The Blue Line was one of only two things known to connect Thurman University with Kannady Chicken on North Third Street. The line’s University stop had an entrance directly at the front gates of the university. The stairwell was actually integrated into the design of the marble gates, from which attractive wings stretched out to surround and perhaps partly conceal the stairs. Most students actually used the back entrance to the subway, which spilled out in front of the larger but less attractive west gate and closer to College Hill’s commercial strip, but the main gate was symbolic of the university as a whole.
The Kellerman Avenue stop (which was actually on Ann Street, one block west of Kellerman) had a single entrance, which was in front of Kannady Chicken. Generally speaking, the less said of Kannady Chicken the better. Not so much a neighborhood institution as it was merely a thing that inexplicably existed in a neighborhood that itself only barely existed, Kannady served up edible fried foods, mostly but not exclusively chicken-based. The business depended on the fact that sometimes people came out of the subway hungry, and since the food at Kannady wasn’t any worse than anything else in this part of town it was just as good a choice as any. But make no mistake, nobody ever in the business’s history made a special trip to go to Kannady. It was just there, and so people went. Often enough that it stayed in business.
The other thing that connected Thurman University and Kannady Chicken is that Antonette Charles was a sophomore at Thurman, studying anthropology, and lived with her mother in the apartment two stories above Kannady. (Not, blessedly, the apartment directly above–everything she owned would smell like poorly-fried chicken if she had. She knew this for a fact because her neighbors, who invariably broke their leases every few months and were replaced, always sooner or later smelled like chicken.)
The morning ride that brought her from Kannady Chicken across the river to the gates of Thurman was a small miracle that took her across unfathomable dimensions of time, space, hope, and wealth. North Third Street was almost breathtakingly dilapidated. Many of the buildings were abandoned, their windows boarded up or else destroyed. The Church of Saint Denis had bars on its windows and a very heavy chain across its front door; the chain came off twenty minutes before services and went back up as soon as the last worshippers were shooed out. There used to be a day care center on between Bell and Cane but it was raided and shut down a few months earlier. No one ever really knew why, and the rumors suggested everything from child abuse to drug smuggling to bureaucratic cruelty. None of the parents seemed to have had any complaints, although they probably weren’t the kinds of parents who would have complained anyway.
The commercial strip ran up Kellerman Avenue and was only slightly less glum. There was a grocery store that was stocked well enough, more beauty salons than were perhaps strictly necessary, a few storefront churches and a handful of random shops, but otherwise most of the commercial space was boarded up. Over the years a few of the buildings had burned or collapsed, leaving gaps in the streetscape like broken teeth in a battered smile.
But this had been a vibrant working class neighborhood once upon a time, and the Blue Line was the proof. It ran through City of Carroll and crossed the Red Line–straight shot to Downtown and the Waterfront–and over the river to Quayside and beyond. Seven stops from her apartment took Antonette to Thurman. The university was one of the city’s jewels, and the neatly manicured streets that fed it positively glowed with knowledge and hope. There was crime here, too, of course, some of it quite serious–burglary, assault, rape–but the perpetrators were typically articulate young white men with no priors, and so somehow that made it okay. On Saint Patrick’s Day Antonette witnessed a group of white boys–big guys, with lots of muscles, clearly drunk though it was still morning–try to flip over a taxi that was stuck at a red light. They weren’t able to flip it so they ran on top and jumped up and down, cheering at the top of their lungs. The driver inside was terrified, but when the light turned green they jumped off and he drove away as fast as traffic would allow. Nobody called the police or even felt especially threatened, and the young men went on their way being loud and obnoxious. In her neighborhood a SWAT team would have been called and at least one of the boys would have been shot by the police, but it was different in College Hill. Things were nicer here.
Antonette didn’t think much about that sort of thing, anyway. Truth be told, she was far less afraid of those riotous white boys than she was of any of the young black men in City of Carroll who just sat on crumbly stoops and watched with glassy eyes while others passed them by. There was no reason why that should be so but it just was.
In the evenings the same trains took her from the brightness of College Hill back to City of Carroll, now literally dark.
On this day as she stepped out of the university’s back gate she was visibly upset and made it a point to get away from the crowd. This meant walking away from the Blue Line entrance. No matter, she was in no mood to get on the train straight away. She could walk to the next stop, or maybe even the one after.
There were lots of reasons for her to be upset. Financial pressures: although her scholarship covered tuition and books, there were all sorts of miscellaneous expenses like food and transportation and museum entrance fees and clothes that needing replacing and sometimes her classes actually required her to attend parties and dinners which were officially free but in practice quite expensive.
Academic pressures, too: the coursework was simply hard, and a few miscalculations at the start of the semester were starting to have implications for her sleep schedule.
Family pressures: her mother worked two jobs while Antonette didn’t work any, and although eventually her college degree would get them both out of the neighborhood and into someplace better (anyplace, right?), that payoff was still years, and in the meantime her mother worked and worked, even when she was sick because she got paid by the hour and though they did a good job of being frugal they were still one financial blow away from catastrophe.
