Northbound 16: Friday

Friday afternoon. Crowded bus, and the first person who gets on who can’t find a seat is a very tall, very rangy old man with baggy clothes that hang well on his broad shoulders even though they are the muddied, rumpled, tattered layers of a homeless person who is having a hard time keeping up with hygiene. He smells that way too. His hair is thick and white, and in its dirtiness has shaped itself into a wind-blown pompadour that is rakishly pleasing in the way it looks blasted up and away from his skull. He comes in talking to himself and instead of proceeding all the way to the back, he stops in the aisle about ten feet back and stands there facing the front, one hip jutted, one hand on each rail. He’s just a few feet back from me. The people who get on the bus on the next several stops crowd near the front instead of asking him to move back farther, or trying to move past him.

He’s saying “What’s the matter, Kevin? Are you afraid? What’s the matter, Kevin-faggot, you little squealer, San Quentin isn’t good enough for you, Kevin. Are you afraid of fainting, Kevin? I’ll bash your head in with a baseball bat, Kevin. Ahhh, come on down, Kevin-faggot, come on down.” He has a warm, sandy voice that contrasts with what he’s saying, and he draws out all his words except “Kevin” and “Kevin-faggot” which are quick, staccato, bitten off. The effect is mesmerizing. He sounds like a schoolyard sadist who is really, really good at what he does. Also like a crime boss.

The guy standing in front of him answers a cell phone call and is saying loudly, “Yeah, yeah! Everything’s great! Really looking forward to seeing you guys!” So for a bit I can’t hear what the Dickens character behind him is saying, but I catch a few intriguing words and phrases besides the ubiquitous “Kevin.” These include “Molly Ringwald’s best friend”, “Joe Pesci”, and “the Everett Herald.”

A popular stop comes and a bunch of people press off, including the man on the cell phone. A woman sitting behind me gets up, and tries to politely but assertively squeeze past the people standing to get off the bus. She’s more polite than assertive and there is a long moment when she is standing facing the front and there is no one between her and the man talking to Kevin, who is just a few feet back. I feel nervous for her, anxious that the people in the aisle let her by. I don’t think anything is going to happen to her, I just feel the social claustrophobia of the situation. She glances back at him, then forward, and he takes a step forward just as she manages to sidle past someone and get away.

The tall man is maneuvers to two newly empty seats across the aisle from me. He slants diagonally across both seats, one long leg folded over the other and a foot dangling elegantly out into the aisle. He drapes one long arm across the back of the seat, and the other rests lightly on his knee. He looks like he should be wearing an ascot and smoking a fine cigar, maybe expounding on W.B. Yeats. I lean forward and take a quick look at his face. It is ruddy and weathered with crazy teeth. He looks like he could not be a real person in real life, he is far too much of a caricature. He is a fine-featured actor having a lark in his old age, playing a stereotypical homeless guy. I am separated from him by a stoic young man who is studiously looking straight ahead. The old man across the aisle hasn’t stopped disparaging Kevin and I try to swivel my ears to catch his little phrases. “Heeyyyyy,” he’s saying, and then “Kev-Kev! How many times are you going to lie under oath, Kevin-faggot? I’ll strangle you, Kevin.”

A woman sitting in front of him hands her bag to the stranger sitting next to her and awkwardly moves up past the people standing, to get to the driver as the bus is flying up Aurora. Her voice carries back as she says “This man is being VERBALLY ABUSIVE TO ME! He does NOT belong on this bus!!” The driver hears the shrill urgency in her voice but can’t understand what she’s saying. He brakes and pulls over before we get to the bridge. He says, “What now?” She repeats, “He is verbally ABUSING me!! He shouldn’t be on here!”

A man standing near the front in a black leather jacket, male-pattern baldness, says to both the woman and the driver, “Now, in my opinion, that man is really just talking to himself and not to you.” It’s true. If anyone is being abused, it’s Kevin. The woman is disgusted by the lack of sympathy and struggles back to her seat. She’s in her late 50s, dressed in business clothes. The man behind her keeps talking to Kevin.

Several minutes later she goes up to the front again. The bus has emptied out some, so it’s easier for her to get to the front. She says “He’s saying FAGGOT an awful lot – so I guess that’s just ok now? Saying FAGGOT?”

The man stops talking to Kevin for a few beats and then calls forward in a pleasant voice, “What’s the matter, miss? You don’t know the way to the University of Washington?” The man standing up front in the black leather jacket says nicely, “It’s ok; he’s just talking to himself.” And then the talker says a little defensively, “A lot of people talk to themselves! You know what you can do, man in the leather jacket? You can grow some hair on the top of your head.” This guy is a lot gentler with people in real life than he is with Kevin. He’s leaned out into the aisle to say all this, and for the first time the driver can see him in the mirror. The driver laughs. “OH,” he says, “is that who we’ve been talking about?”

Both the offended woman and the offending man got off at the next stop and went their separate ways on the sidewalk. There’s an exhalation, a murmur—partly because of him, and partly because of her. More because of the general situation. The driver says to the man in the leather jacket, but also to anyone who can hear, “That’s the first time he’s been like that. Usually he just sits quietly, very well-behaved.”

At the next stop, the young man gets up. Before he gets off the bus he turns and says to the driver, “I thought you handled that very well. What’s your name?” The driver says “Uh… Paul?” and the young man, who has turned red, thanks him and nearly falls down the steps of the bus as he gets off.

After he’s gone, the driver says “I didn’t really think I handled it. I didn’t do much of anything.” I say, “Well, you didn’t over-react.” My voice doesn’t come out loudly enough so the driver says to the leather-jacket guy, “What did she say?” Leather jacket says “You didn’t over-react.” The driver smiles at me in the mirror. He is cute, I see now, and I wish I had done more grooming before leaving the house. He says “Riding the bus just means that you’re crammed in with all sorts of people acting all sorts of ways. I have to focus on driving safely. I can’t govern people.”

