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I Know My Rights

Riding the El home from work one autumn afternoon, a man walked into the car and sat behind me. I sat in bookish silence, staring down at the page without reading because the man behind me was talking on his cell phone. From his conversation, I gathered he was in his mid- or early-twenties.

“Oh Man! We went to this party last weekend and got so drunk. Shit. There were all these hot bitches there too.”

Having heard enough to suspect that the conversation would continue in that vein for some time, I turned away from vicarious Bacchanalia to my scholarly tome pondering new media. We rode the train together, the partier and I, through the West side of Chicago; he yammered on and on, a steady drone harmonizing with the muted roar of the train as it rumbled toward the sunset. I did my best to tune out his gruff timbre and swarthy syntax.


The familiar robotic voice announced that “This is Austin. Ridgeland is next,” so I closed my book and gathered my bag from between my feet. I tuned into his conversation and discovered that adventures in libido were no longer at issue–now we were discussing the vagaries and injustices of the U.S. legal system.

“I know all about my civil rights and my rights were violated five times.”

Five times? I thought. This guy can’t catch a break. My interest piqued and I sat up straight. My burning desire for justice and a juicy story kept me rapt.

“I served this country in Vietnam. I gave my time and put my life on the line and now my civil rights are being violated.”

Bastards, I thought.

“I know my rights and they were violated. Goddamn pigs.”

My companion wasn’t giving his conversation partner on the other end of the phone much opportunity to talk, but perhaps relieving himself of the burden was the goal today. We were moments from my stop, so I rose and made my way toward the door in front of me.

“I know my rights,” he repeated, “I know the Constitution. ‘We the People, of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…’ ”

The train eased to a halt and I stepped toward the doors. I glanced at my companion, needing a glimpse of this bearer of woe. He was between forty and fifty, a white man with a shaved head. His well-worn leather jacket and haggard eyes reminded me of someone you’d see in a biker bar on television. His screen credit would be “local tough number 2,” and he’d answer the detective’s question about whether he’d seen anything with a flippant answer like, “I see lots of things.”

It was only as I left the train, the words of the Constitution wafting out after me, that I realized he didn’t have a phone.

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