Beetlejuice was dressed in several layers, which I realized later was less about the cold (although it was cold) and more about the need for him to wear everything he owned.
“You all right?” I asked him, since he was standing about 2 feet from me as the light rail train jolted, causing him to lose his balance and slide toward me on the slippery, sleety floor.
“Yes,” he said. And then, “Not really, but I pretend I am.”
It would have been supremely callous of me at this juncture to dig for my cellphone and act like I was studying it. Not that I didn’t consider it.
And not that I didn’t notice that every other man and woman, and one tween boy, was doing that very thing.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Two stops to go, I thought.
Beetlejuice began his story. He was across the freeway near downtown Minneapolis a while back, he told me, near Bobby and Steve’s Auto World. I don’t know if a while back was a year or a month. I don’t know if he was sleeping or walking at the time, but I listened as he told me that another guy, a stranger, took a crowbar to his head.
What in the world, I wondered, did Beetlejuice have that the guy wanted?
Beetlejuice reaches for his knit cap, starts to pull it up. I brace myself. It’s not like I’m going anywhere. This late afternoon train is packed.
He shows me the scar. It isn’t bad, really, as far as snakelike scars on a skull go. I mean, it seemed to be healing nicely.
He lost some teeth, too.
“I don’t wish him any harm,” he said of the guy who whacked him in the skull. But he doesn’t want to know what happened to the guy, just wants him out of his life. He doesn’t even care if the guy had a reason for committing such senseless violence.
Beetlejuice tells me that when he was rushed to the hospital, the surgeon began operating on his brain and found only “a hamster wheel.”
He laughs. I laugh.
The doctors say he’s making good progress. He appreciates the encouragement, but honestly, all he wants to do is sleep. He gets up anyway, keeps moving throughout the day.
Beetlejuice had an apartment before the assault. Now he lives in a homeless shelter, “but not to meet women,” he clarified. Again, we laugh.
One stop to go. But now I’m in less of a hurry to get off.
I start thinking about the column I was going to write. The one about the new study on kids and happiness, and the “precipitous drop” in joy they are experiencing with the blazing embrace of their newest body part called the smartphone.
How in 2012, approximately 37 percent of American teenagers owned a smartphone. By 2016, the number had jumped to 73 percent. Researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia studied more than a million teenagers over 25 years to try to figure out why “every screen activity was correlated with less happiness.”
And let’s be honest. We’re not just talking about kids. Adults, too, are less happy the more “connected” they are to social media. Facebook, iPhones, Twitter: We can’t quit ya.
Maybe an occasional break — to look right at a real person — is too simplistic of a solution to our universal happiness drought.
Beetlejuice tells me his friends make him happy. He ran into one guy at a local breakfast joint after his injury. “Beetlejuice!” the guy said. “I am so happy to see you alive.”
This is the reason, he tells me, for his playful adopted name, Beetlejuice. “How can you kill something that’s already dead?”
My stop was a minute away. I kept thinking about the granola bar in my bag. About the 20 bucks in my wallet. Reach in, for goodness’ sake, I thought. Give him both.
I couldn’t do it.
I hope you believe me when I say I generally do give.
I hope you believe me when I say that, this time, it wasn’t stinginess that held me back. It was power, power I didn’t want. If I had given him anything, it would have changed the dynamic between us, and set up an imbalance.
Instead, for seven minutes, we were just two people on the Green Line talking to each other. You can learn a lot about another human in seven minutes.
You can feel happy and humbled in a very real way.
“I’m blessed,” Beetlejuice told me as I got ready to exit. He held up his paper ticket, wet from the sleet. There was still time on it, so he was planning to stay on a while longer, to stay warm and dry.
Beetlejuice made me laugh one more time, delighted by his clever play on words.
“Hey,” he told me as I stepped off, “I got a new ticket to ride.”
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