For one year, I took the MAX twice a day. Here are some of the people I saw and the stories I wrote about them.
Kate is not good with strangers. It is one of those rare, perfectly balanced combinations of nature, nurture and unfortunate experience that lead to a sharp, biting fear. The first came in the form of a very shy personality with a propensity toward solitude and a dislike of physical nearness and unknowns. The second in a mother who bullied Kate into eating her vegetables with stories of strangers with knives and put her to bed with warnings of unknown men climbing through the windows to get her. (This was one of her lesser eccentricities. Wigs, croquet and a genuine belief in faeries played a role in her greater ones.) The third was a brief kidnapping when Kate was 7. Though it was more a case of mistaken identity, the fuel was irrevocably added to the fire of elements one and two. The damage was done and quickly morphed into something greater and more terrifying through every re-telling by Kate’s mother until Kate herself could not remember if the stranger who took her had been intent on drinking her blood or not.
It truly was the perfect amalgamation. And poor Kate, with her heavy-lidded brown eyes and catching smile, attracted every weird-bordering-on-crazy stranger in a way that only pretty, unassuming girls can. She never really had a chance against developing this fear, which she knows some might call Xenophobia. Kate knows this because she is a Psych major.
The irony does not escape her. She is also minoring in English.
As an officially declared and registered psych major, Kate tried a few approaches to treating and eventually mastering her fear.
The first had been therapy. For 30 minutes every other day, she sat down and talked about her feelings to her reflection. The results were less than satisfactory. All of the “tell me more about that” and “how did that make you feel” seemed contrived. And the majority of the time she just ended up fixing her hair and putting on some makeup.
Currently, she is on approach number two; exposure therapy. Essentially, the theory requires that the patient be exposed to the fear in order to demystify it and integrate the phobia until it can be recognized as normal.
It isn’t going well. Kate decided her exposure therapy would mean a ten-minute MAX ride every day. At least one time each week has to be in peaking commuting times.
So far, Kate has been touched without consent 113 times. She has been spoken to by seven people (five of which had repulsive body odor, three looked at her chest, and one called her “Honeycakes”). She’s had 13 panic attacks, vomited on the MAX four times, vomited on a person twice, and been checked for a ticket once. There seems to be no pattern that indicates the therapy is working. She’s going to keep it going, though, because for her third treatment she prescribed herself a Glucocorticoid regiment. And that’s a treatment that’s still in a trial period. And also because she’s bad with needles. And because she’d probably have to steal the Cortisol.
So for now, she’s going to keep riding the MAX.
John & Mira
John rides the MAX with his coworker Mira every day. They never organized it, never set a time or made any spoken agreement, but daily they can be seen together. In the morning they ride East. Then in the evening they return West.
John stands on the platform, his shoulders shrugged against the chill of a November morning. He is alone, for the moment, but knows she will come. The lamplight of the platform falls on his tall, slender figure and makes the dark freckles sprinkled across his dark skin even more prominent. It is those freckles, more than any other feature, that have led to a lifetime’s worth of Morgan Freeman comments.
On their rides together, John and Mira would talk. Some days they talked about their children (John had two daughters, Mira two sons and a daughter), some about their own childhood (John’s in South Carolina and Mira’s in Seattle) and some days they talked local sports. They talked about their work. How their boss was a kind man, though often frantic and overwhelmed. How the new management, when it came, was changing everything. About their projects and deadlines that came and passed, then always came and passed again.
They also didn’t talk about many things.
They didn’t talk about pop culture. Mira was a naturally happy and pleasant woman, but never a frivolous one. She didn’t care who was marrying who or selling what. When it came to the news of the day, she only concerned herself with matters of global importance, such as natural disasters or government. And even then, she kept her opinions to herself, merely broaching the subject as a matter of awareness.
“You watch the debate last night?” she’d ask John.
Or, “Did you hear about the earthquake?”
Or, “Elections are tomorrow.”
Uh-huh,” John would respond.
And that was that. Sometimes John thought maybe it was the same religion that led her to cover her hair with a scarf that led her to cover her opinions so carefully. But then he realized that might be as ignorant as the people who mentioned Morgan Freeman to him.
They didn’t talk about religion except for one time, three years ago.
“You hear about that Mosque in Lake Oswego? They tried to burn it,” she said with a voice much quieter than normal.
“Who would do that?”
All John could do was shake his head when he saw the unnatural gleam in her eyes. At that moment they went through the tunnel to downtown. By the time they emerged from the loud and the dark, Mira’s ready smile had returned.
They didn’t talk about the time the MAX jolted and their hands touched. They didn’t talk about the things that kept them up at night. Mira never mentioned her father-in-law’s turn to alcoholism and the unshakeable fear that her husband would follow that path. John never said how grateful he was to have Mira at work with him. How her dark skin and headscarf made him feel less isolated in that same sea of white.
No matter what they talked about, it stopped the moment they left the platform. They did not have each other’s phone numbers, did not email other than for work, and had never met the other’s spouse or children. Once, Mira saw John at the mall with his wife and daughter. They were in a store for younger kid’s clothes and she watched with that same, easy smile across her face. She studied the freckles crossing - that must be the youngest daughter - Caroline’s face. She watched as John made them both laugh and she almost started to laugh herself, feeling a part of the joke. Then her husband called for her opinion, so she turned and walked to him.
