There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, May 14, 2007

From the back of the bus

From the back of the bus the conversation arrived well before the passenger, floating on the morning air like a whiff of smoke.

The 30 line bus had been filling quickly after leaving Sacramento State, lumbering down J Street into East Sacramento, a hissing , creaking song to accompany the jerking stop-and-go dance of the bus.

The bus was stopped in East Sacramento when the man attached to the conversation boarded. He had gray hair, a little tousled but clean, and glasses. He wore a camel's hair overcoat and carried a brief case. He looked as if he belonged in Sacramento's Fabulous Forties.

A woman had boarded at the same stop, but the conversation was apparently not for her. She sat immediately inside the bus and he settled on the other side of the bus several seats in from of me.

As the bus started back down J Street I could hear the man talking. He wasn't so loud that he was shouting. It was more the loudness of someone talking with ears stuffed with iPod earbuds. I couldn't hear what he said. I looked around to see if he was talking to anyone, but all of the other passengers in the front of the bus were actively looking in every other direction.

His conversation drifted back to me as the bus continued, an indistinct hum under the overriding cacophony.

A few stops later, a gorgeous black woman, her oval face with its pronounced cheekbones framed in tresses of long multicolored braids, boarded the bus. She sat down in the seat immediately in front of the man.

He said something and she turned and smiled and said something back. They made a cheerful multicultural tableau, the white banker type and young professional black woman chatting on the bus. Had the man not previously been talking to himself with equal animation, the whole scene would have been nice, but unremarkable.

Only single words or small phrases of their conversation reached me in the back of the bus. He said something about cancer. Maybe something about his wife. She said "Been there done that." I really, really wanted to sneak a few seats closer to hear what the two were discussing.

As I considered a move I noticed that immediately in front of me was a large man with "Debra" tattooed in script just above the collar of his t-shirt and just below a fold in the fat of his neck. His unmoving, quiet presence filled the entire seat and encroached on the aisle.

Just in front of "Debra" was a young man in his 20s flailing around as if he were dancing while tied to the bus seat. I couldn't see any headphones or earbuds, and I couldn't hear any music. He would raise both hands and then dive down behind the seat in front of him and then soar back up and then back down. Occasionally, he would twist to face the back of the bus, smiling broadly and clearly enjoying something, and then resume his silent pantomime.

I decided to stay where I was in the back. I prefer to see what's going on in front of me, rather than to wonder what's going on behind.

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