It's not the kind of question that you hear every day. He says it again-
"Whores ride free today, right?"
It's Tuesday. I wasn't aware. "I'm gonna leave that up to you guys," I say. What's confusing is that the lady following him up the stairs onto my bus is obviously not a prostitute. She's obese and dressed nicely. "That's my husband," she mutters. They sit down at the front and chat with each other (argue loudly) while holding hands (batting each other's arms). I ask if they're alright, and the pleasant attitude of the bus washes over them like a drug. "We're just clownin,'" he says, though they obviously weren't, and they speak in quieter tones afterward.
The lidded man gets on right after them; you've perhaps seen him before, moving up and down Third between James and Pine. Tall and imposing, with a face carved from years of hatred, and eyes that peek out from under heavy lids. "Can we get a five minute bus stop?" he says. I don't know what that means. "Can we get a five minute bus stop? 'Cause Renton is all the way, far away, all the way down. Renton is five minutes. We need a five minute bus stop tobacco shop."
He's one of those people you can't talk to. His ears might be able to hear you, but his mind is somewhere far away, drifting out at sea.
The man in the front seat who's been watching starts humming the twilight zone theme. "Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo," he observes.
"That's definitely where we are," I say.
"Just the way I like it."
The southeast Asian man from the "Hesitant" posts (here and here) gets on and looks at me. Without saying a word he points at his tummy, tapping it a few times. "Looks good," I say.
As I look up in the mirror to close the back doors at southbound James, I notice a tumultuous slow-shutter blur in the back of the vehicle. Two men are savagely beating each other up. I forcefully tell them to step outside and continue their fight elsewhere, but they can't hear me. Other passengers begin to step off. Usually fights on the 7 involve kids, but these two are older- 30s, both of them, and they tear each other up with a ferocious concentration. I'm reminded of lions or tigers fighting over territory- lithe bodies endlessly shifting and clashing in conflict, only this rumble is different: they're fighting in complete silence. It's disorienting. I feel like I'm the only one yelling. Both are in top physical condition, and the only sound is the echo of bodies being slammed into the hard edges of chair corners and stanchions. These guys are serious. They leave the other passengers alone. No drunkards here. The elastic shape comprised of the two of them rolls forward, over and under each other to the middle of the coach, where I again tell them to step outside, which they do. Only thirty seconds have gone by. Worlds can happen in less than a minute.
Occasional regular passenger Margaret stops by and gives me some danish.
"Back door!" someone yells. I gesture with my arm for him to come up. I don't care about fare, but I do care about which door they use- probably a bad habit of mine. "Back door! Why can't I go out the back door?" he shouts, walking forcefully up. I deflate him with, "Thanks for comin' up, man, I appreciate that. No biggie."
"There," he says showing me his transfer. "You got it?"
"Alright, black man," he says, derisively. By his tone I can tell he intends the label as an insult, but I'm confused: this guy himself is black. I've often been called "brother" or "dawg" or "boss" by African or African-American passengers, but it's always intended as a compliment. This is a first: Older black dude tries to piss off young whitish-Asian kid by calling him black. Go figure.
By now it's dark outside. The inbound 7 is a fun feeling: you rise slowly, from the depths of the Valley, moving block by block towards downtown.
An older man irregularly stomps his feet and hands, without rhythm or reason. Sometimes his words make sense and sometimes they don't. He comes up to me, teetering on the brink of balance. "My mind is gone," he whispers in a hoarse voice. "My mind is gone..." I marvel at the part of his mind that recognizes this. Part of him is still here.
At Rose a young East African man with bloodshot eyes makes his way up the steps. He's clearly under the influence of a heavy something- that point where decorum is a struggle, and you have to work hard to have some semblance of normality. He sees me and makes the gesture of hands in prayer, nodding at me. He tries to put a dollar into the farebox, but it's the only money he has, and the motor skills required to place a dollar into the slot are too complex for him right now. Something tells me I need to have this guy on my side. "Hey. You should save that dollar. Maybe need it for something else."
"Thanks man. You cool." In a quiet voice he adds, "If anyone disturb you, let me know."
I can see that he's deadly serious, and thank him.
"Hang tough, brotha," a dark-skinned gent says on his way out.
At Othello two Caucasians appear, clearly way out of their element. One, with ruddy skin, unwashed hair and flat eyes, does the talking; the other doesn't make an impression. They carry bags of clothing and who knows what else.
It turns out that the flat-eyed fellow, Jamie, and his friend, Scott, were hitchhiking from Philadelphia when the car they were in stopped for gas at Rainier and Othello. The two of them stepped out to use the bathroom there, and when they emerged from the convenience store the car and its driver had vanished. They were confused and terrified, having utterly no idea where they were, not knowing who these strange faces were lurking in the shadows. There are always lurking figures at the Valero gas station there. That they were the only white people around for miles didn't make them feel comfortable either. "Let's go for a ride," I say. I learn that Jamie, in his four years in the Marine Corps, was stabbed 14 times and shot in the back, and that he's about to lose custody of his twin girls because he can't hold down a job, and that he's been checking out the day labor spots and is familiarizing himself with the resources here and has a shred of hope, but if he can't cover rent soon, CPS will come and take his kids away because he can't afford to keep them...
Me: "so this is some Danish that I'm not gonna eat," I say as I hand them the pastries that Margaret left me. Margaret thinks I'm too skinny and always brings me such things. It won't solve all Jamie's problems, but it'll make the 358 he has to get on a little more enjoyable. He is very thankful, more for the chance to be in a protective space, a warm space, than the food. His handshake at the end of the ride carries multitudes.