But John continues to stand alone. With only a minute before the MAX arrives, there is still no sign of Mira. John rises from the bench, takes his hands out of his pockets and rubs them together, breathing warm, moist air onto them. He hears the shrill echo of metal grating against metal that announces the train’s approach. Turning, he sees a blazing headlight cut through the thick darkness as the train arrives. He hesitates before stepping toward it. Blinking twice and looking around, his shoulders relax as he sees Mira. She runs up, breathless and flushed.
“You cut that one awfully close,” John says.
Mira responds with a quick laugh and a broad smile that mirrors itself on John’s face. They turn and step onto the MAX together, heading Eastbound.
Damien never sits when he rides the MAX. He always positions himself as close to the door as possible, never touching the handrails without gloves. His shoulders slouch forward severely, either from the weight of his black trench coat, the contents of his backpack, or some other force, while his eyes slowly, constantly scan. On principle, he never puts in headphones or reads a book, claiming dependence on sensory distractions would be the No. 1 Cause of Death when the time comes. He taps his left foot, making a repeated low thud.
The sound makes Damien weigh, for what must be the thousandth time, the pros and cons of his clunky Doc Martens.
-The two-inch boost is a necessary height advantage. Especially for lookout in crowded spaces.
-The solid, liquid-repellant base means running in puddles of water or other liquids won’t be an issue.
-The lacing system is more secure- less chance of tripping over a shoelace and losing precious seconds.
-Hefty weight ensures maximum damage to attackers. It’s important to know you can shatter a skull with a properly executed curb stomp.
-The extra weight can slow down speed and shorten overall running distance.
That’s one huge con, but to Damien, the pros definitely outweigh them. Especially considering humankind would depend on the few prepared when the Apocalypse came.
In Damien’s backpack are 7 different knives (4 standard switchblades in different sizes, 2 butterfly knives and a butter knife he grabbed on impulse that morning), an axe, a machete, 2 hospital masks, a fifth of vodka (to be used for medicinal purposes and cleanse infection from wounds), and 10 granola bars. He’s confident this is the amount required to fight his way through a hoard until he can secure a safehouse. After that, all the supplies in the world will be up for grabs. Technically, it isn’t looting when the vast majority of the population is no longer fully human.
The contents of his bag would definitely warrant an arrest and probably put him on every no fly list in the world. His mom pestered him every time he came home, asking him what he carried around. Damien would come and sit at the kitchen table, his all black clothes strangely contrasting the tattered flower tablecloth, setting his bag down with a resonant thump. She would come at him, gray hair flying loose from the bun she attempted and wielding a ladle. Or a spatula. Or a pencil. She’d shake it at him and demand “What do you carry around? What is in that backpack of yours? Drugs? Dead bodies?” and his shouts for privacy were never heard. One day she asked again and again, “What do you carry around that’s so heavy?!” and Damien snapped, saying, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the responsibilities of being the man of the house ever since you drove dad!”
He regretted saying it, but it got him his privacy. It was for the best. Back when he just kept the bag backed in his room, he’d once shown it to Lauren. She’d freaked out and said he needed help. A while after she stopped answering his calls, he sensed it. He felt that the time was coming soon.
So now Damien carries the bag everywhere, just waiting for his chance. He rides the MAX daily. If the Apocalypse is coming, it’s likely to hit right here in the heart of human contagion. Where diseases, bacteria, genders and classes mix alike. Damien constantly watches for the coughs, the sneezes and the downright crazy to morph into something greater, something nastier. And when it does, with a machete in one hand and an axe in the other, he’ll take what the world has always denied him. And he really hopes that the jerk in the suit who intentionally shoves him as he exits the train is among the infected.
Some days on the MAX, when I go in to work earlier but not too early, I end up commuting with the high school crowd. They get on the last stop before the tunnel and get off for Lincoln High School at the first stop after we emerge into downtown. So while only on the train for 2 stops, the presence of these high schoolers is barely tolerated by the rest of the commuters.
They enter the train amidst shouts of laughter and girlish screams. Never dropping their voices to a whisper after feeling the pressure of silence on all sides, I hear them discuss the upcoming dance. I hear them talk about their tests and soccer practices and the stresses of college applications. We all hear everything. From their worries to their joys. It ranges from cliché and stereotypical to, on occasion, utterly genuine. But no matter their topic, whether yelling over each other to provide the best opinion on Mr. Johnson’s sweater vest or voicing concerns for Jenny since her mother’s sickness, it is never checked by a hushed voice.
A woman in a nearby seat looks up from her book, stares pointedly at them for a moment, then sighs and pulls her book up closer to her face. She’ll repeat this about three times throughout the ride, until the book is almost touching her nose. But the high schoolers don’t even notice. They continue to chat loudly, some even sitting on the steps at the entrances, sprawling out with the backpacks strewn into the aisle way and looking light and unfettered. Completely unperturbed by the silence that their chatter echoes throughout and cracks. They wear colors- pinks and greens and turquoises- that overwhelm the surrounding blacks and greys and browns. They never once see the narrowing eyes or the crossing arms. Because they are utterly and completely living in their moment.
And that’s their real crime here. We other occupants of the MAX aren’t annoyed because of their inconsideration. We aren’t inherently more mature and thus put out by their childish banter. It isn’t even that they’ve broken through some unspoken decibel limitation.
We grimace as they enter and smile when they leave because they’re alive. They’re unashamed and unwilling to hide their robust and undaunted spirits. Their loud laughter- tinged occasionally with an earnest desire to please- is too in the present. Their minds are nowhere but in their lives and they have forced us into reality with them.
They are better at living than dreaming.
And we? With our books and headphones and phones? We are not. And it’s that reminder that grits our teeth against the ringing of their words.