“Choo choo. That’s how they used to go when we were little. Remember? And now look at them.”
It was a sunny morning in downtown Houston. The old lady gave a knowing nod, her frail body rocking gently back and forth with the breeze. I was observing them both cautiously a couple of feet away on the platform, half-wishing that I would stay anonymous, half-hoping to engage in conversation. That’s when he spotted me, and repeated his first statement.
“Choo choo, you know. I was telling her, that’s how trains were like when you were little.” He seemed to be an excited old fellow, keen to talk. If he were standing silently on the platform, I doubt I would have spoken to him at all. His heavy-set nature and motorhead beard carried an intimidating air about his appearance.
“Yeah,” I nodded, trying to relate to the conversation.
“I’m 82 years old,” the woman said, randomly announcing her age.
“Ahahaha… Well, I’m very little. I’m only 76 years old.”
“I’m new here. First time in downtown so don’t really know the place.” I said, glad that I had engaged in conversation with at least someone. I had spent the past thirty minutes or so just staring up at skyscrapers and going from street to random street, feeling rather lost.
“Oh! You’re new… Well, don’t go out at night. This is not a pleasant neighborhood. Where are you from? India?” he asked.
“Pakistan? Hmm…” He gave me a measured, calculating look. “A lot of people from Pakistan around here. And India. Sitting on old money.”
“Your eyes, they’re beautiful,” the woman interrupted.
“Why, thank you,” I chuckled.
“Aah, you see. That’s what’s wrong with people down here. They don’t know how to say thank you. Their IQ level is down, like very less than a hundred,” the man reasoned. He was an old man, but his energy and enthusiasm were high.
“Yeah. Well, I’m trying to make a start over here.”
“Yeah, well you seem like the person who can do it,” he remarked. He seemed more convinced in a couple of minutes of meeting me than I was myself. “Are you studying?”
“No, I’m already done with college. I studied marketing.” I said, a bit wary.
“How many years, baby?” the woman asked kindly. “How many years?”
“Aah, well I’m 25.”
“25?” she said disbelievingly. She waved her hand in denial, her face curled in a wrinkled smile. “Don’t be ridiculous honey. You’re just a baby. You’re like 19, or 20.”
“Aah, marketing. A lot of people here doing that.” He pretended to type on a computer in thin air. “You can do things here.”
“Are you from Houston?” I asked the man.
“No, I’m from New York. I used to live in Houston many years ago and I’ve moved back here again.”
I felt glad I had come across a New Yorker. New York was the only city in America I was really familiar with. I had visited the city numerous times over the years, and it served as my only basis of comparison with Houston. “Well, I know New York as well but when I compare the place, I must say, it is kind of… disappointing.” I forced myself to say. I knew it was just a first impression, and I was judging the city by its cover, so to speak. “There aren’t many people about. Everything is so empty.”
“Yeah, it’s about the people, right. Big buildings and big trains. They don’t make a place. It’s about the people. And I prefer animals to people, you know. At least you get to know when they’re gonna bite you or kick you. But with people, you never know.” He seemed to digress to his own troubles and experiences with people.
“Be careful of those types; the ones who meet you and say, “hey bro! The ones who look you in the eye. They’re the ones who’re at each others’ throats at night for the money, you know.” I really didn’t know, but I nodded all the same. I could tell he had had some bad experiences in the past. Perhaps on a Harley Davidson, driving to a dingy bar where he lost some money on a big gamble. That’s the kind of vibe he gave.
“Mmhmm… Animals,” I said, just trying to keep the conversation going. “I’m a cat person, really love cats.”
“Aah, you do. Well, you see that,” he said, showing me a tattoo on his left forearm. I drew closer to take a look. An animated man, something out of an old cartoon, seemed to be holding a contraption like a briefcase. A cat’s head and tail were poking out the sides. “That’s a cat carrier. There’s a crank at the back which fastens into the anus. And the one in front, it goes on to the neck. Keeps your cat safe and steady, hahah.”
“Oh, I’ve never seen anything like that before.” I said, slightly astonished. I was not sure how to react to a tattoo of an animal cage which seemed more like an erotic torture device.
“Well, that’s because it’s make believe. It ain’t real. And things have changed, the man with that kind of glasses and all, you don’t get that anymore.”
I nodded, and things fell silent. The woman appeared to be looking out for the train, apparently turned off by the man’s tattoo. More people had gathered on the platform since we started talking. The city did not seem so empty anymore, as opposed to those initial streets I was going about. It was a bright day in late August, and I felt excited to make a start and go around this new place. The three of us still remained conscious of each other’s presence, and the man continued to engage me further.
