I stepped into the L train on my way from The Art Institute of Chicago to my brother’s house in Roger’s Park neighborhood, and was immediately greeted with a pungent odor. It was the recognizable smell of stale urine and body odor. I’m normally not bothered by odors, especially when they are expected on public transportation or cramped elevators. But this was unusually strong.
The source of the smell became evident when I turned to see a man in tattered clothing hunched over three seats, with plastic bags of his possessions surrounding him. The man looked to be about mid sixties in age, with a long grey beard, and eyes closed.
As soon as the train began to pull away from the stop, he began to shriek at the top of his lungs. The words were unintelligible, and the tone was aggressive and unsettling. The other passengers in the car practiced the learned etiquette of handling public disturbance such as this - face forward, and pretend not to notice.
His screaming escalated until there was a moment of eerie silence. The period seemed to linger, a volatile pause that was building up to the next explosion. After about a minute, he released a primal scream, and in a clear voice, yelled -
I’M NOT DEAD YET!
Something that would generally be considered the utterance of someone battling severe mental illness, seemed to immediately take hold and stay with me. I turned these words over and over in my head.
There was something about his exclamation that seemed familiar.
I began to realize that the spirit behind those words is what propels me forward each day. In each moment, each struggle, each act of creation is that very statement. I didn’t immediately recognize it, because it usually takes the form of it’s more pleasant cousin - “I am alive.”
The man on the red line has become invisible to most people. And I too pretended not to see him. But that did not prevent his message from finding a way in.