by J.M. Ellison

On the Jackson station El platform young men sing old songs in tight harmonies. An older gentleman tap dances to Michael Jackson. I give him my biggest smile when I have no change.

The subway. The El. The train. Chicagoans have so many words for our public transportation system. Most of those words are four letters long and hurled at bus drivers pulling away from the curb a moment too soon. Complaining about the Chicago Transit Authority is the city’s favorite pastime—surpassing our love of back porch cookouts, more constant than the corruption of our politicians, deeper than our sports rivalries. I don’t complain, though. For me, the crush of people, the delays, and the stench are a low price to pay for being able to go anywhere. I don’t drive. I never have and I have a seizure condition which ensures that I never will, so I moved to Chicago, where you can live like a person even without a car. When I arrived, the train doors opened for me.         

The El is the best place to cry over the person you can never have, because on the train we are alone together. When we relax, our thighs touch. Our gaze softens until we meet each other’s eyes and then look away. On the Red Line, I sat next to a young woman with curly hair and big headphones. Her music was just audible, only to me. I recognized the song. It was an anthem to solitude. I listened along. Our heads bobbed in sync.

One day, I glanced up from my phone and noticed two women, tall and lovely, stepping onto the train. I recognized that they were trans and felt a happy jolt. We transgender people ride the bus every day, but people act like we’re not there, so this felt as though we were friends bumping into each other after a long day. That warm connection is what makes this metropolis small. I wanted to greet my trans family, but I didn’t sit down to chat. Instead, I examined my shoes to keep myself from admiring the women’s beauty. I thought about how most trans people fear being recognized. We call it being clocked. I was ashamed even though there was no reason. It is simply dangerous being seen as transgender. If we were to talk, it might bring too much attention to us. Worse, what if my prospective new friends did not recognize our connection? I looked at my shirt and jeans. Did I look trans enough for them to know? I angled away, folding my body smaller and tighter. This was the greatest heartbreak I have ever suffered on public transportation.

Another day, in a half-empty car, a man spat patter. He told us that as long as we were here we might as well have some fun. On a small felt table, he slid three cups. “Find the ball and win big.” He slapped down bills. Riders placed bets. One fellow won over and over again. He cried out in joy. Almost everyone else lost. When the shell game man left, followed by the frequent winner, the rest of us turned to each other. A woman with gray hair explained the hustle to a spring-breaking out-of-towner. Someone had asked the white guy in the sports coat if he’d really won that money. He’d nodded as if he had always been sure that he was exceptional. The tourist still didn’t understand and I explained that both men were in on it. I let her in on the magic trick this city is performing.

The day after Prince passed, I noticed a video playing on the phone of the young man sitting next to me and then could not look away. It was a concert tape, an old one in grainy black and white. On the screen, Prince was a ghost. To a beat I could not hear, he twirled, floated on tiptoes, and then dipped into the splits. For the length of the ride, Prince lingered with us. All in the car were blessed.

It takes time riding across town. The sacrifice demanded by the public transportation gods is patience. I don’t mind paying it because how else would I have time to read long books and think longer thoughts? Next to me, a woman was reading Nikki Giovanni while I read a chapbook about Sylvia Rivera. I heard a low voice growl something. A higher voice responded in fear. The woman next to me and I lowered our poetry books and raised our eyebrows.

“Is he bothering you?” she asked the woman sitting across from the man with the rumbly voice.

“Yeah,” I echoed. “Is he bothering you?”  Our shared outrage sounded like the roar of an approaching train.  Together we were formidable.

“No?” the woman next to me asked.

“Good,”  I said.

The other reader and I exchanged glances of recognition. We were comrades now. On that train, we were studying, preparing, getting ready to get free.

I don’t know how many stops there are between here and freedom. I only know that on another day when the train was delayed it was sticky summer and my leg hair was the subject of inquiry.

“Hairy legs!”

“You’re fine. Just need a little shave, that’s all.”

The University of Chicago student sitting across from me threw in, “She’s fine as she is.”

Later, when the men had left, she lowered her voice. “I’m sorry, is ‘she’ the right pronoun for you?”

It is not.

I hear cisgender people discussing us. They enunciate as they talk about pronouns, surgeries, and what happened on that reality TV show. They declare that learning about us and respecting us is very hard for them. I can tell they never imagine that we might overhear them.

Often I listen to people discuss why they cannot date trans people.

“It’s not that I am transphobic.”

“I know. It’s just a lot.”

“Yeah. A lot.”

I bought better headphones to drown out their judgments.

On a bitter January evening, as I approached the turnstiles at the Fullerton stop, I finally interrupted two people talking about us.

“Trans! I mean, can you believe it?” one of them said.

“Right?  Hilarious,” said the other.

“I’m trans,” I told them.

They laughed at me.

I kept striding toward the station entrance. I didn’t know if there was enough money on my pass, but I rushed the gate and slapped my card against the touchpad. Relief flooded me when it opened. When at last I was seated in a train heading to the Loop, I wept. No one said anything to me.

A recorded voice announced, “Please stand clear of the doors.”

J.M. Ellison

J.M. Ellison is a writer, a teacher and scholar, and a grassroots community activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has appeared in the Baltimore Review, Lunch Ticket, Story Club Magazine, and on live-lit stages across Chicago. They believe that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. You can follow their work at http://jmellison.net.

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • June 2017
Image header by Tripp.