On the Way to Work
by Stephen Elliott December 15, 2006
I saw a Chinese woman go down on the Muni this morning. She was old and walked with a cane and her face was covered in scabs. She had a thick, round face. I sat between her and her husband. They were both coughing and I looked for somewhere else to sit but there wasn’t anywhere. I never take the Muni to work but this morning was an exception. Her husband poked her with his stick when it was time to get off and she tried to follow but she limped too slow and then he was off and she couldn’t make it to the door on time. They stared at each other through the plexiglass. Then the train moved and the woman fell and hit her head on the steel wall.
We surrounded her, told her to stay down, don’t try to get up. She looked at us and she was scared and maybe angry.
I pressed the emergency button. The conductor asked what was wrong and I told him. He said he would come when we pulled into the next station. When we got there the Chinese woman insisted on getting up. We had to lift her because she couldn’t get up by herself.
“Did that happen to her here?” I was asked by a man pointing to the scabs on her face.
I told him it didn’t. Her husband had similar scabs but I didn’t mention that. She looked beatup before she fell. She had stood at the door and the door closed and the train jerked softly and she crumpled to the floor.
Her husband may have been on the next train or he may have stayed waiting for her at the last station. Someone took my statement. They asked for my phone number. The conductor pointed out that he had waited, that the doors had stayed open a very reasonable amount of time. He had no way of knowing in the back of the second car this woman was shuffling toward the exit. I was only on the second car myself to avoid paying the dollar-fifty fare.
“I know,” I told him, because I didn’t want him to feel bad.
The woman didn’t want to give her name. She didn’t want to cooperate. All she would say was “Montgomery”. “Cantonese?” I asked her. “Montgomery,” she said. “Mandarin?” I thought I could maybe find someone to translate. She shook her head.
She sat with a station attendant on a circular bench then the train left. I thought it was odd how she didn’t want help. She didn’t want to document things for later. She would have medical expenses associated with that fall. I wonder who will pay them. Or maybe she won’t have expenses, just some pains in her hip and shoulder. Undiagnosed sprains and breaks. Maybe a headache some mornings. New pains indistinguishable and in addition to older pains that have plagued her for a while now.
A professor was also on the train and we had pretended not to notice each other before the woman fell but we both rushed to her as she was huddled against the wall. We teach in the same department so the fact that we had failed to acknowledge each other previously was odd but we didn’t address it. Fundamentally we are both decent people so after the accident we couldn’t ignore each other anymore.
We talked from there to the transfer station. He told me he wrote a column about wine for a free newspaper in Napa. He only taught two quarters each year, three days a week. He was a semi-famous poet, well respected in his own world. One of only two poetry professors. I told him it’s hard to make a living writing what you want to write. I mentioned politics and New York. He said he had a friend in New York he would be happy to put me in touch with, if I ever needed him to.
At the transfer station we talked about writing and the pay and the energy you put into it. He said he had once had a wife and child but was unable to maintain that. He said something along the lines of “leaving that whole world.” He made it sound like writing was incompatible with love. “On top of that,” he said, “You have to make a living.”
He was twenty years older than me at least and there was a certain dashing to him. His hair had receded over half his head but he still had some curls in the back. He had dark marks on his cheek. I thought he must be a profoundly lonely person. I knew that he had an affair with a poetry fellow once. A woman my age that was in a workshop he gave. It was very public and strange. She was ambitious, attractive, and when she was in town would invite me out with various famous writers of the kind that occupied a world that wasn’t even open to the working poet like her. She was chasing something past her means and I never went. And he, the professor, had sat straight-backed wearing orange sunglasses on the Muni until the Chinese woman fell. The woman stared up at us and we surrounded her, two university teachers and another man with a beard. “She doesn’t speak the language,” the professor said. “It’s terrifying for these people when they leave their neighborhood.”
At the transfer point, twenty or fifteen minutes after the woman fell, I stopped to punch my train card. “Listen,” he said. “I’m going to get a coffee and something to eat over there then I’m going to get a seat on the train and get some work done.” In other words our conversation was over. I was impressed by his inoffensive clarity. The old woman who had fallen was limping slower but was probably reunited with her husband by now. I didn’t want to stop talking to the professor. I wanted to know everything there was to know about the wife and child he had left behind. I wanted to hear all of his mistakes so I could avoid making them. I was almost interested enough to read his poems. But I never would do that. Instead I said, “OK,” and gave this kind of half-wave and hid behind the punch machine until he had boarded the train and watched to see what car he got on before boarding the train myself and taking my seat.
About the Author:
Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, most recently My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up.