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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

91S Follies

Tonight, I boarded the bus in front of the Pennsylvanian. The bus was surprisingly crowded, given how quiet the city had been all day, and I began my progress back toward a cluster of available seats in the rear.

As I passed, from the undistinguished muddle of people crowding the bench behind the driver an arm shot out, black-skinned and clad in a puffy, threadbare jacket. The fingers that encircled my own were astonishingly gentle, plump like a processed food product dispensed from unrefrigerated plastic boxes on convenience store counters, and of a related color.

Startled but unperturbed, I allowed the stranger to continue loosely to hold my fingers in his own in that just-tight-enough way one might cage a lightning bug in two cupped hands, peering inside. My eyes moved steadily up his arm, and just before they reached his face he burst out, "Hey, goodaseeye," his voice trailing off toward the end as though his attention had been diverted before he could complete his ragged salutation.

I held his gaze, consciously removing, feature by feature, all expression from my face, striving for a measured, affectless neutrality, open but aloof, skeptical but not unfriendly. He sat back, perhaps surprised by the evenness of my stare, by my failure to signal any intention to fly the developing situation.

He mumbled something incomprehensible, while I struggled to determine whether his familiarity was a product of some forgotten encounter or alcohol and opportunity. I made no move, however, to leave my station, standing, holing a pole, watching the stranger intently and trying to glean something coherent from his hopelessly muddled words. He looked vaguely familiar, but Pittsburgh has only a few visible street people, and even if we'd never spoken I probably would have remembered a face I'd seen streetside on multiple occasions.

We continued in this way: him mimicking the rising and falling cadence of engaged conversation with no suggestion of meaning, the garble only occasionally punctuated by a recognizable word, and me nodding uncertain assent, smiling softly sometimes when it seemed appropriate, trying to find some passage between us to enable the tangible interaction the stranger palpably craved -- the tell-tale nod of something passing for empathy; the easy bon mot speaking of commonality -- and I am always willing to offer, when I can. But it was impossible.

He sat forward on the bench, arms resting on elbows, splayed legs crowding the middle-aged women on either side of him, toward whom he sometimes directed glances, as though one or the other might aid in translating his thoughts into a language I would understand. The woman to his right (my left), over whom I stood, was plump and flushed with good health, hair cut shoulder-length with tidy bangs curling toward her forehead just about her eyebrows. She watched me warily, as though I were part of the problem. To his left, pressed against the wall behind the driver, sat a blind woman of similar age, white and red cane folded neatly and resting atop the bag in her lap, her eyes angled over the heads of the passengers across the aisle from her, her face quivering briefly in a fleeting smile, perhaps in response to some aspect of our ridiculous conversation.

"Sit down," he suddenly instructed, not unkindly. "Siddown so wegen talh!"

A seat was available behind me, and I did as instucted, inserting the place mark in my book and folding it gently into my hand, abandoning any expectation that I would return to it for the duration of the ride.

His narrative, such as it was, then began in earnest. I understood so little of it that I won't tire you or me out by trying to reproduce the details. Initially, there was much talk of drunkenness and being high: he wasn't even vaguely reluctant to acknowledge his inebriated state, which to be fair was not obvious. Clearly, things weren't working right, but there was no odor, no clear failure of motor control, conclusively suggesting drunkenness.

There was, in the tortured state of his skin and nose, in his brown rimed eyes, and in his thousand-yard stare which even when focused on me felt as though it were passing right through me in transit to some distant object, a suggestion of a long life of hard drinking. It occurred to me that perhaps he was one of those pitiable late-stage drunks who have taken one too many trips to some pseudo-Dionysian plain from which return eventually becomes impossible.

Yesterday, he seemed to be saying, he had the misfortune to find himself in a restaurant that was being robbed. And either he was eating ribs at the time, or he had been struck in the ribs with a baseball bat, I couldn't tell. He had restrained himself from acting, notwithstanding that, as a resident of Bloomfield, he is most assuredly "no punk[!]" which evidently required Herculean discipline. His sons -- both of them bigger than he (he said this as though he were huge, and I feigned being impressed, though he wasn't much larger than me) -- would have remedied the situation post-haste, but in the moment he reluctantly stayed his hand.

He paused from his recollection to turn, for no clear reason, toward the blind passenger, whom he fixed with a stare at once inquisitive and lascivious, properties I could discern even in quarter profile. She had just withdrawn lipstick from her purse, and was applying it deftly, ignoring the barely audible, effectively unparseable questions he directed her way. I had little doubt that she could detect the subtle shift in the timber of his voice indicating that he was addressing her directly, and thus was all the more impressed at her utter stoicism, especially given an earlier, quiet smile, that had suggested she was listening to our entire conversation, such as it was.

