I pull up at southbound Union behind a 36, and a fellow with a walker, just now hustling for that bus, opts for me instead. Frequent transit users know to look for a second bus; it always has more seats. He's wearing a large beige outdoor jacket with the hood up, and with his head down I can't see his face. He maintains this position as I put out the ramp and lift up a seat or two for him. Then I hear him speak.
"I'll be goin down to the courthou–"
Never mind the courthouse. I haven't seen this guy since 2012.
"Greg!" I howl the name as if it's a long-lost cipher, the magic code that'll unlock our strangerhood and turn us to friends. "Is that you?!"
He looks up from under the hood, pulling back the rim. "My man!" A rich grin from ear to ear as he proffers his hand, turning the rainy night to sunshine. It's not so cold out here after all. His grip is bonier than I recall, but firm as ever.
Greg is described here and here. He made me feel at home during my early days on the 3/4, a time when he was the picture of health and a neighborhood regular. After some years he became homeless, and I'd take him to the City Hall shelter in time for its evening opening. After a long absence, he showed up one day at a different time, proudly telling me of his new apartment, the waterfront skyline view of which he was most enthused.
"I knew I recognized that voice! Where you been all my life?!" I say, with that lighthearted mixture of joy and mock reproach.
"I got me a spot! You know where St. James is?"
"Course I know St. James! Now let's see the last time we spoke, you was tellin' me about you found an apartment that had a view of the water."
"It's a kinda assisted living spot, they take care of some of us old folks."
"Well, look at you go! That's excellent!"
"You seen my buggy?" Referring to his walker.
"Yeah, I see you got a lil' sports car there!"
"Was I limping last time you saw me?"
"Honestly I don't remember, I think I was just excited to see ya!" A friend I admire once shared he prefers to say just what he's thinking, regardless of what it sounds like. I'm excited to see you. I was just thinking about you. He'll entrust such lines to the listener, trusting you'll understand there's no subtext intended. Something about this emphasis on face value gladdens me, and I endeavor to do the same.
"Ha. Well, from June '13 to, from June '13 to August '14 I was limping. Finally, went to see the doctor; he says it's cancer."
"Greg!" I howl the magic code again. "I'm glad you're here! That's heavy stuff!"
"Here, look." He shows me his scalp, under his knit cap. It's bare, save for a resealed wound of sorts.
"Greg, you're a survivor."
"I've done it two times already."
"Ugh, Greg, you're a trooper. Is what you are. I'm glad you're here!"
"Thanks. This'll be me." We've arrived at the courthouse.
"I'm gonna look around a bit for her–" not sure of his meaning there– "–'cause it's my birthday next week."
"Hey, happy upcoming. Greg, it's good to see you again,"
"This your route?"
"Well, come on up there sometime, ask for Greg. I'm always up there."
"Well, thanks for steppin' out to say hey! I been wondering where you been hiding!"
His hood is going up again, concealing his face, but I can still see the grin.
It's a comfort to know he's still among us, that friendly soul who made me feel welcome when I was new. I remember him as the sturdy, strapping figure he and I both once knew as real. Greg. Let us recall our memories of others at their best moments, not otherwise.
I picture him on the hill up there, maybe he's home right this very minute, smiling to the sky and to himself, a private smile seen only by the clouds and sea. Is there a greater pleasure than sitting in a place of comfort, taking in the view from the picture window?