On the Orange Line downtown the other day a woman caught my eye. I think she got on at LaSalle or Quincy. She had corkscrew curls which went blond at the ends and wore a furry black coat. But the first thing I noticed was the ornamental button on her cuff. It was a large ceramic thing, glazed shiny turquoise like Southwestern tourist pottery. She sat down and immediately buried her nose in a Facebook scroll on her phone. I didn’t even see her face until several minutes later, after she’d felt my eyes on her.
Her gaze was direct and she sort of half smiled, then buried herself back in her phone. She glanced back a few more times before my stop came. I made sure not to stare but enjoyed having her eyes on me in the periphery of my vision. Nothing else happened. I got up at State & Lake, looked back at her one last time and walked off the train.
I go to the coffee shop nearly everyday and eavesdrop on moments much like I had with the girl on the train all the time. The staff all know me by now so I can’t be a true stranger there anymore. But customers, even regulars, rarely take any notice of the guy with the book and paints at the table closest to the counter. I’ve done about twenty paintings at Jackalope over these past three years. Only one or two have a person in them. I prefer to focus on stacks of cups, wall decor, the espresso machine, or the riotous combination of primary colors of the wall paint. But to me these paintings are all about the passersby who shuttle in and out of the place in a nearly uninterrupting stream throughout the hours of my visits.
The framed rock posters, dueling tip jars, community flyers, and various tchotchkes sketched or fully rendered in my painting all remind me of misheard bits of conversation, awkward first dates, asinine opinionating, and a thousand other fleeting glimpses into others’ lives.
I suppose I was after that same thing doing marker drawings on the CTA all summer. But I didn’t have my gear as I looked at that girl on the Orange Line, so there’s no painted record of our non-meeting. I’ll just have wonder whether I left any impression on her the way she left one on me, or if I was just another of the thousands of passersby she—and we—encounter every day in the city without a second thought.