A big, serious brotha- perhaps the love child of Xzibit and Ice Cube- wearing an offensive printed tee, chain necklace, and hat with a big, fat, silver dollar sign- steps out of the back door. Voluntarily, at no prompting from me, he says, "Thank you, sir!" in a kind and meaningful voice. It's at complete odds to the image he's projecting. I think to myself, what???
"This guy's the best driver ever," another man yells as Appreciation steps on in front of him. This fellow's older, black American, tall, built, with a look carefully tailored to say "don't mess with me." The top ridges of his sunglasses tilt inward, giving him the impression of a permanent frown. In the past he would show up with his girlfriend, and they would always have nothing but the kindest words for me.
"You're the best driver in the whole bus system," he and his girlfriend/wife once announced as they walked to the back.
"I'm not that good!" I said in response.
"Don't feed me that, dude. We speak from experience, you the best one there is."
The three of us used to chat amiably as we wound through the Judkins neighborhood. Lately, however, there's been a shift. The woman is nowhere to be seen, and he's been unresponsive and prone to moods, curling up in the seat, walking into things, avoiding eye contact, shoving earplugs into his ears. Once he stood up at the front, talking in serious tones about complete nonsense; I nodded solemnly in complete agreement. "Oh, yeah," I said in earnest. "Uh huh. You got that right," I affirmed, having absolutely no clue what he was saying.
The screws were on tight before, but they're slipping out of control as the weeks go by. Today he slaps a ladyfriend's behind, and goes to the back before getting out. He angrily confronts the passengers in the back, threatening them all in a voice all the more unnerving for how quiet it is. They look at him with frightened eyes. I still give him the benefit of the doubt, as I do everyone, and say, "have a good one!"
He yells "thank you," back in my direction. Something's still in there. The circumstance feels a little odd, being on the good side of the guy who just threatened to strong-arm everyone else. The remainder of the bus was ever so polite to me for the rest of the trip. Decorum was at an all-time high. I hoped whatever the man's going through would improve in the coming months.
He's since returned to his former self, though it can be a bit of touch and go- still a bit heavy on government conspiracies and butt-slapping his acquaintances every now and again. Possibly it's a medication issue. His mind takes turns between being here and somewhere else, and the days don't discriminate. I smile when the kindness I know he has takes a chance on surfacing.
Going back to base, I pull in behind a 1 at 12th and Jackson. Through the back window of the 1 in front of me, I can see a figure seated in the back lounge area. A group of guys back there, a kaleidoscopic collection of flat-billed hats, oversized puffy jackets, massive sports jerseys, shiny bald heads and cornrows- and here's one of them now, straightening up, a sinewy dark figure in enormous clothing suddenly wired with animation as he recognizes me. Are those frowning sunglasses? Can't tell, with this glare. Doesn't matter. There's an avalanche of goodwill in his excited form. The man's hand shoots in the air, waving, and through the glass I can make out a set of delighted white teeth. He waves. I wave. That's all- he then returns to his buddies- a tiny moment, really- but there was such torrential enthusiasm in both of us. Energy, made real. I think I smiled the rest of the way back to base.
"Sometimes you coul' make the hardest dudes say 'hey,'" a man once rumbled to me.
"Yeah man. Something's gettin' through there. It's beautiful."
"Yeah it is."