Missing The 8:19 Train
Turn Up The Love
By Tal Ariel
I was running late to the train station this morning, hoping I wouldn’t miss the 8:19 train. Risking life and limb, I quickly weaved through sluggish pedestrian and car traffic down 16th street, hoping to jump through the train doors before they shut. Finally reaching the station slightly winded, I scuttled down the stairs, jumped down from the 4th step (I always was deceptively athletic and agile), and landed on the platform with a thud. But not before the train took off, leaving a trail of flattened soda cans and newspapers chasing after it into the tunnel.
I sighed, and probably slapped my hand against something, in a show of protest and frustration, knowing that the next train was not for another 9 whole minutes. A veritable lifetime in wage slavery commuting terms. I leaned against the wall, arms crossed, one leg propped up, as if posing for a hip clothing ad designed by that has little to do with clothing. An odd mix of early morning scowl and shortness-of-breath-induced grin adorned my scruffy face, as I watched a procession of Mission district characters stroll by – a beauty pageant of scrawny bike messengers, Mexican laborers, dot-com yuppies, Castro queers, elderly Asian women carrying too many bags, and tattooed teens.
I got on the next train, annoyed that there were no seats available. You see I decided a few days prior that I would devote some time to composing music every day. And I mean every single day, even if it meant only jotting down random notes. Getting into that routine seems appropriate for someone who considers himself a composer. I also had a couple of nice melodies floating around in my head, so finding a seat was an important matter. But no seats, so I stood, hiding behind my dark sunglasses, peering at all the other sleepy commuters.
Several stops into the ride, a seat opened up and I jumped on it. I immediately pulled out my music paper and pencil, smiled, and began writing down some notes. I angled my paper ever so slightly to allow the curious to see that I was composing music, but not so much that it appeared I was showing off. One must conduct these ego-inflating operations with a combination of style, nonchalance and finesse for it to be truly effective.
After only a few minutes I became very distracted. The man sitting directly next to me (our knees were nearly touching) had his cell phone on his lap, with music playing through it. No headphones, just music pouring out unfiltered into the open train. Needless to say, this is a serious violation of us civilized commuters’ personal space and sensibilities. This was confirmed by the many perturbed eyes intermittently glaring at said cell phone. But glare was all they did. Nobody said a word, including myself. I’m not the kind of person that normally interacts with strangers when riding public transportation. If anything, I try to make myself appear as big and unfriendly as possible, so as to avoid getting trapped in a quagmire of insipid banter. Kind of like a horned frog puffing up its body like a balloon to scare off any threatening predators. I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to demand that someone turn down their music, let alone a young intimidating African-American man (I’m white. Actually, more like translucent pale magenta).
When I came to the conclusion that I would no longer be able to write, I surprised myself by leaning over to my morning DJ friend and said, “Hey man, would you mind turning down the music a little?” Notice that I made sure to include “man” in my salutation. I’ve discovered that when it comes to interactions between heterosexual men, using “man” can be very helpful and even versatile, lending an air of youthful hipness, friendliness or toughness, depending on the inflection. In this particular case, all of those uses seemed to apply.
The man turned and looked at me with a combination of surprise and disgust, and half asked, half proclaimed, as if to verify that the words made sense, “Turn it down?!?!”. I nervously replied, “Yes, please, just a little, thank you”, as the adrenaline surged through my body. He released a “tsss” sound, and reluctantly lowered the volume on his phone, but quickly replaced it with some vocalizing. His singing was a bit flat, but I decided that vocal coaching was not appropriate at that moment.
I noticed someone sitting nearby watching and nodding approvingly of my actions. For a brief moment, I basked in the spotlight of my heroism. But lowering the volume did not help my composing much. Although I was able to get a few new notes down, my monkey mind was caught up in what had just happened, bouncing it around and analyzing it every which way. Did I overstep my bounds? Should he be free to play music on the train? Was I just another oppressive white man getting my way? Was I about to get stabbed in the eye? I tried to envision how I would react if someone told me to turn my music down, and realized that I wouldn’t like it one bit, even if I knew it was inconsiderate.
I then leaned towards mister DJ and said, “Hey man, I really appreciate you turning down the music. I was trying to work on some stuff and was having a hard time concentrating. But I know I hate when people tell me to turn down my music so I really appreciate that”. A big smile splashed across his face and he said, “No problem man, you weren’t being rude. You asked nicely so it’s no big deal”. At this point I was ready to throw my arms around him and break into a tear-jerking a cappella version of “Ebony and Ivory”. Instead, I thanked him again, maybe even a third time.
He then asked me what I was writing and if they were just ideas I came up with. I told him they were, and that I write my musical ideas down, otherwise I forget them. I also threw in a manly joke about being distracted not only by his music in my ears, but also by the fine ladies on the train in my eyes. As expected, I got a hearty laugh out of him. Things were really starting to warm up now between us.
His eyes shone when he told me about how musical his 9 year old son is. And that he bought him a keyboard which the boy plays all the time at home while rapping and looping the drum beats. I agreed about how great it is for kids to be able to develop their artistic talents at a young age, and told him that I used to enjoy giving piano lessons to kids (after all, this is all about me, right?). He said he was happy that his son wasn’t growing up on the streets, in and out of jail, like he did. My heart was melting by now. I was already imagining his son accepting a Grammy award, and thanking his first music teacher, me, for being his greatest inspiration.
He then shyly leaned towards me, and in a quiet yet proud tone, told me that he now had a full time job, that he was working hard every day, that he was heading home from his midnight to 8am shift, and that his troubled days were behind him. I don’t know why he felt compelled to tell me what he did, but I was deeply touched, and proud to be the recipient of this complete stranger’s confidence.
We shook hands, both got off at the same stop, and said goodbye. He was ten feet ahead of me by the time we got through the turnstiles. I once again took advantage of my deceptive athleticism and agility, and sped up my walk to catch up to him. I pulled out my business card, handed it to him, and told him I’d love to teach his son piano, free of charge. I told him to email or call me whenever he wanted, that I lived nearby. He looked stunned. All we needed now was heartbreaking orchestral music fading in, and male audience members secretively fighting back tears. We shook hands again, and he said “Thank you very much. Have a nice day”. I believe I heard his voice quaver, as I turned away and headed to work. But it may have been the Doppler effect.
So what is the moral of this story? Let’s see, a few possibilities come to mind…
· Don’t judge a book by it’s cover?
· Express yourself?
· Can’t we all just get along?
· Don’t piss on my back and tell me it’s raining?
Maybe it’s a little bit of all these cliches, or maybe none at all. I don’t know, decide for yourself.
One thing is for sure. I’m glad I missed the 8:19 train.