But on this particular day, or at least at this particular moment, she was upset because of social pressures: an unfriendly confrontation with her closest friends left her with no one to turn to for solace when she had a regrettable falling-out with a boy she had been seeing. Not a boyfriend, so it really wasn’t even a big deal, but she had liked him, and felt that things were going well, and now they weren’t.
So she needed to get out and get some air and be alone, and instead of heading straight home she turned and went up the hill, away from the crowd.
Her steps pounded furiously for two blocks and she kept her face in a rude glower so that nobody would bother her with a flier or a petition or anything else. Other pedestrians parted before her like the sea before Moses.
After a few blocks her anger began to dissipate, replaced in part by self-pity and in part by her mind returning to the myriad little deadlines–personal, educational, financial, and more–that she would need to meet in the next few weeks. There was plenty to be stressed about.
She reached the top of the hill, which wasn’t very high but tall enough that the skyscrapers of downtown Leigh spread out before her in an afternoon-sun-dappled panorama, and felt herself calm down. The top of College Hill was a large grassy park and she sat for a bit–just a bit, because she did need to get home.
As soon as she turned around the peaceful image of the city began to fade, replaced again with her worries and stresses and other such feelings, and if she had continued along this path she would have been overcome with emotion by the time she reached home.
But, fortunately, she didn’t continue along that path, at least not figuratively. Literally she did keep walking to the subway, because she did need to get home, but her mind became completely distracted by the homeless man who stepped out from behind the library and asked to shake her hand.
“May I please shake your hand?” he asked, and the request was so odd and his manner so earnest that Antonette found herself unable to resist offering her hand to him. He took it and shook it slowly, and then instead of letting go he let his other hand rest over it. The smile on his face was sweetly ecstatic.
Antonette wanted her hand back, of course, but she quickly assessed the man and decided that he wasn’t a physical threat so there was no need to be rude just yet. He didn’t smell bad, either, so there wasn’t an instinctive need to pull away from him. She was more bemused than anything. He kept smiling and holding her hands.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I saw you walking by and I felt this warmth. It was so wonderful, I had to see what it was. And I looked and realized it was you.” He didn’t have crazy eyes, but they were very reverent as he spoke. “You give off warmth. Did anybody ever tell you this?”
“No,” she said truthfully, and started to pull her hand back a little. The homeless man didn’t try to hold on, and she slipped her hand free without resistance.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“May I walk with you a bit?” He must have then realized how he sounded because his eyes lost their loving glow. Now they pleaded. “I don’t want any money or food or anything. You see I am homeless but I am okay, I don’t want anything from you. I only think that this warmth you give, it is beautiful and I want to walk with you.” He looked up and down the street. “There are many people here, I would not be able to hurt you here. And I can leave you whenever you grow tired of me, but please let me walk with you a little.”
Antonette looked around. It was true that she was on a busy street and it was still daylight. The subway was only a few blocks away and without money for the fare he wouldn’t be able to follow her down. There was no polite way to say no, and he had done nothing so far to deserve her being impolite, and so she nodded her head and turned to keep walking down the hill, slowly so he could keep pace.
“You study at the university?” he asked her.
“Live in the dorms?” he asked her.
“No, I commute.”
“So you’re from Leigh?”
“Sort of. I’m actually from across the river.” There were two cities at the mouth of the Alamance River: large, rich, cosmopolitan Leigh, and small, struggling, crumbly Carroll. Outside of the area people described the whole metro area as Leigh, but within in the distinctions were important.
“I see. City of Carroll or Rome?” Which Antonette noted was basically racist. Carroll is divided into five districts: Rome and City of Carroll are the two predominantly black districts. But black people can be found everywhere in Carroll, and even the blackest parts of the city still have a good number of other people mixed in, too. The owner of Kannady Chicken, for example, was some kind of Asian–she never spoke to him so she didn’t know if he was Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese or whatever; she just knew his English was so crude that his business had its name misspelled. It was a bit disappointing to be reminded that even Leigh’s homeless people looked down on the city across the river.
“City of Carroll,” she answered him, forcing herself to show a little pride for her neighborhood.
“I’ve never been over there, you know,” he said. “I’m from out of town, you know. From here and there, I’ve been all over.”
She was still a bit annoyed but he still hadn’t said done anything to deserve rudeness so she kept the conversation going. “What brings you to Leigh?”
He shrugged a bit. “I got business all over, you know? My services are very much in demand.” He laughed a little, and she did, too. “What do you study?”
“Anthropology, that’s great. I don’t know what that is exactly but it sounds smart.”
Now she laughed a bit. “It’s the study of people.”
“I bet you’re real good at that. I bet it’s easy for you. I bet people want you to study them.” His sincerity was back, his eyes that glowed with–what, love?
