Sunday, February 17, 2008


BUS STORY # 72, Part 1 (Freedom Flies)


It’s dark and cold at the intersection of Wyoming and Lomas where four of us are waiting for the Lomas bus and the ride home. We’re scattered along the sidewalk, separate from one another, gloved fingers tucked under armpits, mufflers pulled over mouths, rocking to keep in touch with our toes. One of the riders moves to the bus stop sign and tries to make out the schedule in the wan, yellowish glow of the streetlight. Good luck, I think to myself.

He is standing there, rocking and studying, when he breaks out in quiet song. It’s a Native American song, a chant. All it needs is a drum. He stands in front of the bus schedule rocking and chanting. In the middle of this musical foreign language stream, the English word “freedom” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Surely I’ve imagined it. Or misheard English where the foreign sound randomly approximated it. A short while later, I hear it again, and this time I hear “freedom flies.” Maybe he’s singing “freedom fries,” I think to myself. Then I decide my hat isn’t doing enough to keep my brain from freezing up.

He rocks and chants. Maybe he’s praying for the bus to come. It’s cold, but it’s the wind that hurts. As if reading my mind, he turns toward me and says, “It’s cold out here.”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“Couple of people froze to death last night.”

I had not heard that, and I tell him so.

“One down in the South Valley, one behind the Desert Sands.”

The Desert Sands is a motel on Central, just west of San Mateo. It’s on the bus route.

“Exposure,” he continues. “It was alcohol. Those guys get drunk, then fall asleep out in the open.”

I nod, in the way one nods when one is done listening because the conversation has moved past the routine ritual of polite acknowledgment. It doesn’t work.

“The alcohol makes them feel warm. They don’t plan ahead, just fall asleep anywhere. Most of the time you can get away with it, but not when it’s cold like this.”

He pauses, then tells me how he knows all about this stuff. He’s been there.

He’s binged on and off for 20 years now, he tells me. Binges and being out on the street go together, he tells me. But he’s never been stupid about being on the street. He keeps a sleeping bag in a storage locker. When it gets cold, he sleeps in the locker. He can always find someone with a motel room who’ll let him use the shower.

The longest he’s gone between binges is two years. The last binge happened after he and his wife had a fight. He said he’d show her, and hit the street and the bottle. A few days later, he was arrested and spent four days in jail. When he got out, his wife took him back. That was – he starts figuring from the jail date – whaddaya know? – six months ago today.

“So you haven’t had a drink in six months now?”

“Oh, no, I usually have a beer or two after work. It’s the binge drinking and being out on the street I have a problem with.”

I chew on this one a while before asking him if he’s getting any help.

He goes to the AA meetings. He tells me some of the guys go to the meetings and complain it doesn’t work, it’s all a bunch of BS. “It’s because they don’t want it to work,” he tells me. “I tell them it’s not the alcohol that’s bad, it’s how they choose to use it.”

He goes on to explain how alcohol is just like water: it’s good or bad depending on how it’s used. “The body needs water to stay moist. So drinking water is good. But when there’s a hurricane and flooding, well, water’s bad. It all depends on how it’s used.” Hard to refute that logic, I think to myself.

The bus arrives, none to soon. I take a seat, and my co-rider takes a seat across the aisle and one row up. He swings his left leg up on the seat beside him and turns back toward me and tells me how the other thing that helps him a lot is his religion.

I settle in for the rest of the story.

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