This story is by J. Olivette and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He became part of my morning routine. I had a coffee in one hand, a book in the other and this crazy man pacing back and forth. He wasn’t talking to anyone in particular, but he wouldn’t shut up either. My entire commute, he kept walking up and down, mumbling the same thing over and over, like a broken record.
When I saw him again the next morning, he was wearing the same clothes from the day before and saying the same thing. I double checked the date and eliminated the Groundhog Day possibility. Different day, same clothes, same train, same direction, still mumbling ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand’. By the fifth day I was already looking for him. I’d step inside and look around to see where he was.
He wasn’t dressed like a homeless person. He didn’t have an old crumpled paper cup with small coins inside asking for some change. He didn’t stink or smell of stale alcohol and didn’t seem drunk or high, although the latter was questionable at times. I watched him from a distance and couldn’t help but wonder if he had a home, what his name was or why he was doing all this.
Sometimes he sang, out loud, as if the train was his own karaoke bar. The day he sang Fools Garden’s ‘Lemon Tree’, the students gathered at the door recognized the song and started singing along. An uninformed tourist would have given them change, had they held out a cup. However, most days he was quiet, just sat somewhere and nodded his head to everyone around. He would look some in the eye too, then smile and nod incessantly. A human bobble head.
One morning as I sat down and opened my book, I looked around and didn’t see him. I tried to read but my mind started wondering where he was. I got up and started looking. I found him on an empty part of the train, sitting by himself and mumbling. I sat on the seat adjacent to his, so maybe I could talk to him if the moment allowed.
He had unmatched shoes with unmatched socks, one blue, one yellow. Complemented with aqua blue jogging pants that looked like they were from the 90’s and a Batman T-shirt. Finished off with a visibly old black leather jacket. Shoulder length hair, unshaved for about a month. There’s ‘I don’t care what I look like today’ look and then there’s that. He was carrying a big pink umbrella, clearly not his, the type when opened fits three people under. He was sitting by the window, man spread, holding the umbrella right in the middle and crouched over as if talking to it. Because I was so close I could hear that he was actually singing.
It took me a minute to recognize it was Whitney Houston’s ‘I wanna dance with somebody’. Out of tune, and extremely slow. An acoustic, sad, crazy and slow version of the song. When he finally looked up I noticed a tear coming down his face. I wanted to say something but with one sudden move, he stood up and left the train at the Zoological Garden Station screaming.
“Somebody make it stop! Please somebody make it stop!!”
I could feel his sadness as he passed by so intensely I wanted to cry with him. His pain stayed with me, like someone’s perfume that lingered long after they passed by. I thought about him the whole day at work.
After about one month of watching him, I was determined to help somehow so I followed him when he reached his station. It was always the same one, the Zoo Station. Thought it was fitting. It’s a mix of drunks, crazies, homeless, unemployed, robbers, tourists, and locals, all looking like they belonged. He definitely didn’t stand out there. I watched him sit at an empty table outside. He pulled a photograph from his pocket, laid it on the table and started talking to it, rocking his body back and forth. I left when I realized I was late. As I went to my office I wondered if I was the only one that cared about that crazy man.
The following morning on the train I saw him leaning by the door. I made my way over to him and sat at the empty seat closest to the door. He was singing and the three younger guys at the other end started yelling at him to shut up. The scattered commuters grew uneasy at the scene. Early twenties, probably high, just looking for trouble.
“Yo wacko, shut ya mouthpiece, will ya?” said one of them, laughing and elbowing his friends.
The crazy man didn’t even flinch, as if he never heard them. So they started walking to where we were. When they got close enough I stood up, blocking the way. My 1,95 meters high with broad shoulders, 100 kilos, shaved head and neck tattoo standing between them and their prey.
“What’s the matter homo? He belong to you or somethin’?”
“You touch him, and it’s the last thing you do today”
“We three, you just one. Thought about that?”
The train came to a stop, the doors opened.
“You either get out now, or I put the three of you in the hospital.”
Dilated pupils looking up at me. Rushed by the blinking lights announcing the closing doors, almost on an impulse, they left and the doors closed behind them. We stared at each other while riding away, and whatever they said got lost between the noise of the train and my adrenaline. I looked at the crazy man, undisturbed, still singing. I sat back down and opened my book.
I knew I was going to talk to him; it was just a matter of time. Casual Fridays we can come and go as we please in the office, so I knew I had time, except he wasn’t on the train. Monday morning came but he didn’t. I took the train every single day looking for him, but I never saw him again. I felt like asking some of my fellow commuters, but I never noticed any of them before, then maybe they would think I was the crazy one. I left home early one random Tuesday just to get off at the Zoo station, hang out there for a few minutes and search. Didn’t find him, as if he had never existed. After I few weeks I stopped looking, and he became a distant memory, a speck of my imagination maybe, locked away somewhere deep in my brain.
A few months later my boss signed me up for a one-day seminar with various talks about habits. At the last talk I sat in the last row and waited for the speaker. As he walked in, my heart skipped a beat. There he was, standing very confident in front of a huge group of people, wearing a sharp black suit and freshly cut hair, looking nothing like the crazy person I had seen before, but I knew it was him.
“My name is Jonas Spinns” he started, my smile was ear to ear, “and I’m here to talk about the psychology of habits. I have a PhD in Behavior Psychology, and while studying for my Masters, I also wrote a book about the psychology behind our daily habits.”
His name. I’ve waited so long for this. A quick Internet search brought up a newspaper article about his new book and his short stint on the train. It briefly stated how after his wife left him, he lost his job, his mind and the will to live. It wasn’t until his best friend found him and slowly helped him find the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that things improved.
I looked up and saw him pacing back and forth on the stage. The same pace of his old days on the train. Now with a new job and a new book, this was the only thing reminiscent from those days.
“Empathy” he said looking at a guy in the front row “it can save a life. I know because it saved mine. Emphatic people have specific habits, which I talk about at length in my second book. It’s already a best seller so you don’t need to buy it, but I’ll plug away anyways.”
A general laughter took over the room and a sense of relief came over me. I was happy to see him again. He was ok, and not riding the subway, dressed chaotically and saying things to himself anymore. I couldn’t wait to finally talk to him. I wondered if he took the train here.