Are We in the Middle Class?

3:43 A.M.

I’m awake and outside. It’s drizzling. I don’t see anyone until I get to the Loyola red line stop where the attendant is outside smoking. He tells me good morning. It is a good morning. I was a little afraid to be walking by myself at this time of night, but now that I’m out here I feel alright. I had to, anyway. Mitch bought me a plane ticket for 6 o’clock in the morning from Midway, which is on the way other side of town. I’m cutting it close, not leaving myself a lot of wiggle room in order to get there on time. I had to do it this way, though. Off the red line I’ll transfer to the orange line, taking the earliest train south.

Gosh, I thought I had more money on my card. $2. I’m short by twenty five cents. Attention customers, an inbound train, towards the loop, will be arriving shortly. I probably have time to refill it. I take it over to the machine that takes credit cards… my pass won’t go in. Maybe if I turn it… no… what? I consider jumping the turnstiles, but I have a big backpack on and have you seen me try to jump generally? I decide against it. Okay, I didn’t want to use my cash up, but I can take it to the machine that adds cash. Attention customers… It takes my pass. Have to unfold the corner of my twenty – shit. I don’t have time for this. It spits the twenty back out at me. If I miss this train, I don’t know when the next one is coming.

The attendant hollers at me, “Is this your train?” Yes! Yes, it is. He lets me go through, telling me something. I think it was something like hurry. I run up the escalator and step through the train doors as they’re closing. They shut on my backpack and for a few seconds have me pinned. Stand clear of the doors. The doors are closing. Yeah, I know. I’m trying.

A man with four filled trash bags and a grocery cart watches me struggle to enter his temporary bed room. The doors spasm a bit and let me inside. I’ve heard about this, people who sleep on the red line. It’s the only one that runs all night. In my head, I had associated these people with the smell of piss that sometimes inhabits the train cars. This car smells fine, though.

There are a couple of guys talking and carrying on in the back; there’s also a white guy wearing a sweater and jeans. He looks back at me. I’m glad I made it.

4:00 A.M.

The guy with the grocery bags is getting off the train. I can’t imagine why. I didn’t think he was using the train to actually go anywhere. He’s got the shopping cart wedged between the doors; they’re doing the same number they did on my backpack earlier. He’s trying to get all that stuff off – And this on a train where the driver’s anxious to get a move-on. We were barreling down the tracks this morning – it’s taking a long freaking time. The guys in back have started to heckle him.

                “Hey man, hurry up! Some of us got jobs to go to.”

The man finally makes it off with all his stuff. I’m starting to feel a little safer – the men in the back of the train have jobs.

4:20 A.M.

The white guy gets off the train at Chicago. He’s got two text books in his hand, and this is the stop for Northwestern and Loyola. I think this guy may actually be going to the library. That is crazy.

4:25 A.M.

A guy walks into the car, singing. I can’t understand him. I think it’s something about strippers; he’s using pretty heavy ebonics and that’s the one word I can pick out. Da duh Da duh Da strippers! He’s also putting up flyers for a strip club; the guys in the back seem to love him. He’s making them laugh:

                “My buddy was up on stage with them, and he was all [something something] strippers! Had a booty up in his face, but he didn’t know. He was black out drunk.”

He gets off at the next stop to, I assume, spread his marketing campaign to the other cars.

4:37 A.M.

Transfer. The guys in the back of the train get off at the same stop as me. I keep pretty close to them as I ascend to the orange line platform. (They have jobs.) This is my favorite stop, Roosevelt. It’s the southernmost one of the loop and it’s high up with a wide platform; you can see all the way out to museum campus. There are suddenly signs of travelers. I see at least three petite women with rolling suitcases; they’re wearing boots and skinny jeans. They have their hair straightened and make-up done.

5:10 A.M.

Security, Midway Airport. I can’t find my I.D. What happens now? I don’t really have time to get out of line and ask somebody.

Phew, the guy checking licenses and boarding tickets for our line seems nice. He saw that the person in front of me was going to Atlanta and he gave her some restaurant suggestions. The women checking I.D.s in the line next to ours looks tired and she has a man’s voice… It could be worse.

“I can’t find my I.D.” He asks me what else I got. Student I.D.: Amanda Carver. Debit Card: Amanda Brown. Costco Card: Amy Carver. He stamps my boarding pass anyway, but I don’t get any restaurant suggestions.

6:00 A.M.

There’s a family in front of me on the causeway. I have an instinctive aversion to children when I travel. One of the little girls asks, “Mom, are we in the middle class?” The parents chuckle self-consciously knowing that what she wants to know is whether or not they’re sitting in coach, but that she’s also asking a very good question.

                “You mean, are we flying in coach. Yes, no first class this time.”

                “Will we ever be in first class?”

More chuckling. Also a good question. When the politicians talk about the shrinking middle class, I don’t think they mean an exodus upwards.

6:05 A.M.

Everyone, please make sure your seat belts are fastened…. Turn off your electronic devises and uh… Make sure your seatbelts and tray tables are… fastened and … put in the upright position.

Oh man, if this plane crashes into the Hudson, we are screwed.

7:00 A.M.

I read an article about a man from the East side of Detroit, “the rougher part of a rough city,” who despite being a nice guy and former honor student, became a hit man. I also read a fiction piece about Americans stringing up girls in white dresses by silken micro-thread through their temples and hanging them as lawn ornaments. The girls, still living and able to live like this, are from distressed communities in places like Moldova, Laos, and the Philippines. The Americans pay good money (even money they don’t have) in order to put them out there; it’s a sign of financial prosperity.

I’m sitting on the plane feeling guilty for my relative affluence and for my whiteness. So many people from this morning – the train attendant, the man with the garbage bags, the guys in the back of the train, the strip-club publicity agent, the man who stamped my boarding pass – black. But as soon as I step on the plane, there’s hardly any.

7:43 A.M.

I get to be in Denver briefly for a flight transfer. I can see a bit of the mountains out the windows, and for as much flying back and forth between here and college that I’ve done, DIA might as well be part of home. I feel like buying Colorado tourist paraphernalia.

8:18 A.M.

I’m on the causeway again. The men in front of me are Caucasian and look to be in their late forties. They’re chatting, having realized that they’re both going to Spokane for the Gonzaga reunion. They talk shop.

                “My wife’s the clinical psychiatrist at Denver Seminary.”

                “Oh really, I’m on their financial board.”

                “So does that mean you know [something something]?”

                “Yeah, he’s my skiing/golfing buddy.”

(That’s right, skiing/golfing buddy. It makes me think of this joke I heard about dressage being some kids’ only way out of the ghetto.) They talk some more.  (“You should give me your business card.”)

My seat is next to the guy whose wife is at the seminary. So I think I’m going to have to be sneaky about writing this. But then the flight attendant asks him to move to the exit row. She shows a black woman to his seat, explaining that she can’t speak English and therefore can’t sit in the exit row.

The woman shyly sits down and starts to talk quietly on her phone – in English. I cannot account for this.

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