Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


This morning I caught a later bus than I prefer to, and it was crowded enough that I was tapped standee number 2. A dubious distinction, I shuffled toward the well by the rear door, where standee number 1 had already assumed the most desirable standing position, leaning up against the divider one step into the well. It was one of those buses that teaches an object lesson about poor use of space, the kind with one-person seating down the right side of the front half of the bus, not in a bench but in individual, forward-facing seats. This leaves, of course, a very wide aisle, but one that has outthought itself; even a man of average height, standing in the middle of this space, will barely be able to reach either rail. It's a silly layout, is the point. Unless of course you have the good fortune to score one of the single seats -- then it seems like a pretty cool idea.

I took up my social-convention-dictated position just in front of the well, deep enough down the aisle to permit a dozen or so standees to fill in between me and the front of the bus, which experience told me would be sufficient for our ride downtown. To ward off the terrible cold, I wore a heavy thriftstore find I adore: heavy herringbone, shiny satin lining, sumptuous polyester fur collar. So weighty is it, in fact, that I found it a strain to keep my arm over my head in order to hold the rail (another inconvenience one avoids if he manages to secure a position in the rear doorway).

Resigning myself to the inconvenience, to the loss of reading time, I began looking around for something to pass the time, an entertainment, a phenomenon. What I sought, I soon discovered, was literally right under my nose, where an androgynous, rumpled figure with knobby knuckles rummaged in a leather satchel. The satchel revealed itself to be a purse, the figure a broken-down and elderly woman, and my perspective was perfect: from my natural stance, I could see everything she was doing but could not see her face, which meant she couldn't see mine.

She first caught my attention when I noticed her fiddling clumsily with a business reply envelope reinforced with tape, and adorned by several illegible and misaligned ballpoint pen scribbles in blue with visible stutters in the longer lines where the ball malfunctioned or the pen simply lifted up, perhaps where an irregular surface created on the surface of the envelope a relief that made it difficult to write evenly. The envelope was folded over neatly and secured by a paperclip so large it nearly reached from the envelope's top to its bottom. Awkwardly, the skin of her fingers bunching like moleskin along its labyrinthine fissures in which one might imagine something were etched were it not such a cliche, she pulled at the paperclip once, twice, and a third time in vain. Pausing, redoubling her effort, she succeeded on the fourth attempt, and I could feel her elementary satisfaction, or was it relief, at finally unsealing the vessel.

The paperclip removed and tucked under a finger in a practiced and economical gesture that belied the difficulty the other manual task had entailed, she held the envelope in her left hand while her right worked to spread the top wide. Again, several attempts were required before finally she opened the envelope as wide as it allowed, her anticipation palpable like an eddy of warmth in the drafty bus. Inside were several slips of paper, one of which she removed and examined, some sort of coupon.

Her coat was a turquoise ski coat of the inexpensive sort that will stand up to neither cold nor water. On its left breast, a rectangular button asserted her loyalty to the Black and Gold. Under her purse, her legs hid within oversized black denim, the knees faded to share their pale, sickly grey with the violated snow clotted against the berm of Liberty Avenue. I couldn't see her face, her choice of headwear, not without risking her self-consciousness. I was more interested in the purse than her face in any case.

Satisfied with whatever she had accomplished in her first examination (or, more probalby, the first of her examinations to which I'd played witness), she flipped back the brown flap of her purse. The flap itself appeared to be stuffed with a stack of papers the same dimension as 5X8 index cards. Inside, however, was where the real mystery lay. There, in orderly rows like patient files, like multiple contest entries awaiting a lick and a prayer, were dozens, scores of envelopes much the same as the one she had just opened, disgorged, and restored to its contents and what appeared to be a carefully selected space in the stack of similar envelopes: although no envelope revealed anything like a taxonomic denotation, she nevertheless seemed, almost instinctually, to understand where each one belonged.

Envelope sealed and restored, she began rifling through the others, her fingers furtively standing briefly on the edge of each before mincing along in a precarious ballet, one way and then the other, until finally she found what she was looking for. Withdrawing it, and again fumbling with the paperclip, she opened the envelope to reveal a clutter of the paper coupons Giant Eagle's registers spit at you in a for-profit effort to goad you into buying Linda McCartney's veggie burgers next time. She appeared to look at one, briefly, as though to determine whether its expiration had passed. Evidently the coupons would live another day. This time, when she attempted to reclose the envelope with the paperclip, she struggled mightily. This envelope, moreso than the other, had the dull flimsiness of paper that has been crumpled and smoothed, crumpled and smoothed, breathed upon and handled entirely too many times. After a pause, an examination, and some careful tactile exploration of the offendingly weak areas at the envelope's mouth, she managed to replace the paper clip and return the envelope to its designated place among the others.

The last envelope I saw her withdraw as we neared downtown was the most cryptic. Unlike the others, this one had a legible phrase slurred in drunken loops next to the business reply address: "New Coupons." Inside, only one Giant Eagle coupon was contained. She quickly replaced it, her suddenly anxious movements suggesting that her head might be swiveling around, her wattle swinging beneath her chin, in an effort to determine whether she was being watched. But she couldn't see my face, nor I hers.

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