On Strange Encounters

In general, on my commute, I try to keep to myself.

My commute is in two legs — a subway trip into the heart of Baltimore, and then a light rail trip out to Timonium.

The subway trip is generally quiet; in the morning it’s professionals on their way into the city, and in the evening it can be a little more raucous, but it’s also generally professionals heading out of the city.

The light rail trip, though, has no standard. The evenings are generally quiet, unless the Orioles are in town. The mornings can be quiet. Or they can be crowded. Or they can be filled with the patients at the meth outpatient facility near the office where I work. Every day is different on the light rail. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I write. This week, I’ve been reading, and I finished a mystery novel on the morning commute.

I am not used to the evening train being crowded. That came as a surprise. There were seats; I just had to change to a different car.

I pulled a graphic novel out of my bag — Doctor 13 from DC Comics, about a group of characters fighting against their non-existence in the post-Infinite Crisis universe. (It’s pretty meta. And funny.) And that’s when the strangeness of my commute home began.

Across the aisle from me, there sat a young man, probably in his early twenties. He turned and started talking to me. His accent was thick, and at first I didn’t realize he was trying to catch my attention — why would he be talking to me? I turned, looked at him, and I concluded that he was Asian, probably Korean. Because I didn’t hear him the first time, because I wasn’t listening to him, I asked him to repeat what he’d said.

“Kwum-wa,” he said. “Ha lan ta Kwum-wa.” He was very insistent.

It dawned on me that he was saying “Cromwell. How long to Cromwell.” And the southbound light rail, at least on some trains, does go to Cromwell, south of Baltimore.

This was six o’clock, roughly, give or take five minutes. Cromwell was the terminus on the south end of the line. “Forty, forty-five minutes, I think.” I’ve never ridden the train that far, I’ve never had to, but downtown is about twenty minutes from the office, we were at Lutherville, and Cromwell is about as far from downtown as the office is from downtown.

This set him off. He jumped up, the train began to move. “Forty-five minutes,” he whined with the inflection that a young boy might have when he’s told that he has to come inside out of the mud pit and take a bath. It clearly wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He began to mutter, “I need to be in Cromwell at six.”

(Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m rendering his speech in English. His pronunciation was as mangled as what I transcribed above, however. He didn’t suddenly enunciate any better because he was upset.)

Passengers boarded the train. A black woman, probably near fifty, took the seat that he had abandoned.

He wandered toward the back of the car, then came back to me. “Are we going to Cromwell?”

Honestly, I didn’t know; I don’t travel that far. “We’re heading south,” I told him. “That’s all I really know.”

The woman who’d taken his seat said, “Yes, I saw the sign on the train. We’re heading to Cromwell.”

The train, by this time, was moving. He wandered back toward the back of the train, muttering, “Six o’clock. Six o’clock.”

I thought that now I would have some quiet and I could read Doctor 13.

Of course, he came back.

Oh, not to me. We traded no more words the next twenty minutes. But he came back and sat in the seat immediately behind mine. Whereupon he began a very long, very loud, very emotional, and very private cell phone conversation with a woman named Jenny.

The way I knew the conversation began was a loud scream from behind me. It was a strangulated scream, a primal scream of raw emotion. It was a rending scream, a scream of bleakness and sorrow.

He had gotten Jenny on the phone. Apparently, they were supposed to meet, at her place, in Cromwell, at six. A rational person, in this situation, would probably make a phone call and say, “Listen, I’m running really late and I’m sorry.” A rational person would not call and scream into the phone’s mouthpiece.

This, clearly, was not a rational situation. And neither the aggrieved man behind me, for aggrieved he was, nor Jenny in Cromwell, as the conversation as I heard it would prove, were rational people.

Whoever Jenny was, she endured a torrent of verbal abuse for the next twenty minutes, as the man behind me ranged from angry to manic to simpering to wailing and back.

Beginning his conversation with, “I don’t know where I am,” he then turned to a litany of abusive language at high volume that the other twenty people on the car tried, much like myself, desperately to ignore.

He called her a “bitch.” He called her a “motherfucking piece of shit.” He called her a “fucking bitch.” He called her a “drunk fuck.” He called her a “drunken liar.” And that was just the start. All thickly accented. “I’m going to fuck you up, bitch” was a frequent refrain. English wasn’t his native language, otherwise he might have been more creative in his invective.

Jenny, for some reason, took all of this in. Maybe she, safe in Cromwell, put the phone down and went away while he raged. But there were pauses in his angry rantings, as though someone on the other end was talking back. And at one point, he asked to talk to Jenny’s mother, and there was an extended pause after that, which ended with another outburst of profane name calling.

When he wasn’t calling Jenny a bitch, he complained, with a tinge of fear in his voice, that he didn’t know where he was or, with genuinely pained tones, that “I lost my job because of you.” She had clearly taken him for a great deal of money, because he brought up a two hundred dollar cable bill, and some unnamed expense of hers cost him a thousand dollars.

On and on this went.

I learned that my initial assumption, that he was Asian, was completely incorrect. He mentioned at one point that he was from El Salvador.

As the train pulled out of the Mt. Royal station to make the turn to the State Center station — my stop — I stood up and went to the train’s exit. I looked at the man, still in his conversation. He sat slumped against the window, and then he closed his phone.

Another woman came to the exit while the train was still moving. She’d sat forward of me, and from time to time she would turn back and look at him, as he screamed into the phone at Jenny. As we stood there, waiting for the train to stop, we shrugged in unison. There was really nothing else to do.

As I stepped off the train at State Center, two of the MTA fare inspectors came aboard. I thought briefly of asking them to remove the man — “He’s been loud and belligerent,” but they were just fare inspectors, not actual Metro cops, and I couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t have lashed out at them if they approached him. It seemed best to leave the situation be and hope that he would meekly hand over his fare pass when the inspector asked for it.

The train pulled away. Whatever happened next, I would never know.

I keep to myself on the trains. It seems safest that way.

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