A chance encounter offers a glimmer of hope for the next generation, and an understanding of the true purpose, and role, of sidekicks…

Art: Thor Wickstrom

by: James C. Gordon 

My commute home on a northbound BART train is crowded with behavioral oddities, olfactory intrusions, and audio distractions. Amid the end of workday wind-down, riders obsess over their phones, tolerate indentations into their body space, and faithfully ignore panhandlers working the crowd. One fellow dressed in black showcases his extraordinarily good Johnny Cash impersonation. I am impressed enough to drop a dollar into his open guitar case. 

I am a straphanger safe in a lofty middle age, standing contentedly with my back against the eastside door which I know will not open until I reach my destination. My position, obtained by intentionally boarding last amid the swelling occupancy level, will facilitate a speedy exit from the train. Meanwhile, holding station with a firm grip on the nearest of two leather straps within reach provides me with a ringside seat when six millennials surge on board in Oakland. Their unquenchable need for attention overwhelms their minimal understanding of manners and the sextet forms a tight circle as they perform the ritual we’re-too-cool-to-feel-awkward dance in which they almost but don’t quite touch each other. 

Two alpha females orchestrate the conversation with crafty skill to maintain preeminence over their male counterparts. One girl wears a purse and satchel criss crossed over her shoulders with bags riding at hips. The edgier girl wears stitched designs on her low-slung jeans and her abbreviated shirt offers a view of a tramp stamp on her lower back. They engage in verbal ping pong vying for Best Complaint honors about their least favorite co-worker and their last fight with their mother. 

“She’s not going,” one girl says.

“Oh, she’ll go,” another girl replies. “Let me text her.”

Thumbs work through a dexterous routine. 

“She says she’s not going.”

“Did she say why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ask her.”

First girl stares at her phone. “Wait.” She laughs without explanation. “That’s funny.”

“What is?”

More laughter. “No wait. Here, I’m texting her.” 

I surmise that the art of texting requires narration. 

Their youthful stylistic choices hint at urban entitlement, college educations paid by parents, and current employment with a startup or a clothing store. The boys add witty asides and use the sway of the train to keep themselves in motion, a habit among young males with an adolescent need for physical distraction. 

“Dude, get a new iPhone.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Just get it. You’re always behind.”

My attention clings to the third girl, similar in age and probable backstory to the others, wearing a skirt not too short, heels not too high, and no flashy jewelry that might make a statement. Her frozen smile exudes a wash and wear thankfulness for her inclusion and a yearning to be included next time. Her mask of gratitude is probably rehearsed in front of a mirror and kept ready in case attention is tossed her way. The sidekick has a boy with her, equally forgettable. He wears an inoffensive tee-shirt, ragged hair, and shaves once a week. 

I imagine this third girl’s role is predetermined by the two alpha females who need a sidekick to angle the spotlight more directly onto themselves. Despite remaining silent she holds my curiosity through several voyeuristic minutes. My loyalty is rewarded when she does one thing that surprises everyone. 

When the conversation takes a nose dive toward stagnation they glance nervously at each other as if someone had dropped the cue cards. Their social anxiety threatens to damage their fragile personas. 

Seizing the moment, the sidekick reaches overhead and takes hold of the grab bar barely within reach. The others gape with slack jaws as she attempts a pull-up. She doesn’t get far off the ground and flexing her knees does not help her elevate. The alphas try to ignore the arcane behavior of their friend as if some embarrassment might splash onto them and diminish their social standing. I want to applaud her attempt because it is all her own. 

At the Downtown Berkeley station their group disembarks by order of perceived seniority: Alphas, their male attendants, the sidekick next, her puppy last. 

I wonder how long they will remain friends, seeking adventures together as their lives splinter and progress through jobs, relationships, and diverging interests. I will remember the sidekick. She saw her moment and stepped out of character to make a statement of independence. Someday, she will do that pull-up all on her own. 

The encounter gives me some hope for the next generation. Perhaps they aren’t all just techno-savvy drones, linked by an invisible umbilical cord to their devices as they text-chat-tweet-Instagram their way to oblivion, Moscow Mule in hand. My money is on the sidekick. The meek might not inherit the earth but once in a while they can grab a high bar and lift themselves above the crowd.


James C. Gordon lives in California. His fiction has been midwifed by writing classes, groups and coaches. He spends his working life and much leisure time in libraries and bookstores. These days he writes on a laptop but he misses his old typewriter, Olympia. She never lost a file.
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