A couple days after Barak Obama became our president-elect, I was heading downtown to a dental appointment when I had my most intense experience of the recent electoral campaign.
I had just missed the Ravenswood El at Montrose and was sitting on a cold bench, a copy of Madam Bovary in my hand, when a woman walked up and plopped herself down beside me.
I glanced up from my book for a moment to observe that––Rush Hour having passed––we were alone on the platform. She looked pleasant enough, a bit bland, perhaps, except for her eyebrows, which were dark and severe.
I returned to my book and a moment later heard her exclaim, “Oh, Shit!”
I looked up. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did you forget something or did you remember something?”
“I just remembered that I forgot something,” she replied.
“That’s a very Zen response,” I said.
She laughed and then we started to chat amiably. It’s always interesting to strike up a pleasant conversation with a stranger on a train, so when the train pulled in and she took an empty window seat I sat beside her with a sense of cordiality. “Well, we’re going the same way,” I said. “We might as well talk.”
I saw her glance down at the book I was reading for our upcoming meeting of my book club. “Madam Bovary,” I said
“Oh, Emma!” she smirked. “I hate that woman!”
“Really? There’s an introduction to this edition by a feminist writer who hates her too. But not as much as she hates Flaubert.”
When I used the word “feminist,” she bristled. She launched into a short but vigorous critique of Emma Bovary as an insult to women and of Gustave Flaubert as a ‘classist’ male chauvinist pig no self-respecting person would abide.
Trying to lighten the air, I suggested “maybe Madam Bovary was just a 19th century version of Sarah Palin.” A rather lame comparison, I admit, but the kind of innocent remark that slips out when one is trying to make conversation.
Big mistake. Her voice suddenly rose 30 decibels and all other conversations on the car ceased as every head turned in our direction.
“Sarah Palin!” she yelled, impaling me with her stare as if I was a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. “What a terrible human being. I hate her. I know more about the Bible than she’ll ever know. She’s an embarrassment to all humanity.”
A little lady in the seat in front of us turned around, rested her chin on her hand on the seat’s crossbar and shamelessly looked at us with a nod and a smile.
“Anybody who actually likes that woman is incomprehensible, intolerable!” she shouted at me.
I looked down at my book but saw no way of gracefully getting back into it.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think you can call anybody who likes her ‘intolerable’.”
“WHAT?” she shouted. Her voice got even louder and she gave me a disgusted look. “You have got to be kidding.” And then she was off, into a two minute tirade that could only be described as borderline psychotic. I looked around and everybody in the car was staring at us.
She ran out of steam finally and stopped, breathing heavily. We sat in palpitating silence for a minute. After a painfully awkward pause, I looked at her and, trying once again to lighten the mood, said, “Well, maybe this isn’t such a good topic of conversation.”
At that point, without warning, she jumped out of her seat and screeched, “Let me out of here! Let me out of here right now!”
Other passengers leaned forward and looked at me, wondering what I had done. Had I just reached my hand up under her skirt? Was I on the sexual predators list? Was I a dirty old man?
And we’d had such a nice little chat on the platform. I just could not believe this was happening.
“Does this mean that you really don’t want to talk?”
“Let me out of here!” she bellowed.
“Never mind,” I said, lifting myself up from the seat. “Let me out of here.” I stepped across the aisle, sat down in another empty seat and put my nose into my book.
The first thought that came to mind was, “I am so glad this election is over!”