Sunday, August 31, 2008

BUS STORY # 97 (Freshman)

He’s definitely high school. Even without the clothes, you can tell from the body language. I’m guessing freshman.

He’s got a burr with white walls high and wide. Not a military cut. No cap.

No cap.

He’s wearing a black nylon T-shirt that looks dark, dark blue when the sunlight hits it through the window. He’s wearing big and baggy and brand new dark blue jeans. White, white shoes poke out from under the denim bunched up around his ankles. The shoes have 2 gold stripes each, one running from the big toe along the inside of the shoe, one from the little toe along the outside. He’s got a pendant, but it’s small and dark and my eyes can’t make it out.

He’s sitting in the two-seater bench facing the aisle in the flex part of the bus. Across from him are two girls (definitely high school) who are carrying on with each other and with a guy further back in the bus and not at all with our guy sitting right there across from them. They don’t give him a look. When they get off, he waits till they’re out the door, then quickly shoots across the aisle and sits where they were sitting.

Between stops, he stands up and pulls his shirt up just above the waist. His jeans are riding several inches below dark plaid boxers. He looks it all over, adjusts and readjusts the jeans until he’s satisfied with how the boxers display. Then he reaches under his shirt and pulls down the bottom of a white undershirt. He pulls this down over the top of the jeans. Then he adjusts the bottom of his black T-shirt so that just the right amount of white is showing below the black. He surveys himself for a minute or so after each adjustment.

When he sits back down, he pulls a lighter out of his pocket. It’s one of those red plastic butane jobs. He palms it, looks up and down the aisle, then leans forward like he’s gonna tie his shoe laces. He flicks the lighter, shielding it from the driver’s view with his hands. Then he starts burning the cuffs of his jeans. He works quickly, in short bursts. I have no idea what he is doing. My best guess is he’s burning off loose threads.

He hurriedly finishes, and slips the lighter back in his pocket. And that turns out to be the end of the show. He has no books, no book bag, no backpack, but he’s now ready for school. I leave him there on the bus two stops later.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

BUS STORY # 96, Part 2 (PTSD)

I’m in the back of the northbound San Mateo bus. I’ve just sat down next to the guy who started telling me about his PTSD at the bus stop. I’m not sure if he wants to keep talking about it or not. Maybe the separation during the boarding process gave him second thoughts about being so open. Maybe it was just the stress caused by the revving of the Harley that got him to talking so freely. So I figure I’ll just sit there and keep quiet.

Right away, he thanks me for listening. He tells me people don’t always understand. He goes on: nobody even recognized this as a problem until after the war in Vietnam. So many vets came back with the same constellation of problems that it drew some attention. That’s when the condition got identified as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

I figure the guy’s in his 40s, and I’m trying to place him in the time frames of Vietnam and Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq. I’m not having much luck when he adds that it’s not just soldiers in combat who get it. It could be any traumatic experience. He pauses. I feel slightly disappointed when I realize I’m not gonna get a vet story here. Then I realize he’s having trouble talking about how he got it, and I feel ashamed of myself.

He says when stuff like this happens, he has a very strong urge to do something, do something about it, now . . . He says one of the things that helped back at the stop was that he could see none of the rest of us were upset. That helped him understand his reaction was abnormal, and it triggered him to access some "tools" to calm down.

The tools he’s referring to are strategies he's learned from therapy, the support group he belongs to, and pharmaceuticals. Regarding the last, he thinks a lot of the problems people being treated for PTSD are having is because they haven’t got the right meds or the right doses. As for therapy and the support group, he says it took a long time to learn to even recognize it when it was happening. Then it took another long time to learn how to use the tools effectively when he did recognize what was happening.

He explains you don’t get much lead time. Like this morning’s engine revving, it happens and you’re already in it. You have your immediate reactions, and you have to be aware enough to recognize them for what they are and start separating yourself from them. He says it’s hard every single time, that it doesn’t get easier with each success.

He’s not always successful. That has led to some problems. He alludes to a family lost, jobs lost, even to being on the street for a while. I ask him if not being successful is like falling off the wagon. “Do you just have to get up and start all over again?”

He tentatively accepts the analogy, but I can see there’s something about it that bothers him. He lets whatever it is pass. He does talk about what happens when he doesn’t succeed. You end up being pulled into a downward spiral. You think you can’t ever get to a place where you’ll be free of it. You think what’s the point in trying. You think nobody understands anyway. But he finishes by telling me he’s counting his blessings right now. It’s a beautiful day in a place he loves, he’s got a little efficiency all his own, he’s on his way to school . . . He makes it pretty clear he knows that where he is now – and where he’s not – is worth the effort.

He gets off a few stops before me. I thank him for the discussion and wish him good luck. Then I think about what an easy life I really have.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BUS STORY # 96, Part 1 (PTSD)

It’s mid-morning and I’m sitting on one of the two benches on the east side of San Mateo just south of Central. Both benches are full. We’re waiting for the northbound San Mateo and watching the traffic.

The red light catches a motorcycle in the traffic lane in front of our bench. The rider is an old scrawny guy, with a red bandanna around his head, shades, a scraggly gray beard, faded black T-shirt and blue jeans, and big old black boots. He’s got his wallet attached to a chain big enough to secure a pit bull. His Harley looks to be as old as he is. Were they even making Harleys back then?

Two young girls walking south look over at him.

“You got room for two on that thing?”

He looks at them, smiles. It’s a bit vague, that smile.

The girls wait for an answer, and we all realize along with them that somewhere between the engine idle and his old ears, he hasn’t heard any of what they said. I grin at the girls, but they’re already moving on.

