One day I’m sitting on the train on the way to school, and I’m trying to write a poem. Beside me there is an older Mexican woman sitting down, and next to her sits her son, a child of about probably seven or eight years. We ride in relative silence, as is common for the Gold Line’s commute, when from out of nowhere, this big, drunk, cholo steps onto the train.
Now, before this: it’s morning time, and everything around me is sort of just crispy new. This is particularly true on the Gold Line, which commutes from East Los Angeles to Pasadena, and which I catch downtown. Downtown is just the best place to start the commute on because from there the train goes through Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, and onto Pasadena, with hundreds of streets in between that make for the most colorful ride; the boulevards are filled with murals, graffiti, prancing middle schoolers in uniform, and a myriad of more color, radiance, and vigor through the sunlight.
And this morning, I’m thinking about the relation of these things to the universe.
Just moments before the mother, her child, and the cholo consume my periphery, I’m thinking about how every single person I ever share a moment with, whether they’re friends or strangers, acquaintances or enemies–or whether they’re even people for that matter–regardless of who or what it is, everything and everyone around me is just a reflection of the beautiful, star-studded galaxy. Through this, as the Gold Line and every one of its passengers glide through all of L.A.’s different channels of concrete and dirt, we’re just like meteors cutting through time and space, on the way to who knows where.
Just what this means, I’m not quite so sure, but in an effort to find out more, I begin to examine the scene. I’m on one of the train’s triple-facing seats, which are adjacent to the doors, while the mother and her son are on the two-sided seats just directly to my right cheek. The cholo, on the other hand, is sitting down on the other triple-facing seat just across from me. Anyway, I begin my exploration with a quick scan of the boy’s face on the right.
Instantly, he returns my glance. For a moment I remember being his age, with my own brother and mother on the bus, and how I often looked around at all the bigger people around us, wondering what on earth they meant to me. I guess that hasn’t changed much, now that I think about it. Interesting.
Anyway, I’m wondering if I’m being a cool role model, as I type—or rather— as I try to type away the time on my laptop throughout our commute; you know, cool role-model style, the way those hip, older college kids seemed when you were younger? When you kinda wished that somehow they could give you some advice or maybe play your older brother or sister for a little bit?
I’m hoping I look like one of those role models as I sit there with that custom, nonchalant look on my face. The one that says I’m in society right now, and the one that says I’m in control.
But back to the boy: I remember how when I was his age, laptops weren’t the big thing, but how the Gameboy were the gizmos everybody wanted. But when he’s my age, I wonder, what will the next big thing be by then?
I also wonder if when he’s twenty-one there’ll be another transit innovation that he’ll get to ride in, the way I went from taking the hot and crowded Number 2 bus through the bumpy, creviced roads of L.A. during my younger years, to gliding in the spacious and air-conditioned Gold Line on smooth electric rails towards Pasadena. Then I kinda wonder if he’ll even care.
And mind you, this is all in about two to three minutes. The ride has only just begun, and I’m still quite a few stops away from school. At this point, since the little boy’s presence has spiraled me into thought, the face that’s in society starts to wear off, and I start gaining this look of confusion, as if I just caught the first whiff of a fart, or, in this case, the whiff of a bold realization: I think I’m just about to tie this kid’s existence back to the importance of the universe, and the way that this means something to me, when from out of nowhere, the big, drunk cholo blurts out:
“HEY IS HE YOUR SON?”
I totally forgot about him.
The mother looks at the cholo and then back to me, and it’s interesting. The thing is, despite the cholo’s interruption, my mind is still on the whole thing about the universe. But in addition, my mind also considers weeks of powerful historical literature—namely, Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America—and maybe it’s because of Galeano’s book that I decide to get all One With the People about my response to the cholo’s question.
“He’s not my son,” I say, “but he is my brother. Through history, man.”
It’s a pretty cool response, right? I think so. And fortunately for all of us, the cholo thinks so too.
“Orale! That’s wassup dawg!” he says.
From this, I gather that the cholo is cool people and that there’s no reason to be alarmed. The thing is, most of the time, drunk folks on the train usually mean a bit of trouble. They’re kinda loud and unpredictable, and they just may speak to you or insult you or fall over and crush you somehow. However in the moment I sense that the cholo isn’t going to be one of those cases, I realize the ride is going to be cool, not just for me, but for the mother and her boy too!
And maybe I’m a little full of myself, but my mind warps and tells me that I’m responsible for this smooth ride now, because now the boy in front of me isn’t going to have some disturbing memory about the unruly cholo who was set off by something that one kid said. Now, it’ll have just been another trivial train ride he probably won’t even remember far into the future. Cool.
