Sunday, December 28, 2008

BUS STORY # 113 (Big Fish)

He gets on the bus at Eubank. He’s a big guy, solid, no fat, six-two, maybe more. Big yellow work shoes, jeans, plaid shirt, baseball cap. He’s got glasses and a moustache. The moustache is light brown mixed with gray.

He’s carrying an open-top cardboard box. I can see the top of a yellow hard hat inside. When he sets it down on the seat, I hear the clink of bottles. He edges past the box and into the window seat.

He looks inside the box. Then he adjusts his cap. I see the edge of a gauze wrap when he makes the adjustment. The cap must not feel right yet because he continues to make adjustments. Finally, he takes the cap off and turns it backward.

When he takes off the cap, I can see his head is wrapped with several layers of gauze. When he puts the cap back on, the gauze disappears. The backwards fit seems to work. He turns his attention to the box.

He lifts a bottle partway out of the box by the neck. I can see it’s a fifth of Jim Beam. He lays it back down, gently. He pulls another bottle up and looks at it. It’s a blue bottle with “Skyy” in white letters. (I learn later this is an American vodka that is doing exceptionally well.) It’s Friday, I think to myself. He’s ready for the weekend.

When I look up from the blue bottle, he’s looking right at me. “Hi,” he says. It’s firm, direct.

“Hi. How are ya?”

“I’m a lot better now than I was last night.”

It’s like fishing. I know I’ve just had a hit, and there is probably a good-sized bus story at the end of this line. I give it a tug.

“So what happened last night?”

He tells me he was in the emergency room at UNMH. He’d been in a fight and got his head laid open. Blood everywhere. He went down to get it stitched up.

When he took a seat in the waiting room, the guy on his left said he’d been there 18 hours waiting to see a doctor. The guy on his right said he’d been waiting for 20.

“So I’m outa there. I ain’t got no 20 hours to sit around waiting. I figure it’ll heal itself back together.”

He says he’s always been healthy, never really thought about insurance, but after last night, he’s having second thoughts. And, without prompting, he tells me what happened.

“A friend of mine – well, he ain’t no friend of mine anymore – hit me with a pipe.”

It seems he and his friend and his friend’s wife were riding in his van. In a sequence I don’t quite understand and can’t quite imagine, he accidentally closed the door on his friend’s wife’s leg. She said “Ow.” Her husband hit him with a pipe. I’m guessing with some of that Jim Beam aboard, the dots connect.

“How long have you known each other?”

“A month and a half. I even put him up in my own house. Him and his wife and her two girls. I let ‘em sleep in my room. I let ‘em eat my groceries.”

You can hear the “can-you-believe-it” in his voice.

He goes back to the fight. When he got hit, he didn’t go down and he wasn’t knocked out. So his friend hit him again. All this did was make him mad. He could tell by the blood he was gonna have to go to the hospital, and he decided if he had to go, his friend was gonna have to go, too. So he fought back. Lots of detail about pounding and kicking and how beaten up his friend’s face looked when they both got to the hospital. I’m wondering, did they drive down together? And what was that conversation like?

But I’m at my stop now, and this is all the story I’m gonna reel in. Well, almost. As I stand up and head for the exit, he lifts the bottle of bourbon from the box.

“You need any Jim Beam?”

“No. No, thanks,” I reply. I’m out the door now.

But it’s got me wondering what exactly he’s doing with those bottles. Getting ready for the weekend? Deciding to get rid of the stuff after last night?

There’s always the one that got away.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

BUS STORY # 112 (Nice Kid)

They get off the Rapid Ride with me at Lomas. Two brothers for sure. The older looks to be 12, the younger 8. Something like that. Older brother has on a jacket and black cords. He’s walking a red bike. Little bro has a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head. He’s carrying a plastic shopping bag.

Big bro watches to be sure I push the correct crosswalk button. Then he turns his attention back to little bro. Little bro is laughing and swinging the grocery bag. He’s in high spirits. Big bro mounts his bike and twists the handles while we wait for the light to change.

Out in the crosswalk, little bro runs out ahead. He spins around midway and yells back at his brother, “I’m gonna beat you! I’m gonna beat you!” Big bro makes a move. Little bro takes off running. Big bro makes sure little bro wins the race.

We end up joining a group already waiting. The two brothers stay close. Little bro asks a lot of questions. He’s always laughing and kidding. Big bro always responds. He’s quiet, and he always looks at little bro when he answers.

Big bro takes out a pack of gum. He pulls out a stick and offers it to little bro. Little bro grabs it and laughs.

Another, younger boy standing nearby asks if he can have some gum, too. His mom calls out his name sharply. Big bro takes out a second piece and asks mom if it’s all right for him to give it to her son. She looks at the gum, looks at big bro. She can tell he’s a nice kid. She says sure. Big bro gives her son the gum.

“Say ‘thank you!’”

The kid says thank you.

Little bro starts teasing big bro. His face is pure mischief. Then he swings the plastic bag and whacks his brother on the shoulder. Not hard, but it’s a thwack. Big bro just shakes his head. Little bro laughs.

I’m thinking of the legendary family dog that lies there patiently enduring the little kids climbing all over him and pulling his ears and shouting in his face.

When the bus comes, they’re the last to board because big bro has to put his bike in the rack. Little bro is first in. He moves down the aisle, stops, turns, yells “C’mon!”

Once in the seat, they continue the same kind of exchange as at the bus stop. Little bro’s hood is off, now. He’s got a Mohawk. It goes perfectly with his mischievous face.

Big bro starts to reach for the pull cord, then tells little bro to go for it. By the back door, he has a way of standing over little bro that makes me think “guardian angel.” He pushes the door open over little bro’s head when the bus has stopped.

