to this morning. Today, I saw Nadine again, it's been probably 7 years or so since our last encounter, and I could recognize her pretty easily. Probably from her eyes. I was hidden behind several other commuters down the platform, but I could easily watch her over the tops of the shorter passengers in front of me, without her seeing me. As I got closer, I could hear the literary passage she was reciting today. I could also see her clearer now, how she was dressed, her hair, and her eyes, to confirm. She looked well in general, cleaner, healthier. 

But this time there was no cordless pay phone. As if "upgraded" by Beyoncé herself, Nadine was reciting her classics this time on a cellphone, that somehow was not glowing that eery green glow near the talking cheek. You know, that eery green glow of a cellphone that is normally turned on! 

Happy Holidays Nadine, stay warm, stay safe.

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