“How’s that phone working out for you?” he asked.
“Fine, fine,” I said.
“That the six?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“You have an iPad too, right?”
“Yes, but I forgot it at home today, so I’m working on my phone instead,” I replied.
“That must be nice,” he said, smiling knowingly.
I don’t know Kenny, but I sort of do.
I’ve been watching him work his social magic on the forward train car on the 5:30 train from LaSalle to Blue Island almost every night since October.
You see, every train car has its own culture, and I spent most of September and part of October trying all the cars out on the 303 to see which culture I fit into.
The forward car was a mistake I discovered, when I realized that the train stops at Blue Island and blocks the tracks for like 5 minutes, so if you don’t go to the forward car, you can’t get across the tracks to the parking lot.
Once I discovered this, I got on the forward car on 303 every day.
It was different from any train car on any Metra line I’ve ridden so far.
Every day there are four pretty Latino women who sound like Sofia Vergara sitting in the back four seats of the car. Sometimes I put my headphones in and just listen to them talk for the whole 25-minute ride to Blue Island.
I love the way they accent words differently than I do. I love the sing-song nature of their conversations. They are poetic.
There is also a group of men sitting in front of them. A big Latino guy who loves to show off pictures of his daughter on his huge phablet, an African American gentleman who is soft spoken and smiley. A blue-collar white guy who always looks over the top of his glasses as if they were fogged up.
And then there’s Kenny.
Kenny is a funny, smart African American guy with salt & pepper hair and a little goatee.
He runs the car like a politician, shaking hands with people and sitting with whomever he wants for a few minutes before moving on to another seat.
He’s flirtatious with the ladies and chummy with the guys.
I’ve been envious of people in the car for a few months now, because you always seem to have a friend in Kenny, if Kenny is your friend.
Kenny had obviously been watching me too.
“You gotta Mac too?” he said, as he adjusted his coat and squeezed in next to me.
“Yes, but I’m a journalist,” I said, suddenly feeling self conscious about all the expensive equipment in my bag.
“What?” he said, exaggeratedly. “You’re a what?”
“I’m a journalist,” I said, looking around at the people sitting around us.
“You cover that in Ferguson?” he asked me, right off the bat.
“No, we had a producer who went to Ferguson,” I told him.
“Ever seen anything like that before?” he said.
“Yes, once, when I worked in Ukraine as a reporter,” I told him.
Kenny had a lot of questions about what it’s like to make decisions on the ground in a story like Ferguson.
After a rather discouraging day in the middle of a rather discouraging week at the end of a rather discouraging year in journalism, I found myself reliving a little of the joy in journalism through Kenny’s questions.
A little like Ebenezer Scrooge having his past revealed through the innocence of others, I started reflecting on the things I love about my job.
“You really get to see both sides of humanity, don’t you?” Kenny asked me. “The good and the bad.”
“Yes, I do, Kenny,” said.
“Man, that must be something,” he said.
Normally Kenny is up and talking to others, and in fact, he had ignored the conversations going on around him as I ended our conversation talking about a Christmas story I once wrote about a homeless family living under a bridge in Portland, Oregon.
As I told Kenny that I had to go back to the homeless father of two children whose wife had mental health difficulties and tell them that I couldn’t run their story, because I found a meth conviction on the father’s record, he folded his hands and bowed his head nodding at me.
“You couldn’t do the story, because it would have meant the public outpouring of support for the family, right?” Kenny said.
“You’re very perceptive,” I told him. “Most people would just see it as unjust,” I told him.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have been telling the truth,” he told me.
“Exactly,” I said as we got up to leave the train at the Blue Island stop.
“What happened to the family?” he asked.
As we worked our way down the aisle, I told him, “I called my editor and asked if I could do a little digging into that meth arrest. Turns out the Nevada State Police arrested him for carrying welding powder and he was released, but nobody took it off his record, so it’s been there all these years keeping him from getting a job.”
When I looked back, Kenny was standing in the middle of the aisle blocking traffic and shaking his head.
“Man, you have to make decisions like that about peoples’ lives, huh?” he said maybe a little choked up with a load of incredulity in his voice.
“Yeah, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” I said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow man, bless you and have a great night,” Kenny told me as I left the train.
I smiled all the way home, knowing I have a new friend on the 303.