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 a Mexican-American mama 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, consider that 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 on to 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, 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. In turn, as the Gold Line and every one of its passengers glide through each 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 three-sided seats, which are adjacent to the doors, while the mother and her son are on the two-sided seats facing my right cheek. The cholo, on the other hand, is sitting down on the other three-sided seat just across from me. I begin my exploration with a quick scan of the boy’s face on the right.
Instantly, he returns my glance to me. 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, even after all this time.
I then wonder if I’m being a cool role model–as I attempt–to type away the time on my laptop throughout the 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?
But back to the boy: I remember how when I was his age, laptops weren’t the big thing, but how the Gameboy was the gizmo everybody wanted. But when he’s my age, I wonder, what will the next big thing be by then?
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.
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 Metro’s hot and crowded Number 2 bus through the bumpy, dilapidated roads of L.A. in my younger years, to gliding in the spacious and air-conditioned Gold Line on smooth electric rails towards Pasadena in my later ones. Then I kinda wonder if he’ll even care.
And mind you, only about two to three minutes have gone by. 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 completely forgot about him. He’s sitting on the seat opposite of mine.
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 spiel about the universe. But in addition, my mind is also wrapped up in weeks of fierce historical literature—namely, Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. 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.”
“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 can 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 our brief exchange, I figure it’s over with 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: “that s***’ll get you killed out here”.
So I accept his props and meet his hand with my own.
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!”
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, my theory is affirmed.
Picture it this way: I’m in an Abercrombie shirt and some skinny red toddland pants, with converse All-Stars on my feet. I have a backpack laying on the seat next to mine, and the blank page on the screen of 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 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. For a moment, it reminds me of all the wacky 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 each 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 famous regal 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 in another state of mind I would have thought of as a “down man,” or someone down on their luck, resources, and more.
He reminded me of one of those childhood friends or cousins who had a child of his own sometime during his teens, or one of those handful of friends’ brothers who you probably weren’t too excited about nodding your head to say what’s up to when going back home from school later that day. He’s also, well, drunk at eleven in the morning. An old voice in my mind would scold him for the last bit.
“It’s because of fools like that that we stay behind,” the voice would judge.
Now, I’m not so sure, though, because of the young boy.
In many ways I think to myself that the youngster next to the cholo and I cannot be labeled like either of us; at just seven or eight years old–whose mom still picks his clothes for him–everything which got el cholo and I to our present day through our youth still lies ahead for the young dude; as if, he’s still free.
Before I can finish this thought, 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 s*** right there!”
And well, I guess here I can take a moment to explain it all. See, if The Open Veins of Latin America says anything to me, it’s that history’s one of the most difficult treks in the universe for an individual. 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, and which follow mom and her mijo too.
Tough things indeed following us, which definitely almost get me down, until Robert surprises me again.
“And I’ll tell you something man: I know I’m drunk–I know I’m f***ed 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 stop it begins to slow down, and 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.