We sit silently together for an hour every day, each of us pretending to be engrossed in the iPod/the book/ the computer/the knitting/the cell phone/the journal we brought to entertain us for the duration of the bus ride — the diversionary tool whose real purpose is to prevent others from speaking to us. We never make eye contact with each other, except (in apologetic embarrassment) when the bus driver stops so abruptly that each of us ends up in the lap of the person sitting next to us, or (in sweaty commiseration) when the bus driver sees fit to blast the heater in spite of the 80-degree weather outside. Or when we catch someone watching us with our diversionary tool a little too intently so we respond by smiling at them without showing our teeth. Showing teeth is a sign of aggression, so we opt for a tight-lipped, toothless smile — universal sign of passive aggression. We know these people by heart, have memorized these dozens of faces: the Asian Hemingway, the pink-haired lesbian, the lady-with-springs-in-her-shoes, the angry vegan guy, the girl who knits socks. We come to know their schedules, and we wonder about them when they are missing, or when we see them on a different bus than our usual because we overslept or worked late. We love these real-life caricatures because we know them so well, and when one disappears, we miss their presence in our day.
Still, we do everything we can to avoid speaking to each other. We work on the same campus, perhaps in the same building, but still we do not speak. We see them at lunch on campus or at the grocery store in our neighborhoods and pretend not to recognize them — we see the recognition in each other’s eyes, and we know that they, too, are consciously resisting the instinct to say hello. Quickly we each divert our eyes, so as not to risk making a new friend. And if we should happen, on the bus, to meet someone we know in real life, we cordially say hello, and make an effort to say as few words as possible for the duration of the commute, sitting at opposite ends of the bus and focusing more than necessary on our packaged diversions.
A sick man in a hospital gown is wandering the hospital grounds on a hot November morning. His balding head surrounded by long, greasy, dark hair; he has not bathed in many days and is covered in his sickness. His gown is clean and open in the back as hospital gowns generally do. It is sharing with all those in proximity a view of his white cotton boxer shorts (thank heaven he is wearing boxer shorts). His walk is laden with pain, and it is clear that he doesn’t care that the world can see his boxer shorts; he is busy worrying about how he is going to overcome the agonizing pain and about the morphine and the Vicodin that are not quite helping him cross the next few dozen feet to the hospital entrance and back to his shared room where he can close a pale green curtain and pretend that he is not alone; that someone is there beside his sick bed, praying for his recovery.
Any day of any week, a prison inmate in his orange jumpsuit is dripping blood from his stab wounds onto the wheelchair, to which he is handcuffed, and onto the sidewalk below. Tired-looking sheriffs (you can hear their eyes rolling; they know the stabbing was just a ploy for an early-morning field trip) accompany the softly smiling inmate, who is happy to be on “the outside,” if only for a few hours. And hospitals are fascinating places. They know this because in prison they watch ER and Scrubs and House and Grey’s Anatomy.
Ronnie sighs loudly as I sit down next to him on the bus on a Friday morning in March. His shoes are shiny black-and-white leather, not brand-new, but as though they have been recently and carefully polished. I accidentally sit on the corner of his leather jacket, as is wont to happen on a crowded bus, and apologize as he pulls it out from under my thigh. I tell him that I like his shoes, and the three people nearest to us all turn to stare at his feet and remark on how new they look. They are over a year old, he says, but he has a lot of shoes, and he clearly takes good care of them. As soon as the gawkers have returned to their computering or iPodding or reading, Ronnie whispers to me, “I’ve got the cancer in my liver,” and he complains of thirst and hunger. He is going in for a battery of tests — no food or drink after 11 p.m. last night, not even a sip of water. He tells me that all he wants is coffee, bacon, eggs. He has the cancer in his liver, and this is all he wants. “I hope the prognosis is good,” I tell him somewhat awkwardly (what does one say when a stranger has confessed that he may be dying?). “It’s not,” he says, and quotes Confucius that “we should live each day as though it were our last and learn each day as though we were to live forever.”
Title: Sanctimony | Address: sanctimony.net
Author: Helena Bristow | Blogging from: Mission Hills | Blogging since: 2002
Post date: November 19, 2007 | Post title: Snapshots from My Commute