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.”