You've seen it when they're like this before. She's dressed reasonably nicely, late 30s, slightly tattered black pants and mildly soiled vest with a turquoise collared shirt underneath. Her eyes are lidded- you know, like Michael Caine in the '70s- and there's some sort of contraption in her hair, like a dreamcatcher. She stutters, doddering around on the sidewalk in circles, unfocused eyes staring nowhere. Crack cocaine. When she meanders onto the bus, she responds nicely to my "Hello there; how are you?" But the body starts to shut down after being awake three, four, maybe five days, as is clearly the case here. She sits down toward the front as her eyes go up into her head, out of sight, and she starts to come down off of it, her listless state muttering out a fraught, wordless chorus of labored breathing and half-formed syllables.
A heavily tattooed fellow in painting/construction clothes brings her to my attention, saying, "Yo, dawg, I think maybe this girl needs some help," and I turn around and ask her how it's going today. "I'm fine I'm good," she says, and you can feel the herculean effort it takes for her to keep it together. "I'm just tired, I'm really tired." I give her a smile and say "that's okay, you and me both! I'm happy to call somebody, just let me know. I be happy to help out." She thanks me and settles back into herself, falling asleep to the rhythms of the coach.
Luckily most of us around her on the bus are familiar with what's happening, and we converse quietly amongst ourselves, giving her space to come down. "What this girl needs is a nap," a bus buddy of mine says, and thank goodness she's finally getting one. There's an aura of helpful caring amongst the passengers, where you sense they're ready to step in and offer help the moment this fragile situation breaks down. I let her hang around for the rest of the route (why sleep for 20 minutes when you could sleep for an hour?), and at the very last stop, at the bottom of Rainier Valley, she awakens to my voice ("Alright, we made it to the end,") and she's disoriented and scared, really scared.
I look into her large brown eyes and say "it's okay, it's okay," and she starts to breathe, repeating my words, slurring out, "everything gon' be okay," and her feet are too swollen to put her shoes on, something's wrong with her sleeve, her arm is stuck somehow, but it's okay. Eye contact. I tell her softly about how she's gonna be alright, to be safe tonight, and in her thanks there is a recognition; she used to be a little girl once, and that human spark glints in the light, cutting through the drugged out haze, the tics and slurs of years gone past. There's a good, kind human, buried in there somewhere. You can almost see it now- yes- there it is. She walked into the evening, feeling slightly better than she did before.