It’s a stop on the red line, but I don’t know how many people know that.
I picture the two families, in chaos and shouts, watching the Oscars on a couch in Michigan, one of the teenagers yelling at the TV, “Hey, that’s where that weird girl in overalls scolded Spencer*!”
But no one will say that because no one but me, the five year-old Spencer, and the ten year-old girl with palpable contempt knows that I told a child to stop fake-shooting people on a train in Hollywood last week.
Earlier today I tried to explain why I loved the movie “Three Billboards” so much.
“I like when bad characters have some good and good characters have some bad because everyone has depth and we don’t always get to see it.”
“Isn’t the main lady crazy though? She ruins things.”
“Well, it’s about the fall-out of a terrible event, so I think that grey area is important.”
We aren’t given coping mechanisms. We are given tools for blame as if they will build redemption.
When I walked onto the red line last week, the entire car reeked of urine. Not like a cat litter box, but like someone was currently peeing, hot and filmy, all over the floor. No one could tell where it was coming from because it was seemingly everywhere. A sort of perverse The Floor is Lava (The Seats are Pee) game. I decided to stand.
The couple sitting across the aisle sprayed a force field of CVS-brand, knockoff perfume, turning half the car into a gas station bathroom. They ran out at the next stop, gagging. More people edged toward the doors at the ends of the section, readying for a fast escape from something that had already happened. It’s times like these that remind me we are wholly unprepared for biological warfare.
On my way to stand, awkwardly next to a pole, in the center of the car, I had passed a woman of a certain age, disaffected by all the reaction. A bruised suitcase to her right, a pile of plastic grocery bags (contraband in California) containing indeterminate treasures in her lap, wearing sunglasses and looking firmly ahead.
Have you ever asked a child if they need to go to the bathroom?
Have you ever determined that you asked this question too late?
National Geographic did a whole series on Instagram about people experiencing homelessness in LA. Every single one of them told the story of someone who had a life before. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it does because we are conditioned to see the flat affect of what’s in front of us. Good v bad. But you have a whole life and suddenly you’re in a separate and lesser race of people because there’s a bottom line of how much money you can let seep away before your shelter goes too. There’s a blur at the bottom of everything terrible.
No one chooses to pee themselves in public. It’s either a lack of physical capacity to hang onto it, or something modifies, compromises, blurs that physical capacity. No one wants to sit in their own urine; it isn’t a fun-time adventure for the socially compromised.
By the time I decided the woman with the suitcase might need some social services to find shelter for the night instead of riding the train to oblivion, I had become sandwiched between her and the two families from Michigan, loudly playing The Seats Are Pee game.
“EWWWWW IT”S SO GROSS.”
“OMG I think I sat in it. Smell the seat, did I sit in it?”
I looked back to the woman with the bags. She had put a hood up and around her face.
Have you ever tried to protect a child from other, teasing children?
The families were distracted for a couple of stops. One of the moms tried to get her daughter to sing for the stranger she sat next to because he “works in music.” He was much more polite than I have ever been in any capacity.
The musician got off at the next stop and the kids wanted to switch seats.
“Spencer, that’s the pee seat, get up!”
“EWWWWW, Spencer sat in it!”
To my left, just out of my periphery, Spencer lay sprawled out across two seats, luxuriating in what everyone now assumed was universally contaminated rug material.
Smallish, with blond, spiked-up hair and light-up sneakers, Spencer blinked vacantly and adjusted his toy gun - a gold, plastic assault rifle strapped cross-wise over his shoulder.
Have you ever seen a child with a gun?
Spencer reluctantly climbed into his mom’s lap, where more giggles ensued since clearly the mom was infected with smells now too.
“I can’t wait to take a shower,” said the mom. The other mom laughed, looked to me in commiseration. I stared at the gun.
I won the Teacher Stare contest in our training group in 2003. I have a picture of it, but I think the real version has gotten better over time, and with so much real-world application. The photo now looks to me like a bored teenager waiting out a sentence rather than a woman with weight in the world.
During my second year teaching, I visited my own elementary school in my hometown to shadow a fifth grade teacher there. I wanted to see the achievement gap up close and record it. Halfway through the school day, they ran an active shooter drill. Instead of recording how I could be a better teacher, I ended up scribbling out columns of compare and contrast notes on safety.
Mostly, I furiously stabbed my notebook with, "make sure your students know they are loved" since the rest of the country had given up on them completely.
The week before we had had active shooters in the school, which I knew because they announced it over the intercom and told us to “stay still.” I didn’t even have a key to my own classroom; it didn’t have a lock at all.
Have you ever tried to get 28 students out of sight?
Spencer fiddled with his assault rifle. It had been four days since Parkland.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” The gun yelled. It flashed red lights and made that sprinkler noise. Guns don’t sound like you think they’re going to, and what reminds you of them is not always logical.
Spencer aimed his gun at his sister. She waved him off. He pointed it at his mom. She kept talking to the teenager about how she should record something while they're in LA. Hopes and dreams, I guess.
The gun kept moving around, but always securely looped around this small boy’s torso. The way I would have worn my security blanket when I was little.
Spencer aimed the gun at his sister again and fired. She stuck her tongue out. He pointed it at himself, shook his own head.
Then he pointed it at me.
“Put. It. Down.” Quiet, like my dad. We have honed our anger to be poignant.
He put it down, looked confused, punched some of the buttons and made them talk again.
Spencer lifted the gun, pointed it at my face again, squinting through an imaginary scope.
“Put it. DOWN.” Quiet again, but hissing. The sister snarled at me but all three of us knew I was the one to be afraid of, even if none of us knew why.
They filed out at the next stop, all noise and shorts and sunscreen. Except for Spencer, his plastic weapon drooped at his side, watching after me through the window as if I could both save and destroy him.
My stop was the end of the line. I filed out and glanced at the woman who nestled herself under the weight and warmth of plastic bags. She stared dead ahead at the door, determined that this train, when it began again, would loop her back to a life from before.
*Name changed to protect any innocence we can cultivate.