A guy behind me looks up from his book and says, as if laying the matter to rest, “The guy was just fine. Crazy, yes, but just fine.”

Northbound 16: Thursday

I was just reading Scarlet Witch #4 and thinking how I would definitely disavow that comic immediately if anyone on the bus asked me about it. “Oh this thing? This is terrible.” Situation didn’t come up, though.

At a stop in Wallingford, three older Ethiopian women came on, draped in white  cloth and carrying bundles and roller bags. They filled up the other three seats in my row, the first row of forward-facing seats, and their bags took up the aisle. Then the bus driver—a tall, flat-faced, cornfed white woman with a low ponytail—stood up and said to the six people in the front area, “I’m gonna need all these seats! We have two wheelchairs coming onboard!” The three people on the left were a random assortment of youngish commuters. The three people on the right were a very small, elderly, frail-looking Asian couple with bundles and roller-bags and a tiny girl in red-rimmed glasses carrying a prehistoric diorama larger than herself. All of these people were then standing with all their things, regarding the total roadblock that was the three older Ethiopian women with their many bundles and bags.

What happened next was very slow and mild, with the passengers behind my row, and the three commuters ahead of me just working things out. People got up and shuffled around seats and bags until it just worked out best for everyone. The Spanish-speaking man in a Mariners cap behind me conveyed non-verbally to one of the Ethiopian women that he would just hold her bag on his lap for the rest of the ride, and she was fine with that. A high school kid got up so that the little girl in red glasses could sit next to her grandpa. Someone else stood in the back for several stops, holding onto her diorama.

When everything was finally clear for the wheelchair passengers, the driver smiled at me and said “Busy day!”

Then the people in wheelchairs got on, and both seemed irritated from waiting on the sidewalk in the cold for things to get shuffled around. They didn’t seem to love having such an audience, and they also didn’t seem to want people thinking they were together, like each thought the other was embarrassing to be seen with. But their moods highlighted the calm goodwill of the passengers already on the bus. We have a lot more work to do, and I don’t want to make it sound like everything is rosy for people who depend on public transport. But on that bus on that day, everyone was going to get where they needed to go. No one resented the very young, the very old, the disabled, the culturally different, or the non-native. No one was upset that the bus was starting to run late. And no one was getting left behind.

Third Avenue, Killer of Birthdays

I couldn’t bounce back after thirty minutes of watching the man put on three shirts then peel them off again. I left when the 26 bus finally came, but my birthday had turned into a Tuesday and taken on an air of “surviving til bedtime.”

I can sometimes give myself the gift of a good birthday. For one day, I have this extra casing of well-being, and I walk around in it. It’s like emotional stability tinged with modest (not manic!) joy. It’s like the ability to be the actual distance I am from everyone around me, not crowded on the ground or alone on the moon. It’s optimism; it’s protection from dreary thoughts. It’s a fleeting truce with death. It’s taking pleasure in objects, accepting compliments, and looking forward to future events. It’s the smug, delusional mantle of happiness. It’s what people wear when they buy houses, begin ambitious projects, take this woman to be their wedded wife, decide it’s a good idea to have kids. That’s what I imagine, anyway. By the time I stepped out onto Third Avenue to go home from work, I was feeling like I might really make something of myself after all.

It was windy and gray, and my bus was late. On the sidewalk near me, a man put on three shirts and tore them off. His legs were planted firmly, a little bent at the knee, and his upper body never stopped moving. He danced with all six sleeves of these three shirts: A white t-shirt, a dark gray zip-up hoodie, and a lighter gray pull-over hoodie. He was bare-chested in the cold wind for long minutes as he wrestled with them. He bundled, untangled, folded, and yanked them. He tucked one inside the other, then pulled them apart again. His arms spun out low and high, his back arched and twisted. He put the shirts on backward, upside down, and in every possible order.

He got it right just when I thought he never would. T-shirt, pull-over, cardigan. He looked in the window glass, tipped his head to the side with casual self-criticism, and passed his fingers through his hair. He turned into the stream of pedestrians, hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his tan corduroys, and walked with arms still, shoulders slightly hunched, and head a little down. He took four steps that made him indistinguishable from everyone around him. One. Two. Three. Four. Then he spun back toward the window glass, peeled off all three shirts as one and hurled them down on the sidewalk at his feet. Then he stooped over them and began to charm the sleeves up out of the heap again, and again he danced with the shirts. He did all of this six times before the 26 came.

At no point did he acknowledge anyone around him, and only the motions strung together and the exposed skin in March made it strange. Chopped into pieces, his movements were normal. Almost normal but not quite, because he was as graceful as a dancer, and because it was vaudevillian, comic, a beautiful little hell. He had not a tattoo or a scar or a blemish on his hairless skin. He was lean, but not gaunt—rock-climber thin with long ropy muscles. His corduroys had fallen down off his hips but the wide elastic band of his black boxer-briefs stayed in place. His hair looked clean. His face looked young. As long as he was trapped in his performance, I was trapped watching him.

As he wrestled with the shirts and whipped his bare torso around in the wind, he moved further down the block. The mass of people moving between us thickened. My eyes stayed trained on him putting on shirts and removing shirts. Other people were just shapes that moved in front of him, moved behind him, blew down the wind tunnel of Third Avenue, slid back and forth, collapsed flat and telescoped back. Every bus but mine came twice, three times. People pooled around me, drained onto buses, and then pooled again. No one was the same, nothing was constant, except me and this man and his need to put on three shirts and then peel them off again. The wind bit through my warm layers and the 26 was never coming. By the time it did, I was emptied out and snowed under.