Last night, after the 10,000 Maniacs concert (thank you, Beth), I waited about 20 minutes on the bus at Sixth Avenue. After it pulled up and I boarded and sat in the last single seat on the side. A man wearing a black leather jacket and a black watch cap got on after me. He was grizzled, wearing sunglasses, and using a walker.
“Hey man.” His voice was loud and deep, his tongue twisting in and out between prominent, large teeth. Although he seemed a bit impaired, he was not incoherent.
“Hi.” I replied.
“I been lost all day down here. Glad to be on the bus home.”
“Lost? Are you sure you’re on the right bus?”
“Yeah. The five take me up to my apartment.”
“Well, as long as you’re sure. It’s no fun being lost.” Yeah. I know. I’m effing Pollyanna sometimes, but someone has to do it.
“I couldn’t find that employment place and I went from Battery Park all the way up to Canal.”
“The unemployment place? It was on Vandam, but I think part of that program was discontinued or shut down.”
“Vandam! That was it! I never even went past there!”
“Well, it wouldn’t have done you much good now anyway. It’s 11 at night. Good thing you’re going home.”
He held out his hand for me to shake. It was so dark, almost the darkest hand I had ever seen. His palm was warm, dry, and calloused. After we shook hands he launched into a very long story. He talked and talked. He told me about his family when he was a teenager. They seemed to be a physically violent family, but as he told his tale, it didn’t seem to be something that bothered him so much as he expected it.
He started working at the Beacon Theater many years ago preparing seat backs. He had been a security guard at the Naval Yard, and had ended up back at the Beacon where he ended his career. He launched into visceral detail about a terrible infection he had that had put him into intensive care, then a long hospital stay, then a rehab stint to help him become mobile again. His mother passed away (at 99, it seems, after climbing six flights of stairs) while he was out. Then he got even stranger.
To my surprise he told a ghost story. He heard his mother calling him while he was in his bed in rehab. By the time he got home, she had passed away, and though she was gone, she still slapped the back of his head as she liked to do in life.
“It’s nice to know my mama’s there.” His voice had gotten thick and soft.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. And I’m glad to know you’ve got some comfort. Hey, this is my stop.” The bus had traveled from Soho all the way up to the Upper West Side.
The man took off his sunglasses. He was crying. “Thank you for listening to me. I don’t know why I told you all of that, but I feel better.”
“Any time. Happy to lend an ear.” I smiled and waved at him. As the bus pulled away, I looked back at him through the window. A small woman who was not on the bus when I got off was slapping him on the back of the head.