I'm riding the 124 late one evening, chatting with the driver. Rakesh is one smart guy. It's dark in here; just one row of the fluorescent bulbs is on, and up front on a 2300-series, what with those blue lights, it's always dim. We're talking photography, sharing in the roving expanses of the late hour. Orange sodium lights pass us by as we make our way through town. I'll miss that orange glow.
By now you've noticed all the streetlamps slowly being replaced by cheaper and more efficient LED bulbs, which give off a dim whitish-blue glow; but for me, that orange is so firmly ensconced in my conception of the urban nighttime. There's an ambience it contains specific to nothing else, and you painters out there will appreciate the way low-pressure sodium collapses color perception in interesting ways.
Regardless, as we approach Union a young man comes forward from the very back. He's dressed in armor- thick, bulbous headphones, a baseball hat pulled low, with enormous reflective sunglasses useless at this time of night for any purpose other than covering one's own eyes. From his invincible cocoon of a shield, he leans in close to Rakesh, speaking quietly. I'm in the chat seat, and I can't even hear the man.
Evidently there's a sleeper in the back. To me this hardly qualifies as newsworthy; why, as a young armored man, with your headphones and hip jacket, would you trouble the driver about it? Maybe he's just awfully considerate. It's certainly thoughtful of him. Or perhaps this sleeper is a little different from the rest.
The latter turns out to be the case. Rakesh walks back there, and after a moment I follow. I'm curious. Our movements draw the attention of the rest of the crowd- ten, maybe fifteen people in here; a motley but subdued crew. Evenings on Pac Highway have a singular atmosphere, similar to the no-holds-barred environment of the 358 but slightly younger, and more ethnic; there's definitely a whiff of where this bus has just come from. The dim lights amplify the sensation; we're in another world here. Armored Youngster, still too cool for school, points out the sleeper in question, and the motley crew keeps watching from all directions.
He's draped against the seat, head pushed up in the corner by the window, formless, melding with the surfaces like a chameleon who's trying to hide by changing color but can't. Rakesh goes through the routine of trying to wake a sleeper; he and I make noise, first speaking, then clapping, then gently pushing on the back of his chair, and then not so gently. Nothing works. It's an East African man of no more than thirty, looking emaciated to the point of starvation; his angular cheekbones protrude so far they seem to pierce the skin. I notice how his head is unnaturally cocked back, not unlike that of a CPR dummy; nobody sleeps like that. I took in all these observations, but they aren't the first thing I noticed.
The first thing I noticed was, his eyes are open.
Wide open, body frozen, staring straight up. Completely unresponsive to light or sound. The faint light in here offers a feeble glimmer in his pupils, but no spark; this isn't a sleeper. This is a body. He's dead.
The men around us- no women sitting in the back of a 124 at this hour- begin to come closer. What's going on? Can't we wake him up? The ramshackle assemblage, hulking and disheveled, begins to form a village, as we all try to rouse him. He looks dead; he sounds dead; but it doesn't matter. Who cares? The human in you still makes the effort.
We all come from the same place.
I keep clapping, right in the body's face; another man pounds the back of the headrest; Armored Man takes off his headphones. There's a united feeling among all of us, multifarious group though we are: the shared sensation that we, no matter what roads in life led us to this night, we would really just like for this person to be alive.
Finally, somebody- I forget who- decides to touch the body. It's against the rules for safety reasons, but with this many people helping out, safety's no longer an issue. We don't need to worry about him reacting violently anymore. Anyways, he's dead. Someone reaches to his neck and presses against the jugular vein, firmly.
"Aaoghuu," says the man's throat, his face still expressionless.
We're elated. A collective sigh of relief, audible and true followed by exclamations-
"Good," I say, beaming. "I wanna hear that! That's a great sound!"
The young man with sunglasses smiles wide. It's the only sound or movement we are able to elicit from the "sleeper," but it is enough. He's alive.
Of course it's Rakesh's last trip of the evening. No matter what time of day, things like this always seem fated to happen on the last trip. I left, along with most of the others, as Rakesh called for an aid response. Everything was fine now.
A phlegm-filled grunt never sounded so good.