Reprinted from an earlier post on another site:
I had an interesting day in the city today, one which reminded me why I love to live here. I attended a meeting downtown and as part of an exercise was presented with a quote from John Holt, a well-known author on education
“The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”
I had this rumbling in my mind as I headed to the train and the repetition of the phrase took on an almost musical quality in my head. Then I realized there was a gentleman playing clarinet at the corner under the tracks. Jazz. It was sultry and sweet as a slow rain seeped over the city.
I kept his rhythm with me as I headed up the stairs and waited for the train.
I found a seat headed back to the office and busied myself with emails. So immersed in my own importance was I that I barely noticed when an older gentleman sat down beside me. I did notice when he offered his seat to a gal carrying several packages, only so long as to be mildly annoyed at the thought of her clumping down next to me, and then to smile at the gentility of his offer. I thought it quaint, and pleasantly uncommon. She demurred, however, so I returned to my urgent emails about nothing urgent at all.
A few moments later our overburdened friend found a spot right across from us and fumbled with boxes and bags on her lap. She smiled sheepishly and the gentleman who’d offered his seat took the occasion to smile broadly in return, flashing a full set of brown and broken teeth.
I hope I didn’t shudder obviously when he turned to me and said,
“You must be so pleased to still be able to read such fine print,” motioning to my phone.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” I confessed.
“I had to get glasses shortly after I got one of those,” chimed in the box and bag lady.
I had a choice at this point to return to my silent, imaginary space or to engage a bit more and see what came of it. I didn’t know what to do. She might be too gabby. He might be more brown teeth than genteel. I might tire of the conversation and then – since mine is the last stop – I wouldn’t have a way to extract myself politely.
But there was something so sincere about that moment I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m reading an article about voter apathy. I just can’t stand it!” I blurted.
“Ugh! In this day? I can’t believe it!” he fumed.
She shook her head, too.
Past the pristine and prominent, through the most pricey and on to its most humble abodes, the city offered a sometimes vibrant often grey backdrop to a conversation that traveled from politics to the economy to immigration and baked goods. It was funny and real and sometimes uncomfortable.
Our gentleman friend had served in Vietnam, spent time in Germany and had traveled the states and now, in his 60s, was back in school. The gal with the accoutrements was sympathetic to those who’d grown tired of the political system but, weary and wary, was still committed. She was taking flyers to an event.
I got off the train giddy, bade my companions farewell and good luck and headed out under a more persistent patter to my car. And then I sat there for a few moments collecting myself. I know an awful lot of people, as do many of us. But it’s not often that people I don’t know impact me so profoundly. I’m so glad I had the opportunity and good sense to enjoy that clarinetist’s serenade on my way to the train. I’m so grateful for the rich and robust conversation with the two strangers on the ride back to work. And mostly, most deeply, I’m so thrilled to live in a city that lays this feast of opportunity at my table every day. I simply love Chicago.