“Do you like rats?” he asked in a serious tone.
“Mmm, no. I don’t like rats.”
“Well, have a look at this. You see that.” He held the wrinkled skin on his right forearm so I could see another tattoo, a rather large one. I could recognize an artist’s pink caricature of Danger Mouse, holding an extremely large penis in his hands, a smirk on his face. “Look at it, the size of that pistola. That penis! Hahah. And it says – Here, kitty kitty. Hahaha! This tattoo’s really old, older than you. It’s sixty years old, you know.”
I think that was a moment when I was first trying to come to terms with some culture shock in America. I wouldn’t discuss penises and erotic tattoos loudly on a Metro train platform without being aware of how other commuters would take it. Not sure how to respond, I gave him a silent smile and hoped the train would arrive soon. I could tell he had been an adventurous teenager in his days.
“And that’s Miss Piggy,” he said, raising his sleeve to show me another tattoo. “She was my first wife.” I wondered how he differentiated between people and animals. Good humans in his life might be akin to animals, more good natured and trustworthy perhaps. Would he rather have a train platform full of rats or full of people? The train finally arrived and he partially answered my question as he went on.
“But you know, the subway, I hate the New York subway. It’s a mess. This one’s cleaner and newer.” He was right about the trains, they were all shining bright in the sunlight, commanding their space on the large road which was divided between cars and trains.
“You want to sit over here.” The lady asked the man, as we hopped on. She was pointing to the seats designated for the disabled and senior citizens.
“No, that’s for old people. I’m little, you know. I’m just 76,” he said again with a laugh.
The woman laughed it off as well and sat down on one of the seats. The train carriage was crowded. The man and I remained standing, holding on to grab handles for support. I wished I could sit down, and take a better look at the city through the windows. Instead, I took a pack of M&Ms from my pocket in an effort to soothe my empty stomach. I offered some to Miss Piggy’s ex-husband, but he refused.
“I can’t eat sweets, you know. I have to take care of this. Of this carcass. I’ve got to maintain it, you know. Otherwise, there will be nothing.” he said, with an air of resignation. I felt he had done a good job of keeping up with his health, still moving around the city on his own. He did not need to call his body a carcass of all things. But I assumed, it would be out of affection and his love for animals.
“Mmhmm… yup, you’ve got to keep up your health.” I agreed. I continued to eat my candy as the train glided along, passing cars and buildings. We both fell silent for a while, until a policeman showed up in our carriage. The man felt obliged to tell me about the officer.
“And that’s the police guy. He checks for your tickets, if you’ve paid or if you haven’t. But I’m an old guy, I can ride for free.”
“It’s good that you have facilities to assist the elderly in this country. In Pakistan and India, the governments still have a long way to go.”
“Aah yeah, but those people. They care. They care for their young, and their old. Old people don’t end up fending for themselves.”
“Yes, it’s mostly a family oriented culture, and they care for both the young and old,” I agreed in a broad sense. These were topics you could debate on endlessly, and a mid city commute on the train was not the place for it. But it was easy to tell from his out-of-place comments that he held some degree of disgust and revulsion to people in general. Something that had settled over the years. I was surprised he was still speaking to me that long.
“And you see that. That’s the taser, on his belt,” he said loudly. “The police guy uses it and it goes all- bzzzkt.” With shades on, the officer observed us from a safe proximity without any expressions on his face. He felt satisfied that we weren’t a threat, but seemed to calculate us all the same. He went into another carriage as the train came to a stop at the next station. The old lady got off, saying goodbye to both of us. The man bid her farewell and took her seat.
“Where are you off to?” I asked him. I felt curious.
“Oh, I need to go to the bank for cash you know. I get money out one month and it’s all gone by the end of the month. It’s terrible, you know.” I sensed he had come a long way down over the course of his life. From rowdy tattoos, affairs with Miss Piggy and maybe Minnie Mouse. An adventurous youth on motorbikes, hitting it out with other guys and living the free life.
“What about you? he asked me.
“I’m going to the university,” I said. I had figured the University of Houston would be a good place to start, get connected to wi-fi, find out more about the city, and browse the internet for apartment options. I could easily get food at the cafeteria, and ask students for more informed opinions about things. I wondered how many highs and lows I would hit in my search. I did hope that my search would not have me hating on other people, like that man’s experience. He was an intriguing fellow. My stop was not far, and the train came to a halt soon enough.
“Well, there’s your stop. Good luck,” he said. He went on to add, “And don’t go out at night.” That was the last I heard from him as I got off the train. Such straight-up advice from a guy like him made you wonder what this neighborhood was like at night.