My seat mate spent the first couple of hours with his hoodie on playing games on his phone. He just returned from a Smash Brothers tournament that had been televised. He took third prize. “Should have been first” he grins. After the tournament he was recognized on the street. That part was cool. He’s been gone from California for a few months.
He told me that he made a bad mistake. He walked his girlfriend to the bus stop in his town. It was dark. You aren’t supposed to be out after dark. Even if you are tall and strong, like him. Or a trained boxer, like him. (His father, a champion boxer used to make him practice even though he hated to fight.)
When the guys surrounded him, a few blocks away from the bus stop, took his wallet, (holding his ID and not much else,) threatened him with the gun they held up to his face, he didn’t panic. (He was terrified inside, only 20 years old, but looked older) He fought back. “That’s the one time I was glad my dad made me learn how to box.” One of the guys asked if they were just going to let him go. But they heard sirens in the distance and split. A neighbor sat in a car across the street, watching, called the cops.
At home his mother knew something was wrong although he didn’t want to tell her. She sent him away, across the country, to NYC. He told me he couldn’t sleep after he left and had nightmares. He was glad to leave California. This was his first time coming home since the attack.
He wants to make something of himself. He wished that he tried in school, he was always smart, just didn’t care. Would cut school with his friends to smoke pot. When they threatened him with not being able to graduate, he sat in a classroom for three days straight, knocking out work from the whole semester. Writing essays till his fingers were numb. No one believed he could do it, but he did.
Now he lifts 100 lb. boxes at UPS, all day every day. He comes early, stays late, covers everyone’s shifts when he can. He is moving soon, hopefully if he can get the cash, to a safer suburb farther away. “I’m so lucky” he says,” I just know, with all the times I could have died, that I’m just supposed to be here. I have a purpose.” Hit was hit by a car, a middle school friend killed by a gang member right in front of him.
Within a few hours, people from all over the train are drawn to him. He smiles and laughs with abandon. Talks about dreams and hopes and basketball and gaming, and the street- depending on who he is talking to. At midnight, he turns 21, and the train family he meets brings him dinner when we stop briefly- discusses buying him a drink the next day to celebrate.
By the end of the night he is cuddled up with a girl he met a few hours before in the seat in front of us, both of them with their arms and legs on top of each other, snoring softly.