She wanted to say more, to explain what it was that she studied, that it wasn’t the science of making friends and that it was actually quite difficult, but on the street with a homeless man probably wasn’t the best place to hold forth on the challenges and societal value of her discipline, she just laughed and said, “I guess. I try.”
“Why do they call it Rome? You know, the neighborhood?”
“It really has seven hills?”
She nodded. “They’re a pain to climb, too. Each one’s like its own separate neighborhood.”
“Why do they call it City of Carroll? Why not just downtown?”
“They thought it sounded nice. There was already a downtown, in the Gardens. That area was all farms. The city bought it and developed it to be a new center, and they called it City of Carroll. Because the old downtown was just a little town. The name stuck.”
“You know a lot about this area, don’t you?”
She shrugged. “I think every kid asks these questions when their little. I just remember the answers.”
“That’s probably why you’re so warm, you remember all these nice things.”
She looked at him now. “What do you mean by warm?”
He tried to show what he meant with his hands, to demonstrate an aura that came from her. “You seem like somebody who is always happy.”
This, now, was something she’d heard before, though not recently. When she was little everyone said she was the happiest kid they’d ever seen. Well, maybe not everyone, but plenty of people regardless.
“You are compassionate, I can see. You are beautiful–I don’t mean your face, I mean, I feel like you have a beautiful soul. I can feel this, like I can feel…” He reached out and touched the stone wall they were passing, in front of the School of Humanities. He reached up and pulled the leaf off a tree, and then worried it with his thumbs. “I can feel it like this. I bet other people can, too.”
By now they had reached the back gate of the university, the one with the other entrance to the subway. If she had not met the homeless man, she would have decided that she still needed to walk a bit, and she would have made it to the other entrance, the pretty one, just to have another block to walk.
As it was, she stopped and told the homeless man that this was her stop. He stopped his speaking. “Thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time. I bless your beautiful soul and wish you ease and comfort in this life.” It was a strange thing to say but he was a strange little man. Antonette stepped away.
If she turned and kept walking, she would have reached the subway platform just as a Carroll-bound blue train was arriving. She of course had no way of knowing this, and by hesitating as she did she ensured that she would miss this train. She turned and went back to the homeless man, who was walking away already. He was a bit startled to feel her touch his shoulder.
“Thank you,” she said to him. His eyes softened and he reached out to her, giving her a hug. She felt his own warmth, and wondered if the warmth he claimed to feel from her was the same as she was feeling now from him. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
He took her hands again–the train was pulling up now, and would be on its way in seconds–and held them against his chest for a second longer. Then he smiled beatifically and turned and went back up the hill.
Had she never met the homeless man she would have still missed that train, so there was no change for her. And regardless of whatever entrance she took, she would have gone to same spot on the platform, so that the train car she boarded would leave her right at the base of the stairs that led up to Kannady Chicken. She had her commute down to a science and knew exactly how to make sure she was aboveground as quickly as possible.
The homeless man returned to the grassy park at the top of College Hill and stared out over the city to the river and beyond. Decades ago the view had been unobstructed, but Quayside was experiencing one of its periodic booms and beautiful new buildings–true architecture wonders that could be enjoyed by all, not just the few who lived in them–blocked the view. On the other side were the old brick towers of the early twentieth century, some of them masterpieces in their own right, though obscured by grime and neglect. Instead of connecting the two sides of the river as planned, the subways and highways and bridges that spanned the river had served as a funnel, so that everybody on one side who could afford to fled to the other, and throughout the century the once-optimistic City of Carroll had crumbled into the most blighted section of the greater Leigh-Alamance metropolitan area.
He sat on the hilltop under the broad leaves of a tree and closed his eyes. It was a tremendous burden he had taken on, he knew, but he had done so willingly and had no reason to complain. It hurt, and somehow it never got easier, but it was necessary work and he was happy that he could be doing it. He crossed his legs and leaned against the trunk and closed his eyes. There was nothing else he could do–that task belonged to others, and he had neither the right nor wish to question. They allowed him to play his part, and that had to be enough.
Had she not met him she would have spent the train ride agonizing over her problems and would have been extremely agitated going up the stairs. Instead, she reflected on the man who called her a beautiful soul, and let her mind drift to happy times, when she was the happiest kid in the world. One memory in particular, when she was eight years old and received a yellow bike–it wasn’t her birthday or Christmas or anything, her mother had saved up and the bike was on sale and beautiful little Toni deserved it so why wait for a special occasion? She took her bike outside and rode down the hill, no helmet or pads or practice or anything but somehow balancing and speeding and feeling her own laughter swell in her lungs and fill the whole city and sky and world around her, and her mother and neighbors felt their hearts swell with her, too. If such a thing were quantifiable it would have ranked as the happiest moment of her life.
This was what she was thinking of when she went up the stairs, this happy thought that was the last she would have, because at she reached the top step a gun went off across the street and the bullet tore through her hair and stopped her in mid-thought. She was forever suspended in that moment of grace, the wind in her face and the joy inside of her spilling out for all to hear.