The headline on the front page of the Tribune read: “Police arrest 2 in Roscetti Case.” New men had been charged with the October 1986 rape and murder of 23-year-old Lori Roscetti. The four men previously convicted and imprisoned for the crime had been exonerated in December, but not before spending over a decade in prison. It was a landmark that perhaps many noticed but only a few paused to appreciate. One of them was a man riding the Red Line during the evening rush.
He leaned against a pole close to the doors because there was no room for him to sit. He was a black man who looked to be in his mid to late 30s, and he’d boarded somewhere between Grand and North and Clybourn, while the train was still underground. His clothes were stretched out of shape and covered with dark stains, and every few minutes he would turn to apologize to Jesus as if the savior were standing right next to him. And like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, he was sure that a white man had pushed him.
For a few minutes following the alleged shove, he didn’t utter a word. He stared at the culprit with a smile on his face, sizing him up, the cogs turning. The pusher balanced himself against the movement of the train, barely a foot away. If he noticed that he was being stared at, he didn’t show it.
Then Invisible Man began to shout.
“The next time that four black men go to prison for raping a 23-year-old white woman when they didn’t even do it….The next time, y’all better”–he paused, as if searching for the right phrase, the proper suggestion–“boycott the justice system!”
There was little reaction from the commuters. They looked up, noted who was speaking, and tried to direct their attention back to the books and newspapers in their laps, back to staring off into space.
But Invisible Man continued to push back.
“Four human beings in prison for 15 years!” he said in a voice marked with outrage and disbelief. But it was like shouting at the television for all the response he got. Invisible Man narrowed his focus to the man who had bumped him. “And don’t you ever push by me like I’m not there!” He closed the space between them, their faces almost touching. “Where you getting off? I bet you getting off at Broadway and…You better not be getting off at Belmont.” The pusher looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, not moving a muscle. “What?” Invisible Man asked, daring him to respond. “Any white person!” He looked around to the other commuters. “What?”
Two black boys around 12 or 13 looked at each other and laughed, but the pusher didn’t move a muscle. The train stopped, a seat emptied, and Invisible Man sat down. “And y’all liberal-ass white people,” he began in a mocking tone. “‘Yeah, I read Ebony and Essence and I got a couple of black friends from school.’ Man! Shut the fuck up!”
People were looking through windows, at the backs of heads in front of them, down at the floor. Anywhere but at the man who was speaking.
Invisible Man turned his head to the left. “I’m sorry, Jesus, I’m sorry. I know I’m wrong. But y’all pissed me off. Pissed my mama off. Pissed my grandmother off before she died. Pissed Martin Luther King off. Man! Y’all pissed Malcolm X off. And now with Enron! Now y’all cuttin’ each other–”
The automated voice announced the next stop. Instead of turning around to look at him, the man who had provoked his wrath walked down the aisle to the door farthest away. Invisible Man laughed to himself and exited as well. A chorus of long-held breaths filled the train, accompanied by the rustle of pages turning once more.