As we pull away, I last see big bro walking down the sidewalk with his bike on his right and little bro on his left. “Nice kid,” I say to myself. I start to add “They don’t make kids like that anymore,” but, obviously, they do.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

BUS STORY # 111 (Hit-And-Run)

I’m standing behind him in the shade cast by the shelter, reading. I really don’t notice him or the woman until he turns to her and starts telling her his story. No preamble, no opening gambit, certainly no invitation. He just turns and starts talking.

He’s a tall, trim guy with red, Lyle Lovett hair and a neat goatee. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans.

She’s a substantial woman in a yellow blouse and an orange, patterned, full skirt, and when he turns to tell her his story, her face and body language make it perfectly clear she’s not interested in hearing it. This does not deter him.

He explains he was on Broadway, waiting for the bus. He was standing at the edge of the curb watching the bus heading for his stop.

There was a large panel truck in front of the bus. He saw almost too late the large, extended side view mirror on the passenger side, the curb side, of the truck.

He raised his left arm reflexively. The mirror hit his arm full force. It threw him forward and spun him around at the same time, so that he pitched into the side of the truck, bounced off, fell the length of the sidewalk, and rolled into the street.

I notice the woman has changed her demeanor. Earlier, I thought she was getting ready to get up and leave. Now, she’s turned toward him a bit and is listening up.

He heard the squeal of brakes and saw the bus shudder to a stop in front of him. He was dazed, but able to get up. That’s when he realized the truck had hit him and had kept on going. He was feeling too angry to feel any pain. That would come later.

He stepped back on the sidewalk, went to the front door of the bus, and climbed aboard. When he reached the fare box, he asked the driver did he see what just happened? Before the bus driver answered, a rider in the front seat asked him a question.

Before he tells the woman (and the rest of us listening) what this rider asked him, his hands go to a small, silver cross he’s wearing on a silver chain around his neck. He extends the cross toward the woman, as far as the chain allows. Then, in a voice cranked with withering outrage, he tells us what the rider asked him:

“How much for the cross, bro?”

Sunday, December 07, 2008

BUS STORY # 110 (Wanna Be A Baller)

I’m on my way home, laptop case on my lap, New Yorker opened on top the case, absorbed in an article about something I no longer recall. So I’m not really aware of the guy who sits down beside me until he leans over and says with last night beer breath, “You gettin’ off work?”

This is how this bus story begins.

I’m coming to the hard realization that, more and more, I have to make a choice when I’m riding the bus: read things I really want to read and often don’t have time to read anywhere else, or watch what’s going on around me – which, of course, is where the bus stories come from.

I’ve missed some stories. I’ve looked up too late, in the middle of something whose playing out never lets me in on how it all began, or what it’s really all about. And I’ve gotten a few stories only because somebody imposed himself on my reading. Like this guy sitting beside me.

“Yeah. How about you?”

He’s been up since six. He bets I was still sleeping.

Actually, I was up at five.

He’s impressed because I put in, what, a 13-hour day?

Well, more like ten when you count travel time.

“I’ll bet you’re a baller,” he says, grinning.

I’m not sure I’ve heard him right.

“A baller. You know, a pin-up.”

This is the first time I really look at him. He’s a young guy, round, pleasant, open face, big grin, with a white baseball cap whose curved bill finishes the circle of this face. Big guy. He’s wearing a jersey, the cherry and silver of the University of New Mexico Lobos. He’s got on jeans cut off below the knees in what I would describe as “Capri’s” if they were on a woman. They’re spattered with white paint, or maybe plaster.

It’s also the first time I start thinking about what might be going on here. “Baller” and “pin-up” have connotations that, applied to me, make it pretty obvious just how badly alcohol can warp a person’s perception of reality.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I tell him.

He explains he bets I have a lot of money stashed away.

I explain that, if I did, I wouldn’t be working a ten-hour day and riding home on the bus.

He laughs. He tells me he’s got money, too. Then he adds he still has to work, though.

I ask him what he does.

Today, he did stucco work. Yesterday, he was panhandling when a cousin drove by and asked him if he wanted to work. “Sure beats asking for spare change on the street.” But it was hard work. He’d been drinking all night and was hung over all day, but he still laid it down right.

I tell him I’m way beyond being able to drink hard and go to work the next day. He laughs and says he’s young, he’s up to it. He can drink for four days straight and still put in a day’s work. Then he has to go somewhere and get some healing time in.

He hates having to work. He wants to make a lot of money and retire. Win the lottery. Something like that. He says he’s thinking about selling drugs. The work’s easy, the money’s good.

I’m speechless. But not unresponsive. He’s already started to answer when I realize I’m giving him that over-the-glasses look.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with selling if your family is starving. You gotta put your family first, man.

Does he have a family?

No, he’s too young to be getting cramped up like that. He explains instead there’s lots of different addictions out there besides drugs. That’s a non sequitur I can’t follow.

It also pretty much ends the conversation. He gets off after a couple more stops.

Later, I will google “baller” and discover several variations of the opening lines of a recent hit, “Wanna Be A Baller,” by a rapper named ‘Lil’ Troy.

Wanna be a baller shot caller twenty inch blades on the Impala call her gettin’ laid tonight swisher rolled tight sprayed with ice I hit the highway making money the fly way but there’s got to be a better way a better way better way yeah.
Part of me is thinking about the fly way of making money. Yes, I have a problem with folks like my co-rider who don’t have a problem with selling drugs to make money. But I’m also thinking my co-rider’s values are little more than the trickle down ethics from the movers and shakers of American business, government and culture.

Then there’s the other part of me that’s thinking about those 20-inch blades on the bus. I’m thinking a baller like me oughta be gettin’ Greg Payne to pimp my ABQ RIDE.