Terrence looked down at his phone again, and then back up at the row of advertisements that lined the ceiling of the el train. Directly above his head, an ad with bold white letters set against a photograph of Philadelphia’s skyline self-consciously stated:
“WE’RE GETTING THERE.”
It was an ad for SEPTA, the city’s public transit system.
Ten minutes had gone by since the train came to an uncomfortable halt between the Berks and Huntingdon stations. It was 8:50 on a Tuesday morning. The train was full of people headed to the offices and shops in Center City for work.
At one end of the subway car was a group of young men, all recently out of college. Each one wore more or less identical suits bought from H&M. They each carried a briefcase that had no wear on its edges, handles, or clasps. They seemed nervous about being late for work.
A group of young mothers wearing sweatpants and sneakers huddled together around one of the train doors. In contrast to their sweatpants and hoodies, their hair was set in elaborate curls piled on their heads, and they all wore lipstick and eye makeup. One mother yelled into her cell phone, arguing with her boyfriend. It wasn’t her fault that she was late.
Terrence rode the el into Center City each week to visit his P.O. Just a couple of years ago, he almost never rode the el downtown. In fact, he rarely left his neighborhood at all. At first, he was surprised at how many different people took the train. In his neighborhood, he only ever saw the people on his block and the surrounding area. That was before he spent two years at Graterford prison.
Terrence looked at his watch again. He really, really could not be late for his meeting with his P.O.. He’d behaved himself, and only had thirteen months left until he was truly a free man. But being late for a meeting was one of the things that he knew would be a problem. He’d seen people get tossed right back into the system for smaller offenses.
He sent a text to Mr. Williams. “I’m on the el. It’s been sitting between Berks and Huntingdon for 15 minutes. I swear I’m on my way.” He closed the phone and put it back into his pocket.
A young man wearing a jacket too heavy for the warm May weather entered the train car. He had a stack of newspapers that he was selling, taking advantage of the captive commuter audience. “One Step Away is Philadelphia’s first street paper aimed at raising awareness of homelessness and providing employment to those in need. Just one dollar a copy!” he told everyone.
Most people ignored him, staring blankly into space or keeping their eyes locked on their phones. An older man with a bag full of his own Chinese language papers bought one copy. Satisfied, the newspaper salesman moved onto the next car.
Terrence grew more anxious. Ireda would absolutely not take him back again if he got into trouble with his P.O. He checked his phone again. Nothing.
“They really don’t make this easy. I even left 20 minutes early today. Mr. Williams, that dick, he won’t give me a break. He won’t believe me,” Terrence thought. He felt like he was in high school again.
Terrence glanced around, peering over the heads of passengers. The voices of people talking in the train had become louder, and everyone nervously shifted around in their seats. Some placed their bags on the already crowded floors.
At the far end of the car Terrence could see two gaunt men and an overweight woman. The older of the men was bald and held a cane. The woman was middle-aged and wore jeans that were too tight. The younger man had a button down dress shirt on, and carried a backpack. He hadn’t shaved in some time.
“Shit. Is that Tommy Simmons?” he asked himself.
Terrence really didn’t like to see people from the neighborhood. The less he saw of them, the better his chances of coming out with a clean record. He especially hated seeing people when they were headed to the methadone clinic.
Suddenly, with a lurch forward, the train started to move. A garbled voice came over the loudspeaker. “We apologize for the delay due to mechanical difficulties. We are back in operation now. Thank you.”
Feeling slightly better, Terrence checked his phone. One new message from Mr. Williams: “I’m stuck on the el too, Angel. I’ll see you at my office in a few minutes.”
Terrence couldn’t believe it. “Maybe I’ll make it out of this city after all,” he thought to himself.
This is an excerpt from my book Good For One Fare. Send me an email if you are interested in a copy.