I idled while he asked her one incomprehensible question then another, then another. I registered an initial parochial impulse to intervene and resisted it as evincing an unerlying condescension; surely the woman could take care of herself, and the gentleman, while colorful, seemed entirely harmless on balance -- just seeking contact with other people, and impulse essentially human and intrinsically benevolent, craving conversation. I recalled the soft avidity of his fingers around mine, hesitated.

But after a third question, and a fourth, the stranger leaning in, now, closer to the woman than basic courtesy would allow, I realized that, while she surely would survive without my intrusion, she clearly was opting to endure rather than resist, and probably out of an abundance of caution. Hesitantly, and then resolutely, I reached out my book, tapped the inside of the stranger's knee, and firmly said, "Hey" -- he turned -- "Talk to me."

And he did, missing hardly a beat. For a moment, perhaps, suspicion had darkened his visage as he turned to address my apostrophe, but it faded quickly. Through whatever fog was filtering his perception of things -- and who doesn't see through a fog? -- he seemed to register that I was if not a friend than at least amiable and receptive.

Before we could resume our conversation, however, the bus driver pulled over to the curb on a side street in the Strip District. Leaning out from his soft Recaro pedestal and turning to face the passenger compartment, the driver implored, in his best no-nonsense voice, the stranger to watch his language. Only then did it occur to me that the stranger, in narrating the apparent robbery, the stature and menace of his sons, and other topics I had failed to identify conclusively, had in fact been cursing up a blue streak, dropping F-bombs in a blitz so bold I had simply taken it at face value and stopped noticing.

The stranger turned to the driver alertly, and acquiesced, offering in an apologetic tone something that sounded like, "Aw yeah, John, I gotchoo." The driver's face, which continued to face rearward for a beat after the stranger's promise to behave, spoke a number of propositions, most of them impatient and implacable; the easiest to discern was, "My name's not John."

The stranger, undeterred, quickly returned us to the restaurant, the robbery, and the sheer dangerousness of his sons, who apparently would have shot up the place had they been there. To that same end, the stranger started talking about his own gun, bragging that if he'd brought it out things would have been bad for the robbers, and narrating how that scenario would have played out, but emphasizing that he'd chosen not to raise his gun against the men who'd robbed the store and, supposedly, beaten the stranger severely.

"It's pretty much never the right thing to raise your gun," I said, my smile a false rictus hiding my distaste and despair in the face of such candid braggartry about an instrument of death. "I don't know much, but in my work I see it enough: guys who draw their guns always lose, sure as death itself."

"Thass right," he said, nodding vehemently in assent, and then started pointing at his crotch. "I keep my gun in my underwear, pressed down in there, so you can't be gettin' at it."

I nodded silently, my capacity for playing along strained. I discerned with a brief glance toward the area he feverishly circled with his index finger no outline of anything resembling a gun, but still I was irked deeply, as was, I could tell, the sighted woman beside him, the thought that he might be packing, and bragging about it to boot.

The conversation fizzled, then, perhaps for obvious reasons, until finally he asked me where the bus was going. "Lawrenceville," I said. "After that I don't know."

"This buss goin' downtown?" he asked.

"This bus _came_ from downtown," I explained. "It's going to Lawrenceville now."

"Hey," he suddenly raised his voice looking toward the driver. "Where this buss go?"

And when this received no answer, he tried again, and then a third time. Finally, the driver intoned, "Fox Chapel." I harbored an inward smile at the thought of this brain-fried, outspoken black man in tatters wandering off a bus at a dark Fox Chapel bus stop, but the amusement was short-lived: Fox Chapel at night would be a terrible place for the stranger to end up. I had little doubt that by the time he'd struck up his fourth or fifth uninvited conversation, bored Fox Chapel police would be on the scene, all too willing to indulge the fears of people who believe their excessive property taxes relieve them from ever having to deal with anyone of a different demographic than their own.

"Can I get downtown from here?" the stranger asked, and no one responded immediately.

After a moment, however, the blind woman, heretofore silent, chimed in with a poised and stately voice: "You get out here and cross the street. A bus will come along heading downtown soon enough." Her voice was stern, unafraid, vindicating all of the best assumptions I'd made about her nature and poise.

The stranger, unconvinced, turned back to the driver. "A bus come here to take me downtown?"

The driver indicated assent, and the stranger, without ceremony or farewell, stood and headed to the door. He paused before exiting, politely making room for a boarding passenger, and turning to clarify the logistics of his intended itinerary with the bus driver, who managed to stay patient for about five seconds, before blurting out, "Go! Go! I'm on a clock here."

And with that, the stranger exited the bus.

I smiled. Sat back in my chair, bemused more than anything. The sighted woman who'd sat beside the stranger throughout the exchange, watching, listening, but holding her tongue, looked at me and I reluctantly returned her gaze for a moment.

"Thank you," she said.

"Sure," I replied, but I was anyting but.

I spent the rest of the ride eyeing the pages of my book suspiciously but not really reading, wondering what, exactly, she was grateful for.


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