They were waiting for me when I got off the train — standing together, facing me, expectant and conspiring like surprise-party guests.

Walking toward these familiar, big black men in short-sleeved, white button-downs and old-fashioned conductor caps, I pointed at Tony and felt a tightening in my chest that’s become increasingly familiar in recent days.

“You take care of Paige for the next couple weeks, OK?” I told him as I approached, trying not to let my voice break.

He smiled and nodded and asked if this was it. This is it, I said. He held out his hand and I extended mine; he held it for a second and wished me luck in Iowa with a smirk.

I turned to the other with some dread. Tony? He’s just a guy who gives people a hard time when they put their feet on the rails, sasses with Paige and conveniently forgets to punch our tickets sometimes. But my conductor. The man could light up a room with his smile. And like night and day, amid the monotony of ticket-punching and drunk Cubs fans, he always has one for me, complete with the most genuine, finger-wiggling wave you’ve ever seen a man give to someone who wasn’t his 3-year-old daughter. We’ve said nothing more than salutations to each other for two months, but he’s the highlight of that ride every day.

He, too, stuck out his hand and smiled.

“It was good to know you,” he said.
“I don’t even know your name,” I replied.
“Darrell. What’s yours?”
“Darrell, it was good to know you.”

On Monday he’ll go back to work and do the same routes he did for the last two months — the same routes he did before I was in Chicago. He might think of me when he punches Paige’s ticket, but…his life will be unaltered.
But Darrell will always mean a lot to me, even if I didn’t know his name was Darrell until the last seconds we knew each other. You take small acts of kindness in a big city when you can get them. And when you get them every day, and when they’re just for you? That’s special. You don’t forget that.

On a less serious note…
My other conductor? The man referred to as the HBC, whom I see twice a day?

We said our goodbyes in an awkwardly quiet vestibule because the UPN was having electrical problems and the doors wouldn’t open. Clearly. He gave me a big hug and called me “sweetie” before I walked down platform. I will miss him in all of his foxy giant black man-ness and his allowance of me doing the ghetto head nod as a greeting and his embrace of my Iowa white female glory.

His name is D’Andre. Clearly.