Markets were slow the first trading day of the new year, so I shut down early and climbed the stairs to the Brown Line platform at Van Buren. When the train came I stepped into a nearly empty car and took a seat near the door.
The only other passenger, a man about my age in a blue suit, stood holding onto a pole in the middle of the car, swaying slightly with the pitch of the train. I might not have looked at him twice except for his wild hair and two-day beard, and upon closer inspection his expensive-looking suit was filthy, with one torn knee. He clearly wasn’t on his way home from work.
Then, remembering what day it was, I realized this guy had been on a bender since New Year’s Eve.
I made up his story in my mind as the train lurched north. Maybe his girlfriend dumped him during an extravagant dinner and he took it hard. Maybe he’d been escorted from some pulsating club after overindulging in various substances. Or maybe he’d been barhopping with a bunch of friends and just lost the group.
Maybe he couldn’t remember the way home. Or maybe he just didn’t want to go.
Had he been riding the El for a day and a half? Switching on the platforms from inbound to outbound, haunting the subterranean stations, passing out in the tunnels? Or was he actually on his way somewhere, to a hot shower and clean clothes?
Then I realized he’d caught me looking at him. He moved toward me, steadying himself one handgrip to the next, and I braced myself for a drunken harangue. Maybe he’d just ask for some change. Instead, he stopped at the doors just as the train began to slow and stared blankly at me, as if he were daring me to say anything.
I tentatively met his eyes and said, “Happy New Year.”
The train stopped. His face broke into a lopsided grin. As the doors opened on a crystal blue January day, he tipped an imaginary hat in my direction and said, “So far, so good.”