Sunday, June 08, 2008


BUS STORY # 86 (What Is Wrong With This Picture?)

"ge·stalt or Ge·stalt (gə-shtält', -shtôlt', -stält', -stôlt') n. pl. ge·stalts or Ge·stalts or ge·stalt·en or Ge·stalt·en (-shtält'n, -shtôlt'n, -stält'n, -stôlt'n) A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts." – The American Heritage Dictionary

I’m on my way to work, but on a later bus than usual. Like my regular bus, it’s crowded, but we’re all sitting today. I found a spot up on the platform at the back. I’m at one end of the U-shape seating filled by four other guys. They’re in the middle of a conversation.

The guy in the middle is dressed in a patterned jacket, khakis, and yellow-brown work boots. He’s got one leg crossed over the other knee, both arms spread out over the back of the seating, and he’s holding forth. It’s a simple yet eloquent account of how he’d spent last evening just sitting on his front porch and listening to the sounds of his neighborhood. He says he went to bed around eleven and slept like a baby. The others remark on the unusual lateness of his bedtime. They seem to know one another well.

Another says he read last night. He starts to summarize an article about some sort of behavioral conditioning experiment, but the details of the test and its significance get lost in the banter and laughter that interrupt the story.

One of the guys responds he just needs television to put him to sleep. More laughter and banter about the poverty of weeknight television programming.

I’m watching and listening, but I’m distracted, too. This particular stream of conversation doesn’t seem to belong to the four guys I see sitting here with me. It’s the classic “What is wrong with this picture?”

All four guys are middle-aged. They look clean and neat, combed and shaved.

I look at their clothes. The guy sitting beside me is wearing a black nylon windbreaker and new jeans. The two guys sitting across from us look more nondescript. Dark trousers, long-sleeve sports shirts. Not wrinkled, but not crisp, either. I look for fraying at the collars and cuffs and don’t find anything. Still, there’s a tiredness to their clothes I can’t quite put my finger on. One guy’s shoes look a bit worse for the wear.

I’m trying to imagine where they might work. The guy sitting across from me smiles, revealing a jumble of misaligned and discolored teeth. He’s wearing old-style black plastic frame glasses, and his hair is combed like the 1950s without the ducktails.

I’m having trouble getting a reading here. I sense an underlying seediness but I can’t get past the conflicting signals.

The guy in the khakis suggests what this morning needs is a round of Mimosas. The guy across from me wrinkles his face.

“Why not?”

“Too early,” he replies.

This provokes a discussion in which the rules of etiquette for having a Mimosa are hammered out: it is a brunch drink rather than a breakfast drink (meaning it is indeed too early). Further, it is agreed that brunch is a weekend meal. (An argument for brunch being an exclusively Sunday meal does not prevail.) Meaning: not only is it too early, it’s also the wrong day.

We stop just past the intersection with Avenida Cesar Chavez and three of the guys get up to leave. No one says anything to the fourth guy, and he doesn’t say anything, either. After the doors close, he says to me, “Those guys are gonna spend the rest of the day drinking. Must be nice.”

“How do you know?”

“I ride with them every morning. It’s their routine. They eat breakfast at the shelter, then they head out for the cemetery. One of those guys actually works for the shelter.”

“Which shelter?” I ask.

“I don’t know. It’s downtown somewhere.”

The guy I’m talking with is the guy in the windbreaker and new jeans. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember him taking part in the conversations. He’s been sitting right next to me, too. Maybe I’m retrofitting my memory based on the discovery he isn’t part of the group.

I’m also thinking how his clothes look different from the others’ – sharper, newer, something – it’s hard to describe, exactly. But again, I’m wondering if I picked up on this before or after the stop.

But there’s still something wrong with this picture. All the pieces don't fit the way I expect them to. Maybe there’s something wrong with my picture.

Through the window, I can see the three guys crossing the street behind the bus toward the southwest corner of the cemetery. The real stories here are beyond my grasp.

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