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.

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