Four thirty pm and three bitter degrees in downtown Chicago, the wind cutting in from the Lake and the sky giving itself over to a glassy color like pearls. The trees are outlined in white twinkle lights and street performers in full swing beat out “Joy to the World” on garbage can lids while the throng pretends not to notice. Women clutch holiday bags and children clutch coattails, all breathing the glorious stink of the city – kettle corn and upscale steakhouse, sewer and garbage.
The red line huffs to a stop at Randolph and a Muslim woman ushers her daughter across the salt-chipped sidewalk, looking neither left nor right before slipping like a shadow into the car; she is nearly invisible beneath her hijab, and the white bread girl who sits next to them doesn’t acknowledge them.
Daughter strokes the fur on the blonde woman’s Almost Famous coat and mother jerks the hand away.
Long limbs encased in boots and leggings cross primly.
The L rattles and sways and Feliz Navidad is audible through the headphones of a Latino sitting closest to the doors; he appears to be sleeping, hands in coat pockets, the pink Victoria’s Secret bag incongruous at his feet.
At Clark, the decline in speed is sudden enough to jostle the passengers against each other. They recover from this unwanted intimacy without speaking, and the doors open for a large black woman who is head-to-toe fur, face lost beneath layers of scarf and blue-rimmed Buddy Hollys. The glasses have fogged and she’s carrying bags, and for a moment she can’t find a seat. By the time she lands, the man behind her is furious. He’s wrestling a plethora of holiday bargains – dolls and stuffed dinosaurs peering from half a dozen bags - and he walks with a limp.
“Move your ass!” His voice is harsh above the racket of the L, and his skin is a shiny color like good dark chocolate. He heaves himself into a seat across from the little Muslim girl and the passengers collectively shudder. “You go left, you go right, you can’t make up your mind! Get the hell out of my way!”
The woman floats the bird before taking her seat and the child’s mouth drops open.
Her mother shrinks a little into her hijab and the Mexican’s eyes blink.
The white girl pretends interest in her phone.
“Don’t you even!” The man splutters, and the tirade that follows throws a pall over the whole car - anger and unhappiness and fear like a nasty puff of skunk.
The woman responds in full cry, calls the man a cripple, a beggar, a steaming pile of horse dung.
The Muslim woman places hands over her child’s ears. Child squirms free; her eyes are bright as the buttons on the white girl’s boots.
The black man winds up to deliver his final epistle. “You ugly!” He hollers. “You SO ugly!”
The little girl can’t help herself – she leans forward to assess, peering around her mother.
“She is!” The man leaps upon the faux pas, and now the white girl, too, sends a furtive glance the length of car before staring fixedly at her phone again. “Isn’t she?” The man crows. “Take those glasses off and show everyone how ugly you are!”
The woman again utilizes her longest finger and the little girl goes saucer-eyed before giggling out loud.
Tiny sound, at first. Musical, clear as a lingering high C, four breaths long.
Mother clucks a warning; child can’t stop.
White girl’s mouth twitches; Mexican’s iPod goes quiet.
Now the little girl laughs out loud. “Your mouth is ugly,” she at last articulates carefully, to the man, (and to her mother’s horror) and now the black woman laughs, big belly-laugh, happy.
Finally, the man laughs, too, and suddenly the air in the car is breathable again. In fact, it’s light; it smells a little like peppermint.
The black woman stands at the next stop, heaves her purse over her shoulder and grabs her bags.
“That’s right, get your ass outta here now!” The man bellows at her. “And have a Merry Christmas!”