|Detail from a photo of an El Metro bus (Laredo, Texas) downloaded from Que Fregados|
I barely remember what she looked like. Brown hair, I think. Pulled back. Black frame glasses. White ear buds. Maybe a sweatshirt, skinny jeans, something like that.
I was reading, waiting for the bus. She wasn’t the only high school kid waiting there. I heard someone say “Sir? Sir?” It was her.
“Does this bus go to Wyoming?”
“Yes it does,” I answered.
She said, “Thank you.”
She had a foreign accent. French, maybe. European, anyway, I’m pretty sure.
I went back to my reading until the bus came.
I boarded behind her. She was at the till, then she turned around to exit the bus.
I asked her what happened.
She didn’t have the correct change. She showed me a five.
Wait, I told her. I reached for my wallet, pulled out a buck, handed it to her.
I don’t remember if she said thank you this time or not. I remember after she put the dollar in the fare box, she turned and offered me the five.
“No, no,” I replied, shaking my head. Foreigner for sure, I registered, offering me the five for that one. Or else open-heartedly grateful, the way we can be when we’re young, feeling vulnerable, and somebody does something to help that’s no big deal to them but is to us. Young and naive. A sweetheart.
I’m telling this story to a friend when he asks me if I thought I might have been played. The question surprises me. No, I don’t think so, I tell him. We move on.
A few days later, I’m reading an article by Patricia Marx
What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane.
My friend’s question returns, and this time, it lingers. Was I played?
Why would I think such a thing?
Well, for one thing, Lomas crosses Wyoming just a mile east of where we were. Was she really just off the boat?
Maybe she was. Maybe she didn’t know the neighborhood yet. Or maybe she just wasn’t sure about the bus route.
She obviously knew enough to be at the right bus stop. But why did she ask me, and not one of her schoolmates?
Maybe she was new enough her schoolmates still intimidated her. Or maybe she felt misplaced among a rougher, less well-rounded community of high schoolers. Maybe none of them were classmates. Maybe I looked safer, like I wouldn’t prank her or something. Or maybe she was pranking me. Maybe she was showing her friends how she could get someone to pay her fare. Maybe there was a bet going on. Maybe she needed to be sure I heard the foreign accent.
Maybe she was faking the accent. I remember this kid waiting for the bus in downtown Houston, trying to cadge a cigarette and telling everyone he was from “Dun Loghair” in an awful approximation of an Irish accent.
Anyway, if I was being played, she would have had to maneuver her place in the line so she would be right in front of me. Could she have done that without my noticing?
Well, yes. Easily.
The rest played as I remembered it. And now I recall she had a Big Gulp in her hand. I remember the awkwardness of her holding that giant cup and her open wallet, the five poking out. I remember now how she turned back around after paying the fare and tending the open wallet to me, either her face or her words or both asking me if I wanted to take the five.
That would have been her very confident gamble if this was a play.
Smooth operator for sure, I registered, offering me the five for that one. Damsel in distress, foreign a nice touch. Worked like a beaded Hare’s Ear on a rainbow trout. Old and still naive. A safe gamble on her part for sure.
I’ve seen my share of cons, successful and failed, while using the bus. Some of those have turned up here in Bus Stories. I’m sure I’ve missed some, too, being too slow or too inexperienced to realize what was going on at the time.
But it’s not the bus that makes me second-guess what happened in this particular story. As Ms. Marks points out, we live in a culture where the con is on. But she doesn’t include the most sophisticated, most appealing, most invisible con of all: modern advertising. It’s as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and daily we are expertly played in the choices we make for everything from personal hygiene products to political candidates.
I’d hate to have to defend against P.T. Barnum’s assertion there’s a fool born every minute. But I’d argue for another way of looking at the fools. I’d argue the real reason we remain susceptible to the con is because we are, most of us, most of the time, sweethearts. We have good hearts and good intentions. But we’ve all been burned. And so we inevitably either suspect the con or spot it where, in fact, it’s not.
I don’t know whether I was played or not that afternoon at the bus stop. My gut still tells me this was a kid who, for whatever reason, was going to give up taking the bus after school because she didn’t have the correct change. Which makes me a nice guy. Which makes me feel better about myself, and her, too. A dollar was, for me, at this place in my life, a small price to pay for possibly being wrong. And if it was a con, we both got my dollar’s worth.
The photo at the top of this story is posted with the permission of Que Fregados