Mass Transit is one of those special entries that I had always planned to use as the basis for a short story. Here I crossed paths with a stranger on a bus, and I've never stopped thinking about this man. In a way, I'm glad I waited, because when I do write this short story, I believe I know the conclusion. It took me eleven years to learn it, is all. Had I tried to finish the story in 2001, I would have only been approximating what I now know. Hey, getting old isn't so bad.
(October 04, 2001)
An articulate male voice spoke softly. It said, "That is one interesting outfit."
Sighing, I looked up to see the owner of the voice. I just knew that one of these guys was going to start talking to me. That's what happens when a lone chick in a fringed gypsy dress, pink shades, pearls, and Doc Martens shows up at the bus stop outside a VA facility. Only one other woman was waiting for the bus, standing apart from the group of vets, haggard and extremely pregnant in a man's oversized Harley Davidson T-shirt over pilled black Walmart leggings.
The person that had peeled off from the pack to appreciate my attire was younger than the rest of the men. The voice accompanied the kind of face that looked vaguely like someone I'd seen before. Familiar and forgettable. Unlike most of the others, he was clean-shaven and did not give off any noticeable odor, except for that of stale cigarette smoke. He was appropriately dressed for the warm weather in a bright short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. The other ex-soldiers and forgotten war heroes that cling to the VA hospitals like ducks to a pond were scruffy, bearded, layered in flannel and denim, despite the afternoon heat. Jackets over flannel shirts over T-shirts. None spoke. Most were smoking, including the person addressing me.
"I think so," he continued evenly. "I think it is a very interesting outfit. Do you work here?" he asked, pointing at the VA hospital.
"No, I work over there," I answered, gesturing somewhat vaguely towards where I think Technology Park Drive might be -- I don't have a very good sense of direction. "This is the nearest bus stop back to the city," I added unnecessarily.
"Do YOU work here?" I asked, for lack of anything else to say. The 62 bus chugged into sight.
"No," he said, pinching with two fingers to break his Marlboro cigarette just above the point where it was burning. I stared, fascinated, as he squelched the glow with bare fingertips. "I," he flicked tobacco shreds to the ground, inspected the extinguished cigarette tip, "am a bum." He put the cigarette into his pocket. "And, I'm good at it."
The cigarette that he was saving for later is almost all the way smoked down. I mulled over what cigarettes cost these days. I didn't know. Watching this homeless man saving a remaining puff or two for later, knowing full well that I'd have stamped that butt beneath my boot, I felt the guilty twinge of the myopic privileged. Like everyone else I know, I complain about my demanding job, the hectic pace of my life, always a million things to do, constantly battling encroaching clutter in my apartment. But it all rings hollow when you meet up with poverty at the bus stop. I felt sure that this man knows the price of a pack of smokes exactly to the penny.
With the 62 bus finally grinding to a stop, expelling a noxious cloud, the door opened and we all lined up to climb in. I was not surprised when this man sat next to me as though Providence had decreed it.
"How does my face look?" he asked, gingerly feeling his cheekbone under his right eye. I peered closer and noticed a bluish puffiness. I told him it's hardly noticeable. I asked what happened.
"I just got kicked off the ward for fighting," looking out the window as we pulled away from the VA. "One of the staff hauled off and hit me. They don't believe me that he started it. They're like cops. They stick together." After a minute he added, "That's the second fight in as many days." Ignoring the stares of the black passengers, he described a rowdy scene from yesterday that culminated with "kicking the ass of a black guy in the park."
"I bought him a drink. He hit me. I have a black belt in karate. I don't like to fight, but I had to roundhouse kick him. There was a ring of black people cheering me on. The guy was a bully. White guys don't usually fight back in a situation where everyone around is black. But nobody is safe from a bully. What do you think of this shirt?"
"It's like Magnum P.I." I said. "Yes," he agreed, "it's a Hawaiian shirt. It's linen. This is an eighty dollar shirt. I prefer to dress well. These colors, I can wear with black, tan, green...actually, anything but blue will go with this shirt."
He told me that that on November 1st he'll have a job, an apartment, and a car. He also told me that he was a drug addict. He had forty dollars, and he was taking the bus to Back Bay to get crack.
"I wouldn't know how to buy crack to save my life," I told him.
"It's everywhere," he said. "Bums on crack can spot other bums on crack. Crack addicts know where to get crack."
He looked at me as if deciding whether or not to continue. I made my face neutral, leaving the decision up to him. "Water," he said, apparently deciding to tell me all about it," always finds its own level."
We chugged through residential neighborhoods, past a used-looking shopping center. He gazed out the window impassively and described a downward spiral where crime and drug use alternately become each other's cause and effect, until everything else in life is gone, and any means to get drugs is acceptable. In California, he worked as a smuggler.
"Yes. I smuggled across the Mexican border."
"What did you smuggle?"
The bus stopped to admit a horde of high school kids. Staring at each one in turn, he went into great detail about the false-bottom trucks used to transport Mexicans across the border, and how he only did it because he was desperate for money to buy more drugs.
I told him that I know someone who, when he was young, got arrested in South America for drugs. That the Ecuadorians had tried aversion therapy on him, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. "It doesn't seem like that would work for humans," I added. "Why not?" he said. "The human brain is extremely suggestible. Aversion therapy is very effective." He went on to describe Pavlovian examples of aversion therapy that have been written up, interrupting his train of thought only to point out which of the high school kids were high right now. "It's in the eyes," he said. "That one. At the end."
The skinny boy he was blatantly pointing at, as though the kids were on TV and wouldn't notice being discussed so openly, had a wild head of dreadlocks, and glazed eyes. The boy sank into a seat and leaned over, head nearly between his knees, eyes closed. A waifish girl in a thrift shop halter top settled next to the boy and spoke urgently into his ear. The boys eyes remained closed.
"Yes," the man said, as though a question had been answered. "Aversion therapy is very powerful. But so are drugs."
"Where are you going to go now? Another VA?"
"First to Back Bay. There is a Starbucks where I like to sit and have coffee, and watch the people go by."
I told him I didn't like Starbucks coffee. "Dunkin Donuts tastes so much better. Starbucks coffee tastes burnt."
"You think that, but that's because you're like most people who don't understand coffee. Coffee is like cheese. What's the easiest cheese to get people to eat? Sure, American cheese. But that doesn't mean that every now and then you don't want a nice sharp Cheddar or a tangy Swiss or even a Brie or Camembert."
We were getting closer to town. My thoughts began to drift towards dinner plans and evening relaxation. Maybe I'll make some iced tea. He was telling me that he was a Botanist, he used to grow coffee. "Dunkin Donuts coffee is a blend. There are many different kinds of cultivated coffee. The genus of coffee is coffea, c-o-f-f-e-a. But there are different species. The blending process makes a generic-tasting, mild coffee. You're not really tasting it the way you would if you had a cup of, say a nice Sumatran roast. The roasting brings out the essence of the bean."
After Starbucks, he's going to take a bus to Cape Cod. "People don't realize it's a lot nicer off-season. Once the tourists leave."
The bus pulled into Alewife station and lurched to a stop. The doors wheezed open and everyone jostled to file off and into the station. When we reached the sidewalk, I turned around. The man didn't seem to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Jason," he said.
"Well Jason, um...good luck with everything."
He nodded. He'd already pulled the mostly-smoked cigarette out of his pocket. As I walked away toward the inbound train and home, he lit it.