Somehow that's how it often begins. He slurred it out as best he could, stumbling around at the front. In tow was a woman about his age, forties, with her grandson, a boy of about eight. The boy was a touch chubby, and had a chocolate milkshake in hand.
The speaker was a dedicated drunk. Worn-down, nondescript blue and black clothing; his friend and her grandson were a little more put together. They were sober. Our bus being somewhat full, the boy stood in the aisle while they sat, near the front.
"Ey, sit the fuck down, boy. Got to play by th' rules," he said to the youngster, who didn't respond.
Quietly, the young Grandmother: "don't talk to him like that."
The boy in question impressed me; not only did he seem utterly unfazed by the father figure's barbs, but he didn't feel the need to put up a front, either. He wasn't stoic, or too cool for school, or any other defense mechanism; he was simply there, doing his best to ignore the negative energy, enjoying another sip of that milkshake.
"Stop holdin' on them bars like a li' girl, and sit the fuck down,"
"But I like standing," the boy replied in a kind voice. It's the kind of voice you could never yell at, if you were sober.
"Keep runnin' your goddamn mouth, you little motherfucker. I'ma show you how this world work."
"Watch what happens, boy."
We're at a red. I turn around to face him. "Hey," I say in a normal voice. No response.
Again, loudly: "HEY! MAH FRIEND!"
He snaps to attention. Everyone is instantly silent.
Back to normal volume: "I don't think you need to yell at that boy."
"Fuck is you talkin' to. I got nothin' to say to you."
"Don't yell at him, man. Yell at me."
"Yell at me."
"Man, shut the fuck up. I say the fuck I wanna say,"
"Go on, man, get it outta your system,"
"Little kid tryna stir some shit,"
"Aw, don't stop now!"
Every minute he's yelling at me is another moment of respite for that boy. My heart goes out to the young fellow. I wonder if he has to listen to this all the time.
"Grabbin' them bars like a pansy," he says to the youngster, turning to me again. He contemplates life for a moment and then says to me, in a tone of revelation, "I bet you's a faggot!"
Now, the temptation is to say something like, "what, because my hair's alright?" But no.
"I said get it outta your system,"
"I BET YOU APPROVE UH GAY MARRIAGE," he lurches out.
"Yup yup yup, lettin' it all out, good,"
Into the microphone I say, "have a good night, everyone-"
"Thanks for hangin' out-"
"Wearin' nice pants and shit,"
"You folks stay stay safe this evening-"
"Crease down the middle,"
"Maybe see you tomorrow;" now our friend is getting up, balancing, as we pull into the next zone- "Broadway and Jefferson, everyone, hope you all have a great evening-"
"Muth-a-fuck-in asshole, tellin' me the fuck to do, you all dressed nice, lookin' good for the ladies and shit,"
We're almost at the zone. People are getting up, milling about, thinking let me outta here. He stands.
"Fuckin' buttons and shit, gay-ass-"
I get off the mic and look him in the eye: "Hey, listen. You have a good night now."
There's a way to say that line in a way that cuts to the bone and twists like a knife, and I'm a little ashamed to say that that's exactly how I said it. Perhaps I shouldn't have. Why?
Because he used to be a toddler once.
Deep down there, buried at the moment, dwells a kernel of goodness. He must have heard my tone, because he paused and said, in a measured tone of furious confusion,
"What the fuck?"
You could almost hear his voice crack, like a teenager whose surprise has overtaken his anger. He's towering over me now, teeter-tottering, a spinning top starting to slow. In his mind though, he's still Genghis Khan. He's Patton at Messina. Hostile, belligerent, pugnacious: "What's your name?"
Walking out to my coach at East Base once, another driver was telling me what to do if passengers complain about the air conditioning. "It's too cold," they told me, on the 212. The air conditioning unit on a hybrid coach is actually a climate control system that blows a mixture of hot and cold air to achieve an average temperature. The hot air emanates from the center of the bus, and cold air blows out of the front and rear. Thus, based on where you're sitting, the temperature can feel hotter and colder than what is intended.
"So when they give you grief, Nathan, tell them- with confidence- that the AC unit works like this, that it does this and that in the back of the bus and so on. Don't say you don't know for sure. Be polite, but project confidence. That's what'll get through, more than anything you actually say. They just want to know somebody's in control. They'll hear you say something about heating and cooling, but the point is you sound like you know what you're doing. They can relax."
That's what flashed through my head as I said, with confidence- both of us practically shouting now-
"My name is Nathan!!! You have a goooood night!!"
There isn't anything else the poor guy can say. My guard is that I have no guard. He stumbles down the steps, onto the sidewalk, one foot crossing out, balance is going, and there he goes, tipping on the slanting pavement, slipping, falling, everybody watching, the boy sipping his milkshake, this dark, lanky figure against the white cement squares, crumpling down formless, collapsing into a young tree. His body slides into the landscaping, arms almost laconically reaching up towards air, rolling through nothing, small bushes and beauty bark, victim of gravity and vice.
Not a soul offers help. They just watch.
Young Grandma watches her friend try to stand up. "Sorry about this," she says to me. She means it.
"Are you gonna be okay?"
"Oh, yeah. Yeah, Ah be alright."
Two hours later she got on again, alone. Was that her?
"Hey," I said. "Are you the gal from earlier...?"
Yes, she was.
"Your man back there looked like he wasn't having a very good day."
"Yeah, he just my friend. I ain't seen him in a while, we went and had a couple beers."
"Yeah! He kinda gets like that."
"Guess we all have that friend drinks a little too much."
"You got that right!"
"You know, I'm glad you got on again, 'cause afterwards I felt bad about yelling at him. I shoulda been nicer to the guy." I wondered how he would react if I saw him again.
"What? Oh dude, don't worry about it. Yeah, he's legally blind and pretty deaf. Always thinks people are out to get him."
"Okay, okay. I felt bad for your boy!"
She explained he was her grandson, and I told her to congratulate him on his attitude. I should have taken that chubby kid by both his shoulders and said, you are awesome. You deserve all the great insight this life has to offer, and you should run this town someday. I should've done everything that can be done in five seconds to balance out however many hours, weeks and years he's had to receive such hate. But I couldn't think fast enough. He had such patience. I likely wouldn't have written about this incident were it not for this second meeting with Grandma. The conversation replenished me, and brought the noise down to something comprehensible.
A few weeks later, the same man got on again, wearing similarly nondescript dark clothing. Which attitude to take? Should I harbor the past, or even out the score, or make judgments? No. There's so many reasons why those are bad ideas, but frankly, they just take too much energy. I remembered only that I needed to speak up.
"Hey," I said in a friendly voice. "How's it going?"
"Good, good," he said. "Thanks."