Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Man on the Bus

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I can't help but stare. As I wait in line for my bus, he shuffled past and asks the lady first in line if she minds if he cuts in. She nods ok, and he gratefully positions himself in front, his vivid blue hair peeping out from under his greasy cap. Like ancient leather, his face tells the tale of a harsh life tainted by constant drug use, while self-neglect and anger are written in the hollows of his cheeks and a scraggly beard tufting out from his chin is a sharp contrast to the Bahamas blue on his head. He looks like the kind of man who wanders the streets, muttering to himself while greedily burning tax payer's wages into cigarette smoke. I quickly turn my eyes away, as feelings of pity and slight horror rush over me, but mostly because I remember that day when I was a tender child on the way home from church. Out of my car window, I watched two policemen struggle to pull a man across the hot tarmac towards the station, his wiry arms shackled behind his back. A child never forgets their first brush with the cruelness of the real world, and the drug-torn figure in front of me is an uncomfortable reminder of a memory I thought long crushed into silence.

We board the bus, and I resolve to try and hide myself in a deep corner of carpeted chair, safe in my biases and ink free skin - but fate has other ideas and he is sitting diagonally in front of me. Perfectly in my line of sight. Now, with nothing left but music to play and quiet contemplation, I find my eyes wandering over his strange, dark clothing choices. He really is the epitome of the man that our parents would tell us never to talk to. His skin is tattooed in random places, with the blurred pen of the inexperienced, and his right lower arm is completely encased in a studded leather cuff, while grease and grime seem to be slowly glossing over his pores. If cruelty could be expressed in clothing choices, it would be screaming it's heart out through the leather clad rags he is dressed in and the dark glasses covering his eyes.

The bus pulls off and rumbles down the highway. And every now and then I get a mutter of the complaining rumble of his voice cracking over the volume of my light pop ballades that sing of a world so very different to the earthy reality around me. He's half talking to the bus driver and half talking to himself. At one point, his phone is called by an insurance company trying to market a policy to him, and he spends the next five minutes abusing them to the indiferent  bus driver.

We reach the next town and pull into the stop. Standing at the front of the line is Lucy*, who I see riding the buses all the time. She's obviously stuck with the boundaries of her assumed social class, but always has a smile on her face. Her teeth are narrow yet wide and point slightly out above her lower lip, while her dark blonde blonde hair is unimaginatively styled in its' regular long wispy cut. She drags her comfortable body up the coach stairs and greets the driver cheerfully, before easing her flannel shirted frame into the seat in front of me, right across from the ocean-haired man.

They obviously know one another. He greets her by name and she returns likewise, and I am strangely sorry that I missed his name. Conversation springs up easily between them all, flowing, comfortable. They know how to talk and be friends and care. I switch off my music but keep the headphones in as I absorb every word.

He shows her his new electric guitar which he has been clasping to himself ever since he boarded the bus. It's a surprising shade of red, and they both exclaim over the price, even though he proudly states he was able to find it second hand. He's clearly excited to take it home and place it with his other instruments, and spends a long time elaborating on how it feels to play it, while Lucy listens and admires patiently.

 They ask after one another's health. Like they mean it, but like it is an important everyday factor, making up the small pieces of their lives. There is no point in asking about work, family or holidays, no point in asking about things that they don't have. There's an invisible social compass, constraint, that keeps their questions simply and general. Lucy knows it well. But the ocean haired man begins to stray.

"You never married, did you?" he asks. It's an innocent enough comment, something that has simply arisen in their conversation, a piece of thought debris caught in this section of his mind's river. They were talking about his child and this was the next logical step. But she uncomfortably shakes her head 'no' and does not venture any comment. "Never interested, eh?" he follows up, jumping to conclusions that I as another woman, can immediately tell are wrong by simply looking at the back of her head. Lucy mutters something in agreement, but still doesn't make any effort to start a conversation about this topic. There's a sense of bitterness, longing for something that never happened that is evident through her demeanour, yet he still continues.

"I'm afraid of men."

This jerks me out of my seat and has me on the edge, listening intensely to what he has to add. A man like this? Stained and tattooed and dark and studded and worn? Afraid of other men?

"I've told you what they did to me, didn't I?" he asks Lucy. If she was uncomfortable before, it's nothing compared to now. She almost squirms and looks away.

He clarifies, "...when I was young."

"That's why I dress like this. I dress and act all big and tough so that they leave me alone, but I'm not really like that. I'm like a big, squishy marshmallow inside."

And my heart breaks. A window's opened onto something that I'll never be able to see and understand. His tone is so even, measured, calm. It could have been the most mundane of everyday comments by his tone, and yet those words hold a lifetime of fear, a lost childhood. And my heart breaks that I could judge him.

How could I shrink from him in distain? How could I ever begin to understand what this man has been through, what has brought him to this place. My Saviour ate and talked and laughed with the whores and the tax collectors and the poor. But I could not see past one man's appearance to see beyond, into the soul behind, scarred and broken and harshened by the years.

H and Lucy are talking again. They are on safer ground now, safe within the comfortable, constraining dimensions of what they've always talked about. But when the bus pulls over for me to descend the stairs and open my gate, I resolve never to forget. Never to forget that I learnt about myself and most of humanity that day. Never forget by writing it out, even if it would trickle out as distant memories over the course of several weeks while I juggled life and study. Never forget that I will fail, and fail again. But most of all, never forget what an un-knowing man on a bus taught me that day.

*Names have been changed to protect identity 

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