I’m on my way home. I read a book for a while, one I can’t decide if I like or not. Then I tire of trying to figure what side of the fence I’m on and clamp headphones to my ears. The book is replaced with a Jean Shepherd radio show from 1966. I know where I stand on Shep.
In this episode, Shep talked (among other things) about one of his first radio gigs: hosting a remote from a funeral parlor on the south side of Chicago. One of the funeral parlor’s employees would play hymns on a Wurlitzer organ, with Shep occasionally interjecting a pitch for the sponsor’s services. In his retelling, he promised his audience the tale was the god’s honest truth, even raising his right hand as if swearing on a Bible. It was the radio, of course. The audience had to take his word on that gesture as much as they had to on the truthfulness of his story.
I’m standing near a door. A young man seated in front of me gestures, trying to get my attention. He might have been doing it for a while. I was so wrapped up in Shep’s funeral parlor tale I wouldn’t have noticed. I yank out one headphone, but don’t quite catch what he’s saying. So I yank out the other headphone, but his words are no clearer. I ask him to repeat himself.
“Elmhurst?” he says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the station we’re about to leave. It is in fact Elmhurst Avenue. I don’t know why he won’t turn around and take a look for himself out the window to his back, but I confirm that yes, this is Elmhurst. The doors have already closed. If Elmhurst was his stop, he’s too late to catch it.
But it seems it’s not his stop. He says something that I can’t quite make out. It unsettles me because I can’t understand why I can’t understand him. He has no thick accent and he speaks clearly. And yet, something about the way he talks interferes with understanding. His words are slow to register in my brain. I ask him to repeat himself.
“[BLANK] got shot here on Saturday,” he says. “He was killed.”
I can think of nothing to say except, “I hadn’t heard about that.”
“It was on the news,” the young man says. His voice remains flat and distant. The look on his face matches. He’s not trying stir up sympathy. He’s disseminating cold, raw information that he feels I should know. He could be telling me when this station was built, or how many people live in this Congressional district.
I paraphrase myself, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard about it.”
“It was in the papers,” he says. “In the metro.” He adds corroborating evidence, but maintains the same level of emotion: zero.
My stop arrives. I line myself at the door, anxious to leave. The young man speaks again. “Woodhaven?” he asks, investing the street name with only the slightest hint of a question mark as he jabs a thumb toward the platform behind him. He says Woodhaven like it stands for a complete phrase all the world should know how to respond to.
“No, this is Grand,” I say. The doors should be open by now, but they’re not.
“Woodhaven?” he asks once more, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Woodhaven’s the next stop,” I tell him. But he keeps staring at me. He doesn’t want to know where he is. He wants to tell me more about what Woodhaven signifies to his mind, what information it conveys to him that he must share with this train, and he says something. I hear words and I see his lips move, but none of it makes an impression. I’m sure what he says makes sense, but not to me.
“Woodhaven’s next,” I say as I rush out of the train, though I know it’s not what he wanted to hear. And then I add, “Sorry,” as the doors close. I couldn’t leave without saying that I could not help him.