I heard her long before I saw her.
Her voice carried across the bus terminal at Navy Pier on the thin, icy air and managed to catch my attention over the roar of the diesel buses pulling out.
She stopped to ask the terminal boss what bus she would need to take to the train.
She was wearing leather boots that came up to her knees and ended in stiletto points, and she wore a quilted jacket and a brown scarf with gold threads interspersed in the earthy material.
But it was the way she walked that gave her away. Nobody in Chicago walks with that kind of confidence in the winter. You put your head down, you shrink your gate, and you shuffle toward the nearest warm place, whether that be a bus or a building.
The transit boss pointed directly at me, because I was standing under the 124 bus sign. She asked him again, and her voice wafted over the diesel fumes.
“I take dat bus, the 124, to LaSalle?”
The boss pointed at me one more time.
She walked through the slush and ice like she either owned the place or had never seen the stuff before.
And when the 124 pulled up, she walked on and started grilling the driver about how to get to LaSalle Station.
I waited at the doors of the bus, freezing as she fired her questions at him in a lyrical Spanish accent.
“I want to go to LaSalle,” she said. But the driver kept thinking she was saying south.
He finally looked at me, imploringly, and she noticed that she was blocking me from getting on the bus.
She dropped her head momentarily, then flashed her big, dark eyes with maybe a hint of apology. Maybe not.
The driver asked me what train stations were south.
I said, “Where are you trying to go?” and ran my CTA pass through the scanner.
She said Alsip, which is one of the few villages I happen to know, because I live next door.
But she was asking for LaSalle Street Metra Station.
I told her I was going to Blue Island, which is near Alsip.
The bus driver smiled and said, “Hey, you can just follow him.”
I sat in my usual seat facing the rear door, since it eases the anxiety I can get when the bus gets full.
She sat across from me and asked about this train station, and she latched on to the idea of getting to Blue Island.
And there was something about the way she said Blue Island. She punctuated the blue like “baloo” and dropped the d for something like “I get to baloo eye lan.”
I reassured her that I could get her to the proper train.
I tapped her shoulder at Lake and Randolph, and we stepped off into the slushy snow.
I checked behind me to make sure she was following, and made my way across Randolph to the entrance to Millennium Station.
“Was your name?” she asked me.
“My name is Tim,” I told her. And we shook hands before she put some white knitted gloves over her long fingers with intricate nail art punctuating them like fancy pencils.
I glanced at my phone and noticed that it was 5:38 p.m., and my train would leave at 5:41, and if I wasn’t on it, I’d have to kill an hour at Millennium Station for the third time in two weeks.
I hoped she wouldn’t think I was trying to lose her, but I picked up my step, and we held a rather jarring and awkward conversation as we made our way through the station to track 5.
The conductors made the last call for Blue Island just as we hit the stairs, and halfway down, we could hear the tell-tale hiss of departure, the one that occurs just before the doors close.
We fairly ran onto the train, and she immediately went up to the first person she could see and asked: “Baloo eye lan?”
A young man wearing red Beats by Dre pulled one away from his ear, as he was unable to read the Spanish accent dripping from her lips.
“Baloo eye lan?” she repeated. “This is train to “baloo eye lan?”
The guy figured it out pretty quick and nodded his head. She moved down the aisle and picked a seat along the east side of the train.
I went two seats back, figuring she was just happy to be on right train.
I sat in a four-seater so I could spread out a little
She got up and plopped her bags down in the facing seats and sat down next to me.
I had been relishing some music and perhaps catching up on social media after a busy day at work, but she wanted to talk.
I soon found out she was actually trying to get to Midlothian, but she had ridden the train in from Blue Island that morning, so it would work just fine.
I asked her if she was from Midlothian.
“I’m from Venezuela,” she said, a little innocently.
“Venezuela? Wow!” I had a hard time containing my enthusiasm. I’ve been fascinated by that country since I traveled to Cuba in 2006.
“You know this country?” she asked, seriously. “The country with no president?”
“Yes, I said, and the home of Angel Falls, and one of the more fascinating socialist regimes on earth right now.”
“Yes, she said, dis is Venezuela.”
I’ll call her Maria, and she told me she’s an educator. Actually, she’s a businesswoman who happened to start a school.
She started with 20 students, and eventually built her school up to 200. She offers Spanish, English and French language lessons.
Maria fights a lot of battles to have a business. She fights corruption, which she says is just a part of the system, unlike in America, where it’s a part of the system, but it’s not out in the open.
She’s instructed to incorporate socialism into her curriculum, or they’ll take away her license to practice the business of teaching.
As the train rumbled along toward the south, she described her city as a place where much was possible, and in spite of a strange economy, goods and services were readily available and affordable.
But currency was only really available to the wealthiest of Venezuelans, which is why they keep Chavez in power.
Maria had come to Chicago from New York. She was visiting a friend, and as an educator, she wanted to see the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, and that’s how we met. That and she walked in Stilettos through the slush like she had never encountered anything slippery before, and her accent carried across the bus terminal like an exotic bird that stands out and yet is somehow perfectly at home in any environment.
“But I like this country, because you can go outside, and it’s safe,” she said as the train passed through some neighborhoods that are known for ridiculously high murder rates.
“In my city, you cannot walk outside the house without your phone,” she told me. “You never carry a bag or purse.”
“So how do you get around?” I asked.
“You get in your car and drive, or you take the taxi,” she said.
“One time I didn’t come out fast, and my father was waiting in the car. It was maybe 5 minutes, and a guy comes like this,” she said, holding her hands up like a pistol. “My father just accelerated away.”
We both laughed at the image she drew.
“And your mom?” I asked.
She nodded slightly and told me her mother is a Wayuu princess, and that though they are an aggressive people, her mother is not aggressive. She said that people get along in Venezuela, and that racial tensions are not as bad as they are in other parts of Latin America.
We were talking rather loudly in a train car full of sleeping and drowsy people, when she was trying to explain something about her farmer brother.
“He’s nigger,” she said, unmistakably.
When I flinched and lifted my eyes over her shoulder to the sleeping form of the large black man in the seat next to us, she asked: “Is this word not good here?”
I assured her it was not a good word here, and that Chicago is a very racially sensitive city with many complicated issues.
She apologized to me and leaned in and whispered that nigger just means dark skin, and that her brother has dark brown skin from his farm work.
She told me that he’s going to watch her business while she travels.
Just a few stops before Burr Oak, where I leave the train, she told me she’s going to Australia for a year.
“He’s a farmer, and he doesn’t want to do it more than a year,” she said.
Despite her mother’s concerns, she wants a better place to run a business and to have children.
“In Venezuela they make you learn socialism, they force it on you, or you can’t practice business. If you obey, you can make a good life there,” she said.
Now what about you?” she asked. “Tell me about you.”
The conductor leaned his head the door and announced 127th, Burr Oak.
I apologized and told her that Blue Island was one stop further.
She asked me if I’m on Facebook, and I nodded yes.
“Great,” she said as she wrote down my Facebook address. “We’ll keep in touch here, and I can see your life, and you can see what my life is like in Australia.”
“Indeed,” I said.
I shook her hand walked off the train not regretting that conversation at all.
Never turn down an opportunity to interview another human being. You might learn something about the world, your town or even yourself. You might make a friend and a tour guide, and you might learn a new word or discover an idea.