PJ has joined me for my morning commute. It is his first day of cross country practice at the high school where he will be a first-year student in the fall.
So he joins his dad and me on our normal walk with the dogs up to the green line train, where we say goodbye to the dogs–and his dad–and get on together.
We are both a bit nervous: new school, new friend possibilities, new commute–downtown Chicago, in the Loop, no less. We look at the mapped route on his phone, discuss how he will get himself home after practice after I’ve headed to work in the north Loop. When we just sit, our shoulders bumping gently against each other as the train starts and stops, starts and stops.
Just before our stop, a man walks down the aisle, shaking coins in a cup, his money-ask a sing-song, sounding like an advertisement jingle. He’s got style, this man, turning grab-bag items from shelter bin into a personality statement. His dark sweatpants are tucked into cowboy-style boots, transforming them into something a bit more fashionable, his layered shirt, vest, jacket are arranged and colorful. A jaunty hat perches at an angle atop his grey hair. His walk, heel-toe, heel-toe, adds to his rhythm. I nod at him, and he nods back before sitting down across from us.
I have just tipped my head toward PJ to say something when the man speaks, not to me but to PJ.
“That your counselor?” he asks.
We both look at him, confused.
“That your social worker? You a foster kid?”
I am too startled to respond at first. But PJ is not. “She’s my mom.”
“Foster mom?” I sense an undercurrent of anger, but I’m not sure.
“No, my mom.”
I find my voice. “He’s my son.” He’s looking hard at me; obviously waiting for an explanation to connect this Black teenager and white woman.
I nod again. “My son.”
Now the emotion is clear. Sadness droops across his face like a clown mask, and his chin drops. “I was a foster kid. I got no one.”
He shakes his head. “No one. I’m all alone, always been all alone.”
It is our stop. I nod at him as we stand and leave the car. Once on the street, I say to PJ, “A lot of pain there, a lot going on.”
He nods at me but doesn’t say anything. As a Black kid with a white mom, he’s got his own “lot going on.” My thoughts are here, with what he is carrying, with what the man we just left on the train carries, has carried his entire life.
But PJ’s “lot going on” is surpassed in this moment by what is directly ahead of him. “I remember that restaurant,” he says, pointing to a sign ahead and referring to the one and only time we have visited his school before in this crazy COVID year.
And, again, we are who we are,
looking for a school entrance,
nervous and hopeful about all the new ahead of him,
son and mom.