"Smells fantastic," I respond. That's what we call a little white lie.
It's in the deep early morning of Black Friday, on the 358. Freezing outside. We're on a Reduced Weekday schedule, and as such I'm the first trip north from downtown at 5:51am. Nobody's out here, except about thirty methadone people, on their way to 165th. Some of them have been waiting for way too long, unaware of the reduced schedule. I'm impressed by their patience upon my greeting them. A few service workers keep us company. About forty friends in all, cruising up Aurora; the blue interior lighting is dim, the windows are dark, but it's warm and cozy in here. Conversation is lively in the front half, and I listen and learn as we leisurely roll along, trying not to run early. One man in a bundle of jackets opens a window.
I hear, "Hey, somebody close that window!"
"You know how cold it is out there?"
"Yeah, close that shit. If you open that again, we're gonna tear you apart."
"Fact of life, asshole, on a morning like this. Just take off your jacket."
"Who opened a fuckin' window?"
"How we doin' back there?" I ask.
"Take off your fuckin' jacket if you're warm," a woman says to the window-opener. "The rest of us are freezing."
Me again: "how's it goin,' guys?"
"This fool's beggin' for it!"
"You want me to turn off the heat?" I ask him. "If somebody wants me to turn off the heat for a while, I'm happy to do it,"
"Could you please," replies the Jacket Bundle.
Two or three seconds pass, and it's as if nothing's happened:
"Hey, how's your sister doing?"
"Aw, she's okay."
"I got hit with a baseball bat thirty-two times, right here." The woman pulls back her hair above her left ear.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say, turning around to look. The faint blue light renders everything like an indistinct dream; idly I wonder how many watts these bulbs are. We must be in a recession. On the side of her face is what looks like a receding black hole, with dark varicose veins spidering out.
"Yeah, this guy just kept getting angrier and angrier, wouldn't stop hitting me, finally I had to..."
"Sounds like a coward, he does, is what that sounds like," says the man across from her.
"Yeah, wow. I'm sorry."
"You point him out to me next time he come around."
"I'm glad you're still here!"
I add, "I mean, I'm glad you still have the motor skills, and speech. That's a modern miracle."
The energies gather round her in support, and we listen and console her, tilting the perception to make the positives glint a little brighter. It's an impromptu support group now, searching for the sides of a diamond that can still shine. She settles into herself, bolstered by our encouragement. It's getting colder in here, but it feels just as warm. I wave to the back door as the Latino day laborers step out at Home Depot.
Together we've changed the air completely. "Hey, good to see you again," one man says as they all leave at 165th, the THS stop. Even Jacket Bundle responds to my good graces. I bid them all farewell. If I hadn't gotten out of bed this morning (at 3:56am, no less!), who knows how the conversation might've turned. At the least, I know I wouldn't have had the chance to witness the warmth they made for each other.
Later on, a young G asked me, "you always drive the 358?"
"Don't let it break you!"
Routes and people like this don't break me. They keep me going.