A young, pretty Hispanic woman sat on the bench at the far end of the Chicago and State subway stop. Five balloons, each a different color, floated upward from strings she clutched, their brightness breaking up the familiar dirtiness of the tiled walls. The woman sat sideways, smiling faintly as she watched a thin, gangly black man seated next to her, a Bic pen working busily at the posterboard propped in his long lap. He wore a faded knit cap pulled somewhat carelessly over the tops of his ears. Bent to his task, the man seemed almost oblivious to the subway patrons beginning to crowd the platform on this cold Saturday afternoon. An air of familiarity hung about his hunched shoulders.
He talked busily as he worked. My wife, Kate, and I drew toward the steady stream of chatter issuing from the man. Below the dingy heaviness of his worn, olive-drab overcoat, gray sharkskin slacks stretched to the tops of his socks, stopping well above the once dressy white slip-on shoes. He looked to be about six-foot-seven.
We asked his name.
“I am Wesssley Willisss,” he told us, straightening up his seat and tilting his head with certain pride. “An’ I draws the hell out of them trainsss.”
Wesley hissed his Ses with relish, and punctuated nearly each of his sentences by offering us his upturned palm for a gimme-five that would signal our recognition of his cleverness. Something of the hustler, but nothing like slyness, seemed to lay in the way he cocked his head and flashed his grin. Something else showed itself around his bright, dark eyes, something close to the hidden vulnerability of a boy still uncertain of his position in the pecking order that rules the street.
“You see these locomotives right here?”
We followed his sixth finger, a ballpoint pen stretching downward in his right hand toward the drawing in progress on the posterboard. The pen’s tip pointed not to any scene that might be visible from the artist’s subway-bench vantage, but to a string of locomotives prominent on one side of a busy Chicago expressway. The John Hancock building was massed in the background with other more or less familiar skyscrapers.
“Right now I’s puttin’ on them numbahs,’ Wesley narrated for us, while scrupulously penning in each of the locomotive’s identifying numbers. He pointed his pen at the front of the lead engine. “Here’s what makes the mothafuckas go!”
There it was, too, right inside the scaled-down engineer’s compartment—a tiny handle no bigger than a hyphen.
“You pushes on that li’l thing,” Welsey said—head wagging and eyes narrowed with respect for the power of this, his machine—”an’ them trains just go!”
A trainload of Saturday shoppers rumbled and screeched to a stop a few feet away from Wesley’s bench. This small group of onlookers now gathered about him glanced almost casually at the overcrowded subway cars. A few people, packages in hand, chose to crush their way onboard. The rest of us pushed closer to the bench to inspect Wesley Willis’s trains. He paused long enough to acknowledge the curiosity with a ready grin.
“My name is Wesssley Willisss,” he told some new arrivals, “an’ I’m the one who draws the hell out of them trains!”
Back to work he bent. With his left hand, he slapped other Bic flat against the posterboard, using it as his straightedge and an all-purpose draftsman’s tool.” Shifting it this way and that, he maintained an accurate perspective on the trucks and trains, buildings and bridges. Occasionally he stopped to add a little color, reaching into his coat pocket for one of a bunch of felt-tip markers.
Little by little his expressway lanes began filling up with cars, buses, and trucks. A single-file line of 18-wheelers advanced toward the skyscrapers of the Loop. Wesley shared his privileged point of view with us; his mind’s eye was looking north toward the city from a highway housing-project window somewhere above the Dan Ryan. From there the trucks looked like they were hurrying to a Land of Oz done in iridescent rainbows.
He set the drawing beside the bench and lifted several others to his lap. More Bic-blue and felt-tipped iridescence detailed Wesley’s finished scenes. From his window above the Dan Ryan, the traffic becomes less snarly and chaotic; urban commotion takes on order, purpose, and a peculiarly soothing perpetual motion.
“I seels ’em, ya know,” Wesley told us. He looked about the group hoping to spot a buyer. He concealed his disappointment when several of the people suddenly found the empty subway tunnel more interesting than his locomotives.
The tracks hissed with the sound of an approaching train. We asked Wesley what he would take for the first drawing we’d seen. We paid him and watched as he produced an oversize plastic bag and covered the drawing for us. He handed it to us with assurances that he’d be back the following Tuesday from noon until nine—just in case we wanted another picture.
We noticed him several times since on the Washington Street platform—a more usual perch for him, apparently. He sits on his bench absorbed in his locomotives, barely looking up to explain to curious passerby that he’s the one “who draws the hell out them trains!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth