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

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The panhandle of transit

I had worked a half-hour later than my regular shift. The two-car train I boarded at 23rd Street was crowded as I worked my way to the middle of the car and stood against the wall across from the Wachenhut guard. At 29th Street, the guard left and a sea of teenagers filled every available seat and overflowed into the middle of the car with me.

The three teenage girls across from me were high school age, maybe younger. The guy next to me was older, but not much. This was one of those crowds that I find unremarkable, but that I know make others uncomfortable. Too much teenage energy and noise mixed with touches of sullen defiance.

At the next stop two black men in oversized coats and knit caps boarded. They were 6-2, maybe 6-4 with athletic builds, although it was hard to tell with the baggy clothes. These are the sorts of guys who scared Barack Obama's white grandmother.

One guy stayed by the door and the other worked his way from one end of the car to the other holding out a 16-ounce paper cup and asking for money.

"Sorry," I said, "I don't carry cash."

The guy moved on, tapping people on the shoulder and holding out the cup. I didn't find the guy particularly intimidating. At least he was taking no for an answer.

When the train reached 65th Street, I got off and walked over to the No. 82 bus stop. One of the rewards of working a half-hour late is that I get an extra 15-minute wait for the next bus. (Thank you, RT, for block scheduling.) I leaned against the street light and pulled out my book and started to read.

"You got any money?" the male voice asked.

I looked up to see the same guy holding out the paper cup.

"Nope," I said. "I don't carry cash."

The two guys then walked off together. I had to admit this was becoming uncomfortable. It was now dark, and I was the only person under the street light.

When the No. 82 finally materialized so did the two guys. They boarded first and took a seat on the back bench of the bus. I took a seat in the middle, where the light is better. As I returned to my book, the driver left the bus.

One of the passengers was a tall, skinny white guy dressed in slacks and a polo shirt with some trademark I couldn't make out on the pocket. He sat down across from the two guys in the back and tried to start up a conversation.

It quickly became evident that he was a volunteer working for Barack Obama's campaign, which apparently has an office nearby.

"Would you guys be interested in helping in the campaign?" he asked.

"Does it pay?" asked one of the guys.

"Well, no," the Obama guy said. "It's just volunteer work. It's fun, though."

I was strongly resisting the urge to protect this naive young man from himself, but instead I sat and listened. I could see the Obama guy out of the corner of my eye, but not the guys in the back.

"So," the Obama guy said, "What do you guys do?"

"Live," said one of the guys.

"Until we die," said the other.

This went right over the Obama guy's head. "Well, but not too soon," he said and half-laughed. "You know, die. Not before ..." At that point I think he realized he had no idea what these guys could expect between live and die.

"How old are you," one of the guys asked the Obama guy.

"Eighteen," he replied. "I go to Mira Loma High School."

The Obama guy apparently pulled out a book and started reading because one of the guys asked him what the book was about.

He stumbled in his answer.

"Something about monetary policy in developing countries," he tried. "I don't know. I've just started it."

For me, this pegged the kid as a member of Mira Loma's famous International Baccalaureate program. I live just a few blocks from the school. The program attracts kids from all over the county. Some of them, judging by this guy, who have led unusually sheltered lives.

"You got any money?" one of the guys asked the Obama guy.

In a remarkably cheerful voice, the Obama guy replied, "I have two dollars." He started to reach into his pants pocket, but quickly modified his answer to, "I can give you one dollar. I need the other one for later."

I didn't see the transaction. Shortly afterward, the Obama guy was saved by a cellphone call from someone offering to give him a ride home from the bus stop. He got off the bus.

The guy with the paper cup then walked from the back of the bus to the front, asking the passengers if they had money.

"No," I said. "I don't carry cash."

He did manage to get another dollar from a guy in the front of the bus, and then he returned to his seat in the back as the driver returned.

Eventually, the bus left the station and we made our way to Sacramento State, where three or four more riders boarded.

As the bus was pulling away from Sac State, the guy with the cup got up and approached each of the new riders, asking for money.

It was one thing to be panhandling on the train. It was another to solicit on the bus while the driver was away. But to get up -- big as life -- while the bus is moving and ask for money -- well, why wasn't the driver saying anything?

The guy returned to the back bench, and eventually both guys left the bus.

Later, a woman who had been sitting behind me walked to the front of the bus to talk with the driver. The driver claimed not to have noticed the guy panhandling. A plausible defense, I suppose. The woman filled him in on all of the details. I didn't hear their full conversation. I went back to my book.

And, yes, I do have a dollar, maybe two, in my backpack. Just in case. You never know when it might come in handy.

No comments: