“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The letter ‘n’ was obscured slightly by a dirt-caked fingernail. The sign was a typical one. Messy block letters in permanent marker emblazoned on a piece of cardboard that was once part of a box. Perhaps a box that this man had called home. The train screeched to a halt and I continued to watch the man with the sign. He stared straight ahead, his eyes unblinking, completely unfazed by the masses of people shooting irritated looks at him as they dodged around the space he occupied. He was a stationary rock and they were the tide that was forced to bend around him. What a strange thing to have on a sign. Being a regular train commuter I was used to these homeless people holding up signs begging for this or that. And like almost everyone else I ignored them. I had neither the time nor the patience to stop and chat to a homeless man whose beard had more growth to it than his current financial situation. But I hadn’t seen this man before and the strangeness of the sign was enough to capture my curiosity. The train jerked and the familiar robotic voice issued its warning about impending door closure. The rush of commuters were quickly replaced with a whir of black as we continued on our way.
“All good things are wild, and free.” It was written rather poorly on a slightly darker shade of beige cardboard this time. What does that even mean? I suddenly heard my father’s voice in my ear, loud and commanding, after I’d told him I wanted to be an artist when I was seventeen. “Now you listen here, Gracie. The life of an artist is a dreadful one. Nobody goes to art galleries anymore. Nobody buys real paintings. Artists these days usually end up working for free. Nothing good can come from working for free now, can it? Do you understand what I’m trying to say, Gracie?” I had cried for hours that night afterwards. My dreams were crushed and I eventually conformed to getting a ‘real job’ just like everyone else. Just like all the people on this train. I watched the homeless man’s face and wondered if he had been an artist at some point. But his writing seemed to suggest that he could barely control the strokes of a pen let alone master the delicate flicks and glides of a paintbrush. Artist he was not. The people continued to divide around him, some shaking their heads and muttering, some brushing him slightly with their heavy coats or briefcases, some just passing by like they hadn’t even seen him at all. But like a pillar of stone he continued to stand.
“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” As the train came to a halt, it was as if the sign was a welcome sight. I had almost looked forward to seeing it. How dismal my life had become. I noticed today that he wore no shoes on his feet. The skin there was grubby and calloused. After scrutinising his feet with the sharpness of a podiatrist, I realised that there was no hat or bag or collection pot of any kind nestled there where it should be. He wasn’t asking for money. They always ask for money. “You must get a job that pays well, Gracie. Find that job. Keep that job. Don’t listen to those who spout that money can’t buy happiness nonsense. It can and it will.” I remembered my father’s face. Bearded like the homeless man’s. His eyebrows were scrunched together like he was mad at his own words. “Money is happiness,” I whispered against the glass window of the train. I rubbed the little cloud of breath that had formed from my words. I watched the homeless man’s blurred figure from behind the smudged glass. I reminded myself that money does make me happy. I get to live in a nice apartment that’s only a short train trip away from the city. I get to go out with friends on the weekends and eat nice meals. I get to enjoy two days of free time each week, which always goes by far too quickly... and leaves me feeling hollow and lost by the Sunday dusk which signals the impending arrival of Monday’s gloomy dawn. The homeless man disappeared again behind a wall of black as the train lurched onwards.
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” I shifted slightly to see him and his sign more clearly. The old man in a business suit beside me grunted and moved his foot closer to me. I sighed. As soon as you move an inch, they take a mile. The perils of commuter life. I pondered the meaning of this one as the carriage rocked and ground to a halt. My laptop pinched the skin on my thigh as I shuffled my foot further inwards to escape the heat of the old man’s leg. I winced. And then in a moment of sheer madness, I let out a laugh as I realised my laptop was a tool. One that I couldn’t live without. I was a tool to my tool! A few startled commuters shot wary looks in my direction. Suddenly, I understood what it felt like to be judged by strangers and I felt a sudden pang of guilt for my earlier judgements towards the homeless man. I returned my gaze to him and watched as he waited for nothing, moved for no one, and I moved onwards on my journey to nowhere. Unlike the train my life didn’t have a solid destination yet. I could be brave and change the outcome now. Couldn’t I? I could quit my job and just plunge into the unknown. But that’s not the sensible thing. My father would have a heart attack. People would think I’m crazy. Just like I thought the homeless man was crazy. I’d be laughed at, ridiculed, and shunned by society. The life of an artist is a dreadful one. The train was swallowed by the darkness once again.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” This one penetrated my skin and kickstarted a rhythmic drum beat in my chest. I felt like it was personally directed at me after my sleepless night of internal warfare. This time we had locked eye contact. I saw that he had brown, kind eyes and that the hint of a smile had begun to reveal itself in the tilted angle of his beard. My chest felt heavy and the nerves tingled in my fingers as I lifted a hand to the window. With shaking hands, I waved. Just once. The beard parted into a toothy grin. And then he winked. As the crowd of people merged in front of him to squeeze their bodies into the carriage, I reached into my backpack, pushed aside the laptop, and pulled out a sketch pad. The middle-aged woman beside me sighed loudly as she watched me open the book to a fresh, blank page. I pulled out my pencil and started to draw. It felt like returning home after a long period of absence. My muscle memory was strong and soon my hand was gliding across the paper effortlessly. A circle. A triangle. A square. A face. A beard. A sign. A message. A change in destination.