Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Strangers on the Bus

The ride was going so well, until he mentioned dumpster diving.

As a rule, I typically avoid talking to people on buses. Short-distance riders, long-distance riders—they (or do I mean we?) are a relatively creepy lot, and I figure I am better off keeping to myself rather than engaging in a potentially awkward conversation with a fur-coat-clad woman carrying three trash bags or a 6’4” black man whose earphones—which are not even in his ears but, rather, dangle limply around his neck—are playing rap music so loud, it’s audible at the front of the bus.

That I keep my distance assumes, of course, that these individuals do not try to strike up a conversation with me. I am not one to be rude, after all; I don’t like to snub people. Therefore, if someone initiates conversation, I will respond. This does not mean I will attempt to further the conversation, but there is no reason to ignore a perfect stranger just because they are collectively a member of bus-riding weirdos. After all, I take the bus. (It fits my budget!)

So because my general rule is to avoid talking to strangers on the bus, I was slightly comforted when, after making a joking comment about the driver’s announcement that our bus would be “running express” and “would only stop for ‘number two,’” the passanger in the seat next to me commented that he had never spoken to a fellow bus seatmate of his own volition before. A kindred spirit, I thought, as he recounted his last bus ride stuck beside a fifty-year-old woman who held him in captive interrogation for the entire five hours. We’ll get along.

And we did. I found out that he went to school in Connecticut—he was in his final semester studying Psychology, although he had tried out English and History before finally settling on Psych. He asked me what I had done while staying in DC and told me all about the various museums he had visited and music performances he had seen. It seemed like a pleasant enough conversation, and I was enjoying it in a detached sort of way (although I did kind of want to finish the novel I had in my bag, since I was in the last few chapters, with only twenty pages to go). However, I figured I had a full five hours to read my last twenty pages. One hour of chatting would simply help to pass the time.

My first clue that something was a bit “off” occurred when Chris (that was his name) asked me what I had done in DC for the second time. When he asked, I assumed he meant to imply the word “else”: “What else have you done during your stay in DC?” However, when I started to quickly rehash what I had already told him, merely for context, he leapt at the information like it was a new avenue of conversation. “Oh the Eastern Market!” he exclaimed. “I love that place! I bought a pound of coffee there.” When I had told him about going to the market earlier, we had had a discussion about how both of us had gone to see the Crepe Man, and he had wanted to know if I had bought anything interesting. He hadn’t mentioned buying coffee, but I suddenly feared that if I mentioned crepes, he would start telling me, “Oh! I had one of those! I love that guy!”

His next slightly odd comment was $25 for a show was “five times too expensive for his budget.” We were talking about things to do in NYC, and he was expounding on the “culture available” and “for so cheap.” “I guess there’s stuff up at my school,” he said, “but it’s always to expensive. Tickets are, like, $25. Five times over my budget limit, that’s for sure.” Okay, I thought, so maybe he’s just a poor college student. Maybe I used to think that $25 was a lot for entertainment back when I was in college, too. I don’t remember. It would probably depend what show.

After showing me a pamphlet from an avant-garde art museum he had visited, which featured disturbing, somewhat creepy art by Louis Bourgeois, he asked if I had ever heard of some sort of soup-kitchen-type organization called “Meals not Bums.” (Or something like that. I’m pretty sure the name used alliteration, but I cannot remember what he called it.) I hadn’t, which surprised him. “They must have a group in Queens,” he kept saying. Apparently this group takes excess food from restaurants and stores and redistributes it to “whoever wants it.” Unsurprisingly, this demographic usually consists of homeless people.

“But you can’t use stuff from places like Panera,” I pointed out. “They’re too worried about getting sued.”

“No no,” he assured me, “we just get our stuff from mom-and-pop places. Buffets, stuff like that.” He paused. “But I’ve definitely taken sandwiches out of the Starbucks dumpster. That stuff is good.”

Now I began to look longingly at the book in my lap. Who the heck was I sitting next to? Why do I innately want to believe people are normal and kind? Of course, he did volunteer for this organization, so he probably was at least kind….

“Life just sucks,” he told me a little while later, after he had elaborated upon his plan to marry the girl he had just visited in DC. They had broken up two years earlier, this girl was about to join the Peace Corps in Africa, and they intended to marry each other in 2012 if neither found another suitable partner. “I can’t get married before I’m 24,” was his reasoning. However, following the “life just sucks” comment, he asked, “Have you ever been arrested?”

I told him no.

“Me neither,” he said. “But I watched my friend get arrested. It sucked.” When I didn’t respond, he continued, “It was so stupid. He was just at this Wal-Mart and tried to return a garden hose off the shelf. A f***ing garden hose! It was, like, twelve dollars.” Chris shakes his head. “So stupid.”

“Why did he try to return a garden hose?” I was a little confused.

Chris looked at me like I was a moron. “Because it was on the receipt.”

“But if he got the hose off the shelf, where’d he get the receipt?”

“He found it on the floor.” Chris suddenly leaned back with a smile of pride. “We made good money this one time; we returned this flower pot. Forty-five dollars! It was so sweet.”

We? This guy not only ate out of dumpsters, he scrounged shopping lots for discarded receipts and stole merchandise! I clutched my bag more tightly between my legs.

“That’s really wrong,” I told him. He shrugged, and I suddenly had a flashback to my favorite movie as a little kid: the cartoon version of Robin Hood, with the fox that plays Robin Hood and bear that plays Little John. Was this nothing more than a small-scale modern-day version of that story? Rob from the rich (corporations), give to the poor (college students)…. But of course, this guy isn’t giving away anything. And he’s really just stealing from everybody. After all, who manufactured that garden hose and threw that clay flower pot? Probably some underpaid child laborer in Taiwan. And now here’s this oh-so-cool hippie-esque college guy thinking he’s entitled to a free ride in life while the rest of America loses their jobs….

I feigned being asleep for the rest of the bus ride. (With my bag clamped between my legs.) So much for finishing my book, but some sacrifices just have to be made for a little peace of mind. Maybe this will teach me not to talk to strangers on the bus.


Daniel said...

was he baked?

agoldste said...

I didn't think so at first, but when he told me he played for a band called Iced Cocks and that they didn't play any actual instruments.... I reconsidered.

Gordon said...

In the past several years, I've gotten quite a lot of mileage, so to speak, out of engaging my fellow bus (and sometimes subway) passengers in conversation. I don't think I'd try it in New York City, of course, but the main trick to doing it well is simply to be a regular. If you have a bus that you're on day in, day out, at the same time, between the same points, chances are that one or more other bus passengers have enough in common with you (live in similar neighborhoods, going to similar jobs, &c.) that they can be pretty painless to get to know.