I barely heard the question. But speaking over This American Life was the voice of a man on the platform struggling to get his bicycle up the stairs and onto the trolley.
With my bike pinning me against the retractable wheelchair lift on the ancient, yet retrofitted ADA accessible trolley car, it took me a few long seconds to get to the door. With the door trying to close and an annoyed trolley driver belching over the loud speaker, “Please board the trolley immediately, we have a schedule to keep,” I arrived to press the button and fling the door open in the nick of time.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The man said as he pushed from behind when I grabbed the front handlebars. As I yanked the front handlebars, decorated with tennis balls and aluminum foil, it’s weight revealed that this wasn’t just a bike– it was this mans worldly possessions.
Lifting (more like heaving) the bike it seemed stuck between the edge of the platform and a bar that divided the doors. With pressure to speed up and a dose of adrenaline, I gave it a bigger yank and the bike let out a loud yelp!
“Just a second, let me untangle Wile, he’s chained to the seat post.”
As I looked to the right of the bike, sure enough, there was a collie-mix tethered by the collar to the mans seat post.
“OK, here we go. I’ve got it now.” I said, giving it one final tug as the now-free rear of the bike lumbered up the steps.
By this time the whole car full of riders glared back at me. In the process of helping with the bike and dog– my bike had fallen down and made a horrible noise. So, as I was guiding the bike, rear-loaded with about 50 pounds of stuff in a box wired to a makeshift rear-carrier, his dog, and it’s owner having a long conversation with himself about needing to buy dog food– I also picked up my own bike and wedged myself back into my safe corner.
It was clear that the people were not glaring at the man. They barely noticed him. But their ugly gaze was at me. They think I should have left the old man on the platform.
I quickly popped my headphones back in just in time to hear Ira Glass introduce the next segment of the show.
The trolley doors finally close. The driver instantly kicks it into high gear, as if to say… “I’ll show them!” The bike and the dog were secured, but the man had just made it to the top step and hadn’t quite measured his balance when the car leapt forward. His arm reached out and grabbed mine as he winced. Given the impossible choice of falling backwards or gaining his balance with a broken wrist, he chose to grab firm onto my forearm.
“Thanks for the help. I couldn’t have made it without you. What’s your stop? I’m going to Old Town.” He said, now settling into a comfortable place to stand at the rear of the trolley with his whole life at his feat.
“I get off at the college. So when we get close, you’ll have you slide forward so I can get by.”
And then he started talking to himself about some sort of gibberish I couldn’t make out. And then about 10 seconds of silence.
In that silence I had to decide. Am I just going to tune this man out and go back to listening to the latest episode of my favorite podcast? Or am I going to take my headphones off and see where this conversation goes?
The Holy Spirit was screaming at me. “Talk to this guy.”
Sliding my headphones into my pocket– the man told his dog to lay down as he twitched and pulled and talked to himself.
“So, what’s the dogs name?” I said, startling him with my question and breaking the newfound silence between us.
“Wile E. Coyote. He’s part coyote. He’s the best dog in the world.”
“Oh, I see that. He’s a great dog. How long have you had him?”
He stared off into the horizon as the trolley slowed towards the next stop seemingly thinking about the question for a minute and came back with, “You know, these trolley cars weren’t built for bicycles. I asked a transit cop one day why we get these cars on the green line instead of the newer ones which let you roll your bike right on. He said it was because of the graffiti on the other lines.”
I just rolled with it and for the next few minutes listened and talked to the man about whatever he talked at me with. The Chargers. The canyon he calls home. How he broke his wrist. Florida. The weather. A fishing trip. It was like our conversation was the random setting on my iPhone, you never know where it’d land next.
At first, I wasn’t certain he knew I was a real person as he had a tendency to look through me more than at me. He’d also stop in mid-sentence and start a different thought. I kept wondering if he thought I was a figment of his imagination. But over the next few stops it seemed like the blurriness of his life started to narrow a bit and things became slightly more in focus. As I kept chatting with him his eyes gradually drew more into the trolley car, even noticing me a couple of times for his pupils to focus on me, or my bike, my backpack. His ticks and pulls dramatically slowed down. About 10 minutes into the conversation I think he realized I was real. The longer we made small talk the more relaxed he became.
And the more relaxed I became in talking to him, too.
To him, I think I became less a random object that helped him get on the trolley and more a person. And to me, he became less a homeless man with a dog and an impossibly heavy bicycle making me late and more a man who probably just needs someone to regularly talk to.
In that moment we were just two normal men engaging each other in small talk on the trolley.
It was the most healthy thing either of us had done all day.
I’m no psychiatrist. So I don’t know if this is true or not. But in my experience I think anyone who is a little mentally ill probably gets increasingly worse when they become isolated from people who aren’t ill.
And zooming by on the freeway at 70 mph or driving everywhere in my car isn’t going to put me in contact with the Dan & Wile’s of the world.
Sure, I ride the trolley for my own reasons. But one reason I think God has me ride the trolley is to slow down and take notice of people the rest of the world largely ignores.