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Her Town

A Commute Through Downtown Atlanta

Photo Credits: Andria Brooks at myAJC 

I pulled at my coat and zipped it up a little higher and buttoned the last snap near my neck. Ready to go, as per usual, it was 8:00 AM. A rainy morning, music playing through my headphones, and I was already experiencing my second headache of the day. I was frustrated with the late train. A brisk winter day in Georgia, then it starts to rain. I was on my usual route to my class via the MARTA. I was definitely going to be late if this train moved any slower to Midtown or made another unexpected stop on its way.

I shouldn’t have asserted myself in her story, but I looked over to my left and saw a middle age woman with whom seemed to be her three little children tugging at her for attention, sitting on this train bunched up close to a frosted window. She had a severe ponytail and too many bags to carry on her way. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of pressure she could have been under. She might have been perfectly fine, but what if she was not? Working a job, taking care of three children and especially taking this slow train. The same train that was on its way to making me late for a class I already hated.

As the train finally reached my stop, I peered at the woman and wished her a good day. She hesitantly looked up at me and smiled. How could something like public transportation, an essential that people needed to survive, be so lacking in so many ways, especially for its riders of color? I just couldn’t imagine being on that train for another second, waiting for my inevitable stop to come... or at least I hoped it was inevitable.

I hopped off the MARTA train and onto the university tram, my mind drifted to a story about a mother and her baby on the subway in South Korea. The lady was overwhelmed trying to take care of all of her belongings on the subway, she dropped her phone and a few other things. Someone picked up her phone and another stranger held her baby for her while she picked up her other belongings. As people shuffled onto the train, pushing her nearby helpers further away, the baby crowd surfed from one rider to the next until the child reached their mother again. While I’m not the right person to tell you whether or not this kind of behavior happens often in South Korea, I’m sure something like this has happened in America as well. However, I couldn’t help myself again from thinking about how different the circumstances were.

I knew I couldn’t help the lady I saw on my train. I was going to class after all and I am a stranger. She doesn’t know me and there’s no reason for her to trust me with her things, especially not near her children. Perhaps, she makes this journey into the city alone every day and likes it that way. Soon I was close to the building doors, sliding into the next memory at the click of a new song.

“Oh, the lady with the grocery cart?” students would ask as if she had suddenly become the greatest free exhibit in town. Almost every student at my college vaguely knows the homeless woman on the side of the street. The disappointed glances non-locals would give to the lady as we passed her on the MARTA bus flashed in my memory. I wondered about the amazing stories she could tell us about her life, an elderly Black woman fending for herself. Did her community care that she was out on the streets every day making ends meet with spare change? I could bridge a line to every post-apocalyptic American film in history. How different was my town from the ones in the movies?

“Doesn’t it seem like everyone had just washed up here after experiencing something devastating? I know how we got here to America, but think of it in the sense of a film,” I would ask my older sister.

“I feel this way about our town because I’m not really sure if anyone here would really care if we were gone, Muddy. I don’t feel like we really have a community that cares. It feels like a movie where everyone is struggling after having washed up here to live the only life we can. Sometimes we have happy moments with family, survive as best as we could in the current system and always looking over our shoulder...”

In my memory, I would suggest this to her while watching my sister’s face become slightly intrigued by the strangeness of the conversation.

“We make friends just for convenience like wanderers do. We try to climb the social ladder or stay where we are, coexist, make a name for ourselves in our little town, or never be known. We compete, start a family, and get old no matter how many hands I held on my way to the last days,” I would finish telling her.

It was 15 minutes into physics class, and I was sitting near the door so I don’t get pushed as heavily on my way out. My consciousness couldn’t decide between gravitational forces amongst atoms or these memories and the thought that perhaps my own hopes for a sincere community were impossible. My feelings for my hometown anti-Black community were null and void. I should eliminate the idea that community was solely defined by how close in proximity you are to people. However, what if the lady on the train, the lady on the street, are all pieces of my being; what if all three of us did not belong in the local community that dismissed our needs?

One hour into class, we were clicking our pop quiz participation answers in the virtual classroom app. Class was rolling towards a dead end. I move my eyes around the auditorium and notice, once again, that at least 125 of the 250 people have fallen asleep once again. One student is packing his lunch down by the last seconds on a ticking clock.

“Yeah... so just study everything... as usual. I can’t tell you what will be on the test,” says the professor, yawning in between words. As I pack up my bag and head for the back door, three blonde students push past me and hit my bag on their way out. Only turning around to check if they have dropped their phone.

“Nah. I got it, man. I was worried about the screen,” the crew of tall boat shoes and beige khakis shuffles along their way. The university tram pulls around the corner. Almost to the train station, I make my way to the terminal and scan my card. I am then waiting for the train, and it was just a few minutes late that time. Whenever I feel alone I hear my mother’s words tell me that my family is always by my side, but where were they in that large crowd of blue eyes from 9 AM – 10:30 AM?

I couldn’t say that the purpose of these memories was to remind me of where I belonged in the classroom or in the world, but for the first time as a young Black woman, I decided that my community was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, thriving where it may and disassembling where it is threatened. What a sacrifice it must have been to be the first student like me at a place like this? I sat down in a booth, heading southbound, plugging in my music as the train rattles off into the distance.

Jamila Surpris
Jamila Surpris

Hello there! I am glad you've wondered over to this side of the internet. I write for peace and reflection. As you can probably tell, I get heated about gentrification, social change, food, and travel. I hope you enjoy my work.

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