On early Monday morning, long before the crack of dawn, my plane landed at O’Hare and I was once again back home in Chicago. I traded sunny afternoons in Florida for the harshness that is a Chicago winter warped with a polar vortex unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s brutal, ask anyone from Chicago.
I struggled pretty mightily getting home with my four large bags, nothing is more frustrating than trying to juggle getting onto the CTA Transit system with four large bags after a 3-hour cramped and hot flight. Or at least that’s what I thought.
I carried my stress and anxiety onto the subway with me, and hid in a corner with my bundle of stacked bags, retreating away from the few people huddled underneath makeshift blankets in the seats around me. I was stressed, the last thing I wanted was to worry about a couple of sketchy people stealing my bags. I sunk in my little cove on the corner of the ‘L’, and watched outside the window desperately hoping that I was nearing closer to the end of my journey.
Then the funniest thing happened: life came into perspective.
A middle aged man, maybe about 30 or so, walked onto the train with a few of his close friends and sat down right next to me. The whole damn train, and they sat next to me. He had a heavy reddish beard, clothes were ragged and torn, as were his friends. I knew from the minute that the man pulled the bottle of straight Vodka from his coat with his shaking hands that he was homeless. Dude, you have a whole train car to lay out in, why are you next to me?
They all were wearing the same jacket, a greenish coat that must’ve been from whatever job they had. I didn’t really take a look at what precisely it was, I was trying my best to mind my own business.
The man inched closer to me, stood up, and said “Those are a lot of bags you’ve got there. Are you here for vacation?”
“Nah, I live in Chicago”.
“As do we. Where were you visiting?”
“Oh, I was just down in Florida for vacation.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of people so excited to hear the name of a state before. Their eyes lit up right when I said that.
“OH WOW, Florida!! Yeah, my friends and I have always been trying to get down there. We’re homeless, but we’ve been trying to save money for a ticket.” Said the man.
“Well, it’s beautiful. It was sunny and 80 degrees when I left.”
“That sounds beautiful, I could go for some sun right now.”
I could go for some sun too, I thought. It’s negative 10 degrees outside, I wouldn’t mind feeling that warmth again for just a moment. Nothing heals the soul quite like a dash of sunlight.
Nothing heals quite like a dash of hope, of belief that the future can be bright. As the three men curled up against their hard seats and fell asleep, one of the men remarked to the other “Don’t you worry, I’ll wake you when we reach the end of the line. They’ll throw us off there anyways.”
“Don’t wake me up”, said the other. “I don’t ever want to wake up, let me be taken to my maker.”
One minute I had been complaining about the lack of complimentary snacks on my airline, the next I was witnessing a closely knit Band of Brothers struggling to survive the elements. I was witnessing a group of friends losing all faith in the world. Even if it was only for a moment, the hope that I saw emerge in the eyes of the men on the train when I mentioned sunny Florida was truly magical.
Sometimes we all need a break from the troubles of our lives. All that these men wanted was a chance to wake up and watch the sun rise above the Black Mangrove trees, to feel the warmth of the sun when it graces your cheek. These men deserved a break as much as any other.
I know for a fact that eventually the train reached the end of the line, and I can only imagine that the three men shuffled out of the train and into the arctic weather in hopes of jumping on the next outbound train. A cycle of pain, a cycle of despair. A cycle that needs to be broken, somehow. Someway.
I never got their names, I’ll most likely never see them again. If you ever get the chance to read this, I only beg of you never to give up hope. Never forget that where the sun sets in one place, it rises in another. Let the sun be your guide. I hope one day you can step on a sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean and feel the sun shine upon you. You deserve that, we all do.
-Michael J. Rance