They’re a good 10 yards down the street when he turns in his saddle and looks back. It’s almost as if he now senses what he missed. He stares back at them for several seconds, then turns back toward the intersection and guns the engine. It’s really loud. He does that two more times before the light changes. It’s really loud. And not necessary, I’m thinking as he drives off -- and he’s having to pull out slowly and therefore more quietly because of the traffic ahead of him. He’s cleared the intersection when the guy next to me says, “Did that get your PTSD going?”

“It was pretty loud,” I reply, still processing the PTSD part.

“It really set me off. I’m gonna be another 30 minutes getting my heart rate back to normal.”

I nod. It’s sinking in now. I look back over to him. We’re pretty much dressed alike: long sleeved white striped shirt, dark slacks. He’s carrying a briefcase. The two of us are the only ones on the bench dressed like this. He’s got sunglasses on (we all do), but I’d put him in his 40s.

“Was it the sound of the motorcycle engine?” I ask.

He explains it was simply the loud and unexpected noise. If he had seen it coming, he could have prepared himself and he would have been OK. But the guy’d been sitting there for a while, just letting the engine idle, and his mind had gone on to other things. He says again it was the loudness and the unexpectedness of the noise.

He’s getting ready to go on, but the bus pulls up. We board. I let him go ahead, watch him go to the back, then wrestle with whether or not to sit by him and see if he continues his story. For better or worse, I’m not even thinking of “Bus Stories.” I’m thinking I’ve never talked with anyone who says they have PTSD. And I’m thinking he looked like he wanted to talk. I’m also thinking of my first impulse which is almost always to avoid or flee interaction.

I go to the back and sit down beside him.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

BUS STORY # 95 (The DVD, Part 3/Shorts 7)

ABQ RIDE finally has the DVD running. This past Monday morning, I boarded one of the 700 series for work. As soon as I sat down, I saw the DVD screen was streaming color video. I moved to the front seat and watched all the way to Wyoming. The portion I saw was a series of promotions for city and county government services. Most features were short promos, roughly 20 seconds each, and top-heavy with ABQ RIDE spots. One of them said "Thanks for watching GOV TV." There were a few longer ones for APD, the KiMo Theatre, the Rio Grande Zoo (frolicking polar bears), the Rapid Ride (including one featuring Greg Payne I hadn’t seen before), and a very long and enticing series of water scenes from the Sasebo Japanese Garden at the Albuquerque BioPark. There was a soundtrack, but it was virtually inaudible. This is not a complaint! Besides, I didn’t need the sound to convince me to check out the Japanese Garden as soon as possible.


A man boards the No. 50 dragging an oxygen tank on wheels behind him. He’s an older guy in blue-gray sweats. A green plastic tube runs from the tank to under his nose. The bus is full, but a woman gets out of her front seat for him and stands in the back by the doors. He walks over to the seat, then turns and faces the rest of us. “Don’t smoke,” he tells us. It’s a cautionary message, of course, but I can’t tell from his delivery whether he means “this could happen to you” or “I don’t want some damn fool blowing us all to kingdom come.”


On the Central bus, a young guy boards with a five dollar bill in his hand. “You got change?” he asks the driver. The fare box is posted with an exact change only sign. The driver doesn’t have change. The rider turns to disembark. “Go on, you can pay it next time,” says the driver. The rider thanks him and moves down the aisle. “Pay it forward,” calls the driver. The rider stops and turns. “What?” “Pay it forward,” repeats the driver. The rider looks blank. “You know, pay it forward,” says the driver. “Right,” says the young guy, still looking blank as a post. “Right.”


My friend Paul tells me he took the Lomas bus to UNM the other day. He got a transfer, and, later, caught the eastbound Lomas bus back home. He showed the driver his pass as he boarded. The driver told him his pass wasn’t any good, it was a morning pass. Paul reached into his pants pockets and started fishing around for a dollar. The driver told him to never mind, go on, and then said, “Happy Birthday.” Paul took the seat just behind him, then poked his head around the partition and said, “It really is my birthday.” And it really was.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

BUS STORY # 94 (Ho Ho)

Folks have just boarded the outbound Rapid Ride at the station by Presbyterian Hospital. I hear this conversation begin behind me.

Girl: “Hey, Beto,* is that you?”

Guy: “Yeah. I’m ridin’ the bus.”

“Where you goin’?”

“I’m goin’ to beat up my ex’s new boyfriend at Ho Ho’s [a Chinese take-out on Central]. You oughta come.”

“When you gonna leave that girl alone?”

“Hey, she disrespected me, man. She disrespected me.”

“You disrespected yourself.”

“C’mon, Lee Ann.* You still got your video camera?”

“I left it at my dad’s house.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Nowhere near Ho Ho’s.”

“You oughta get your video camera and come to Ho Ho’s.”

“Yeah, I oughta get a movie of you gettin’ your ass kicked.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna kick my ass.”


The conversation continues in this vein until the bus pulls into the station at the Frontier. Ho Ho is a couple of blocks west.

“Hey, Lee Ann, you gonna come to Ho Ho’s with us?”

“Yeah, I wanna see this.”

The young couple in front of me is sitting in the seats facing the aisle. The girl has been looking past me and watching this conversation with raised, tattooed eyebrows. As folks in the back are exiting, she nudges the guy beside her. He’s sporting a baseball cap with a straight brim pointing semi-sideways. He’s been keeping his eyes to himself. “Hey, we oughta go to Ho Ho’s. C’mon.” The guy looks reluctant. “C’mon,” she urges again, and gets up, looking anxious about the door closing. He gets up and they exit. The bus heads for Nob Hill.


*Real name changed.