Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bus Ride to Springfield

I took the bus to Springfield, Massachusetts this week. Over the last decade I've become good at traveling by bus. In this context "good" means that I deliberately project enough bad vibes that no one chooses to sit next to me, but not so much that my aura of hostility provokes an open conflict. On this trip my skills failed me.

He came lumbering down the aisle, an Ignacious Reilly type, replete with the hunter's cap and lunch crumbs on his coat. He clutched a plastic Hudson News bag full of papers, magazines and paperback books. I looked up and saw him coming, then put my head down into my book. I tried to push out as much ill will as I could. My temples throbbed with anti-social energy. There were other empty seats on the bus, both ahead of me and behind me. When he stood in the aisle alongside my seat and asked me to move my bag I did what everyone would do. I pretended not to hear him.

"Is this seat taken?"

No reply. Noise cancelling headphones pouring music into my ears.

He tapped me on the shoulder.

"Huh?" I took the headphones off.

"Seat taken?"

"Oh, no. No, it's not."

I moved my bag beneath my seat. He dropped his sack of magazines on the floor and plopped down next to me. Then he said, "Thanks man. I appreciate it. Getting on the bus is like looking for a place to sit at lunch in junior high. You know, you look around the cafeteria and none of your friends are there. So you wander with your tray and your little plastic cup of apple crisp and all you really want to do is find a place to sit so you can eat it first afterall your mom isn't there but no one really wants you to sit with them and you get kinda sad and mad at the same time until finally you just sit down. That's what riding the bus is like."

"I guess that's why most people drive their own cars these days."

"No shit huh."

I'm past the age where a little screed like the one he gave necessarily pulls at my heartstrings. It's the bum's stock and trade. The powerful oral history of empathy. Look, I'm just like you, it says, but different. This guy wasn't begging money off me. But by the smell of him, he might. I put my headphones back on and buried my nose back in my book.

He tapped me on the shoulder again. I took off the headphones.

"You from Mass?"

"Yeah, yeah I am."

"No shit. Me too."

Go figure. Two people from Massachusetts on a bus bound for Massachusetts.

"What town are you from? Springfield?"

"No, North Attleboro."

"You gotta be fuckin shittin me."

"Why, are you from that area?"

"I grew up in North Attleboro."

I studied his face for a second. North Attleboro is a relatively small town. He looked faintly familiar, but everyone reminds me of someone these days. I couldn't tell how old he was, by looking at him he could be either a 29 year-old who abused his body horribly and was cursed with bad genes or he could have been a 43 year-old merely cursed with bad genes.

Before I could say anything he asked the next question. "Did you go to the high school?"


"When did you graduate?"


"Me too."

One hundred and ninety-one other kids graduated with me in 1990. Don't ask me why I remember the exact number, but I do. That's not a lot of people. I know people who have this many "friends" listed on their myspace pages. I can't say that I could list everyone in my graduating class, but I think I'd recognize them all if they sat next to me on the bus. I didn't believe him. But what could I say? I don't believe you? Nu-uh. Even "I don't remember you" might be offensive to him. If he did go to North, had I been one of the kids who shunned him in the cafeteria? The bus hadn't even reached the Lincoln tunnel yet. I didn't want to spend the entire ride worried that I pissed the dude off. And maybe he did go to North High. So I feigned enthusiasm. "No way!" I said.

"Yeah. Yeah. Class of 1990."

"What's your name?"

"Brian." Great. Not a lot of traction there. Half the boys in school were named Brian.

"Brian what?"

"Rousseau." Awesome. Half the kids in school were French Canadian too.

"Are you related to Sarah Rousseau?" I said.

"My cousin." He said it flatly. He took an asthma inhaler from his shirt pocket and drew a hit off it.

"That's cool. What's she doing these days?"

He let the asthma medicine out slow, through clenched teeth, like he would if he had been trying to hold in a hit of weed. "I dunno. I been living in Jersey for the last few years."

He hadn't asked my name yet. I didn't offer it. He reached down into the Hudson News bag and came up with a copy of U.S. News and World Reports. He opened the magazine, gestured with it as if to say, "chat time is over now" and began reading. I started reading my book again.

We didn't talk for the rest of the ride. I wondered why he didn't ask anything about me, but I didn't want to talk myself, so I didn't volunteer any information.

As we pulled into the Springfield bus terminal he gathered up his magazines and stuffed them bag into the plastic bag. He stood up to leave the bus and I followed him. As we walked down the aisle, he turned to me and said, "Well it was nice meeting you. But I gotta tell you, you don't look familiar at all. Are you sure you went to North Attleboro High?"

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