The grimy doors surprise me. Behind me are the bright lights of a few bars, their ostentatious fluorescent signage sparkling against the black of night. The sidewalks are spotless, the grass (unfortunately) mowed, and the lampposts pristine.
But these doors are scratched to the point I can’t see through their glass windows clearly. I hear the rumble of train on track. I’m at the public transit railway station, on my way to my host’s for the night after spending a couple hours at a university cafÃ©.
I push past the doors and proceed down a narrow hallway. The obviously once-white brick is a dirty, dark gray. Litter lines the crease between wall and floor. The blue paint on the handrail of the staircase is chipped and cracked, exposing my hand to the metal underneath.
This seems odd, I think to myself. I see a Black man push past the doorway at the top of stairs, followed by another and then another.We pass one another silently.
It’s 10:12 PM on a Thursday night. The neighborhood bars I passed on my walk here seemed relatively full, if their boisterousness could be considered an accurate measure of their current capacity. But the platform, I can’t help but note, is deserted.
Oh, that’s right. The really privileged people have cars, I say to myself. I take a photo, to remind myself of the thought. My train is in a few minutes, so I wait, pondering how long I’ll stay in Cleveland.
Before long, another Black man joins me on the platform. He leans over the railing and begins to sing. I try to make out the words, but can only catch one eery stanza:
I can’t sleep,
something’s not right.
Something’s not right,
I can’t sleep.
We glance at each other a few times. I look down at the leftover Mediterranean salad I was gifted earlier in the day. I pull my hands into the sleeves of my hoodie, hiding my purple and copper nail polish. I’m looking down at the food in my hand as the man approaches me on the platform.
“How are you?” he asks, extending his hand.
I look up and respond quickly with a “How are you?”, a smile, and a handshake.
“Oh man, hangin’ in there, man. Hangin’ in there.”
“Long day?” I ask.
“Man, I work at a car detail shop,” he says, pointing to his green hoodie. The name of the shop is emblazoned in big, yellow lettering on his chest. “You know Obama’s coming here tomorrow,” he continues.
“Oh yeah!” I say, even though I didn’t actually know that.
“Oh, you know,” he says. “So we got a contract with the Ohio Police Department, my shop, so we gotta detail all them cars.”
“Oh wow,” I say.
“Yeah, man, they gotta look all right for Obama, y’know.”
“Hey, what’s your name?” I ask him.
“Kenny,” he says.
“I’m May,” I say.
A now-familiar rumble signals the arrival of our train.
“Man, I wanna get home, man,” he says as the train pulls up to the platform.
“Yeah,” I agree, rather uncreatively.
“Maybe I can catch the rest of the game, get some dinner.” We keep conversing as we board a car where I am unmistakably the only white person in sight. I don’t know what game he’s talking about. He takes a seat on one side of the car and I take a seat across from him. “Get home, get dinner, watch the game,” he repeats.
“You hungry?” I ask, lifting my leftover Mediterranean salad.
“Naw, man, I got some homemade cookin’,” he says lifting the plastic bag he’s holding.
I smile. “Oh, man, now I’m jealous. So how many cars did you work on?”
“Like, 27 of them,” he said. “Woke up at 6, did a 10 hour work day. Did some other things before work, but y’know, on my feet all day, man.”
I nod. “Did you watch the debates last night?”
“No, the debates.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude,” he says, leaning across the aisle and putting a finger to his ear.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “The debates, the presidential debates last night.”
He pulls back. “I don’t follow that stuff, man,” he says. “You know, they gonna do what they gonna do, can’t do nuthin’ ‘bout that. I vote, though. Promises made to be broken, man. But I vote.” I nod. He rises and moves towards the doors as the train approaches the next platform. “Hey,” he says, pointing straight at me.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Vote for Obama,” he says.
“Already planning on it,” I say with a smile.
He nods, and exits the train.
(This was originally published on my other blog.)