After this exchange, I figure it’s all a wrap and that the cholo will be quiet now, since that’s usually how interactions on the train go: if you speak with people, you do it in a quick and polite manner, and then you let it go. Considering this, I motion to get back to my blank screen to continue failing to write the poem, when again, before I can input another word, I notice the cholo’s hand extended out to me from across the corridor.
He’s giving me props!
And the thing is, anyone who knows anything about L.A. knows you can’t turn down props! In the words of Denzel Washington from Training Day: “that shit’ll get you killed out here”.
So I accept his props and meet his hand with my own.
And again I think that’s all there is to it. I try to get back to my screen, when the cholo speaks again:
“You know, man! That’s wassup to think like that, to think we’re all connected!”
And here I smile. And I’m going to be honest, it’s one of those loud, eccentric smiles; one of those smirks that says I knew it! Because in the instance I understand that the big drunk cholo hears exactly what I’m saying, it confirms everything.
I think of the clothing, for one. I’m in an Abercrombie shirt and some skinny red toddlander pants, with converse All-Stars on my feet. I have a backpack strewn across the seat next to mine, and the blank page on my laptop. Across from me, the big drunk cholo, who’s probably in his early thirties, is dressed in a white muscle shirt and checkered shorts, with long socks and roughed up sneakers. He’s also got that typical cholo’s scruffy beard, and tattoos riddled all over his arms.
Beside us, the young boy is clad in a classic mother’s choice, i.e., in a nameless bright shirt and some generic denim pants. And for a moment, I remember all the ridiculous clothing that my mom got for me and my brother back in the day long before Levi’s or Abercrombie or any of those other brands existed in our little minds, when both of us simply wore what Mama could afford, and when for the most part, it was cool; I mean it’s not like we were gangsters or college students with images to maintain or anything. We were just alive back when she chose our clothes for us, and that was enough. Next to the boy, the mother’s style is also reminiscent of my own mom’s from back in the day; she’s in a light orange blouse and a falda, or the Mexican skirt.
Now, why do the clothes matter? Although I don’t consider myself a fashionista, I’ll admit that most days I do like to believe I represent an aspiring young scholar for my community. On the other hand, the big, drunk cholo represents what my uncle would call the “down brown man.”
He’s that kid who didn’t finish high school and who had a child of his own long before he was ready, or that kid who you probably aren’t too excited about nodding your head towards on the way back home from school later that day. He’s also, well, drunk at eleven in the morning. My tio would laugh at the guy for the last bit.
“It’s because of people like that that they hate us,” he’d say.
I’m not so sure, though, because of the boy.
In many ways, I think to myself that the young boy next to the cholo and I cannot be labeled like either of us, simply because his mom still picks his clothes for him; he’s just seven or eight, and everything which got mr. cholo and I to our present day through our youth still lies ahead for the young dude; he’s still free.
Before I can finish my thought, though, the cholo goes on: “You know man,” he says, “I gangbang or whatever, and I’ve seen some shit, but I respect people who think like you man.”
After this, he tells me his name is Robert, and that he’s from an East L.A. gang. I thank him for his compliments, and we start talking some more about oneness, about the people.
“It’s a complex history, we all got different roles,” I tell him. “But it’s important, man.”
“Word up!” Robert shoots back. “That’s some real shit right there!”
And well, I guess here I can take a moment to explain a little bit. See, if The Open Veins of Latin America says anything to me, it’s that history’s one of the most difficult treks through the universe. The train, for example, is comprised of one main group: that is, poor or working class people, and there are reasons for our poverty; there is an entire train ride through centuries of existence which created the circumstances around us, including Robert’s drunkenness at 11 in the morning.
It’s a system of causes, an entire network of them which follow Robert and I, as well as mom and her mijo.
Tough stuff, right? It definitely almost gets me down. But then Robert surprises me again.
“And I’ll tell you something man: I know I’m drunk–I know I’m fucked up! But I also know I don’t want to see my kids grow up like me, man. I do want something better for them!”
The admission excites him, and makes him roar out with laughter. Other passengers start to look in our direction, their faces wrought with concern. I just smile, thinking it’s just Robert’s turn to rock the microphone is all. Mom knows, and so does the little brother, as we all look on ahead to the next stop.
Outside, the sunlight kisses the train, and I can almost touch the radiant beams illuminating from its metal as we glide through the rails approaching Pasadena. When the train approaches the South Pasadena and begins slowing down, I take a glance at the next stop’s flock of passengers, noticing, among them, two sheriffs getting ready to board. I look over to Robert, who catches them too, and he swallows his laughter, replacing it with a mischievous smile.
And it’ll be fine, I tell myself, as I look away from Robert and get back to the screen.