Sunday, December 16, 2007

BUS STORY # 63 (Santa Claus Comes To Town)

I’m going into work later than usual this morning and find I’ve missed the commuter rush. The Lomas bus is almost empty, and the Rapid Ride is less than half full when we pull up in front of UNM. I cross Central to the Yale bus stop and there’s no one else there. I sit down and pull out something to read.

A few minutes later, an old guy, late 60s or maybe a hardy early 70s, approaches the bench. He’s wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket, under the jacket a thick-textured sweater. I note big black shoes like steel-toe Red Wings, and a baseball cap, bill curled like a baseball player’s. His hair is white and it curls up from beneath his cap. He has a white beard and red cheeks and round metal-rimmed glasses, and he reminds me of none other than Santa Claus himself. Santa is pulling a suitcase on wheels. He looks around as if trying to figure out where he is, then begins the process of sitting down on the bench. He starts to sit in the slot next to me, then stops, look, turns around, then moves to the end of the bench. He fusses a little more with sitting down, and once down, begins fussing with the arrangement of his suitcase. The suitcase makes me wonder if he’s on the street, but his clothes are clean and unrumpled, his hands and fingers are clean and neat, his hair and beard not overgrown.

The bus shows up and we both board. We’re the only passengers. He asks the driver does the bus stop at Gibson. Yes, it does, and the driver will let him know when we get there.

This exchange reminds me of another guy I’d seen a couple of weeks earlier who’d also asked the driver about getting off at Gibson. This guy was in his 50s, both neat and slightly seedy at the same time. His long hair was combed straight back, and he was wearing Birkenstocks – the Arizona – and they looked totally out of place with the rest of him. He was quite polite, and also concerned about not missing Gibson.

I wondered where he was going since nothing at the intersection seemed a likely destination. He got off just north of Gibson, and I could see he was walking very gingerly. Sore feet – and suddenly the sandals made sense. But where was he going? My best guess was a bus stop where he could catch the No. 16/18 to the VA. “Vet” is what I concluded. A guy just getting by. I saw an efficiency apartment with dingy wallpaper and a hot plate. I thought if I’d been driving, I would have offered him a ride. No. No I wouldn’t have, I quickly realized. I wouldn’t have because if I’d been driving, I wouldn’t have seen him or his polite ways or his sore feet or his apartment.

I wonder if Santa Claus is a vet, too. Going to the VA to be admitted for a procedure. That would account for the suitcase. Going in for surgery all alone.

I’m sitting on the east side of the bus. He’s sitting on the west side, three seats up from me. We’re riding a 400, with bench seating all around its perimeter, so we’re just three seats apart from directly facing one another. He looks around a bit as if to get his bearings, then looks at me. I resist the impulse to look away and, instead, acknowledge him with a smile. He holds my look, but for the life of me, I cannot get a read on what he’s thinking or feeling. If anything, it might be a “what-have-we-here” look. My smile is beginning to go stiff when he gets up and moves directly across the aisle. No fussing around about it, either. Oops, I think. I must have made him uncomfortable enough to move out of my line of vision. I fix my gaze on where he’d been sitting before he moved. But I stay aware of him in my peripheral vision.

Now he starts fussing with his suitcase, then sits back, then reaches into, and pulls something out of, the pocket of his jacket. It’s a small, green box. He holds it in his left hand, then slowly brings it around in front of him, a slow motion underhanded softball pitch, so that the green box is lying in his open palm now facing toward me. It’s a camera – one of those disposable ones in a cardboard box. Pointing at me. He gives me a good look, repositions the camera, gives me another good look, presses the button. He pulls his arm back in, puts the camera back in his pocket, then gives an emphatic headshake, half to me, half to the universe, as if to say “There!”

The driver lets him off just south of Gibson. He sets his suitcase down on the sidewalk and starts looking around as he’d done up at the Yale stop and on the bus, getting his bearings. Then he looks at me through the window. He holds my gaze with an absolutely undecipherable expression until the bus carries me out of sight.


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