Riding through Oakland on BART

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The janitor sings when no one’s around.

11 a.m. is quiet at Macarthur BART Station. The bike racks are full: the morning commuters are long gone. The janitor leans up against the ticket machine in a BART-blue jumpsuit, looks out at the forecourt, and scats. His voice—broad, electric—reaches round the bare concrete, swells in the crevices. Jazz. Loud, secret.

After a moment, a low hush builds overhead. A whistle, the universal sound of wheels on track, and a high hum as the train idles overhead. Its doors rumble. A small wave of passengers pass through—jeans and backpacks, not suits. An announcer, muffled and mechanical, tells the empty station that elevators are not in use. The voice apologizes for the inconvenience. The janitor is gone.

Somebody is playing music in car 308. The likely culprit is a young man with white headphones and a blue beanie. The woman in the seat behind puts two hands on her suitcase, and watches the sun flicker each time the train passes under the freeway. In the tunnel towards 19th Street the car turns sickly under its fluorescent lights, and no one looks up from their phone.

Down here the world is reduced to utilitarian, dirty cream. Plastic and steel. Nobody reads the signs anymore, and a voice you hear every day tells you things you already know. The doors are closing. Please mind the doors. You obey orders commanded in sound: the long low tone before the closing doors that warns you not to board; the shrill beep which lets you through the ticket machines.

Passing by the Coliseum, a guy with a Raiders cap looks up for the first time. The woman with the suitcase stands up as the train pulls in, sways on her heels. The airport is nearby. Out on the platform she takes the working elevator.

At 11:32, car 1758 is on its way to San Francisco. There’s a trace of spice in the air; someone ate an early lunch. Everyone is seated alone, except for a mother and her friend. They talk, low and animated, while her son explores the train. He’s barefoot, broad-grinned. Some of these passengers wear suits. The boy runs down the aisle, and they smile, and then the moment dims and they turn inward again.

At West Oakland a man mops the platform without intent, and the driver of the 11:46 to Richmond sounds the horn long and loud. In car 444, a giant pin on a woman’s jacket reads ‘good people deserve a good contract.’ Her hair is mid-length and permed. She looks too old to be working the kind of job that requires wearing a giant pin.

Two stops before MacArthur, a man with a white plastic bag enters the car. The bag says “Patient Belongings.” He’s singing. I thank God… I thank God… Eyes shift and then turn away. He sits, facing inward, and hums while he counts bills, all in twenties. I thank God…

A student in a Cal sweatshirt stares at his phone. The humming stops. The student pauses, and then turns, slightly, to look at the man with the bag and the bills. He’s sitting back in his seat, his head resting on the window, palms open. His lips move silently in prayer. I thank God… Humming and praying, like no one’s around.

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