“Bibles. Bibles for sale,” the young, bearded man announced as the Jackson Park B train pulled out of the tunnel south of Roosevelt. “I’ve got Bibles here. Bibles for sale. All sizes, all shapes. Bibles.” A seasoned rider, he paused in the aisle as the train jerked, not even grabbing for a handhold, then repeated, “Bibles. Bibles for sale.”
If you ride the train long enough, the salesmen–and one saleswoman–become familiar sights. They sell a lot of things besides Bibles; each one seems to have his or her own specialty. A teenager sells, for a dollar, key chains with condoms attached. “Safe sex on a key chain,” he tells his captive audience as he moves from car to car. Others sell telephone cords or wallets or products for the hair.
During the holidays, you can do almost all of your shopping riding the Jackson Park from 51st to Roosevelt and back again. At Easter there are Easter baskets, at Christmas, toys; and on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Martin Luther King posters.
The Bible salesman continued his pitch. “Bibles. Bibles for sale. All kinds. Gold trimming. Pocket sizes, too.” He turned when he reached the center of the car. The door behind him opened, and another guy, selling hair ornaments, began making his pitch. The Bible salesman, in what is apparently good train sales etiquette, stopped talking and moved to the other side of the car.
“Could I see one?” a lady asked suddenly. Her friend gave her a nudge, but the lady repeated: “Could I see one?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with just the slightest edge of a smile. “I’ve got all kinds. Gold-trimmed, too. Pocket sizes, desktop sizes, regular–”
“Let me see the pocket-size one,” the lady said. Her friend nudged her again and whispered something, but again she was ignored.
“Here,” said the Bible salesman. His coat was frayed and his hands were raw from the cold. He had a small hole growing in his pants above his left knee, and his hair was knotted and greasy. He handed her a Bible with an imitation-leather flap.
She held it in her hand like a good glass of wine, turned it over, opened it, and ran her fingers through its pages.
“You have it upside down,” the man said. Then he bent forward, his breath full of mouthwash, and hastily corrected himself. “My mistake. Everything’s right.”
“How much?” she asked.
“Ten dollars. Cheap. Gold trim–”
Again she interrupted him. “Too much. I can get this for five dollars.”
He did not even pause. “Tell you what,” he said, “buy two and I’ll make it five apiece.”
He reached into his bag and pulled out two boxes. He opened each and handed the Bibles to her. She went through each book. “Paste,” she said under her breath. Then she began to read a passage aloud. The Bible salesman began to fidget, hopping from one foot to another, rubbing his hands together. The other salesman passed him. They nodded. “How’s it going?” the other salesman asked. “Too cold, too cold,” was the reply.
Finally the lady handed him a twenty. “Oh, no,” he almost shouted, “I can’t change that.” For an instant he looked angry.
“I’ll take some more,” the lady said, seeming not to notice his sudden discomposure.
“I don’t got any more,” he snapped. “Wish I did. This is all they had. I wanted more. I wouldn’t lie to you.” He began to reach for his Bibles back when a nearby passenger said, “I got change.” The Bible salesman was transformed. Once again a whisper of a smile crossed his face. “Thank you,” he said to the passenger who’d offered change.
“Thank you. Thank you.” He took the twenty, made the change, and said, “Thank you. Thank you.”
In the noisy silence of the train car, this human transaction had become conspicuous. As the Bible salesman left the car seconds later, he turned and thanked again the passenger who’d made change. Everyone was turning around now, smiling, to see what had happened.
Even the lady who had been busy nudging her friend said “Thank you” to the passenger. Then she began to whisper urgently again into her friend’s ear, and her friend, no longer igrnoring her, said, “Here. Take one of these Bibles.” Only then did she stop whispering, and smile.