"Hey," he had said at Pine Street, making eye contact. "How's it going?" Haasighuing?
Usually I'm the one who initiates greetings. His acknowledgement excited me, and was a welcome change of pace from the no-eye-contact commuters I encountered earlier in the day. His presence was unusual, looking like a hodgepodge of disparate clothing items and body parts, awkwardly flowing together, united by a liquiform alcoholic stench. One of the friendly drunks. I was happy to have him on board.
Now we're at 130th. The passengers wishing to exit have done so, and I'm starting to close the doors. There he is, shuffling forward with his best sea legs, doing the midnight creep.
"Did you want this one?" I ask, referring to the stop.
I take that as a no, and close the doors. "I'm gonna roll up the street for a second."
"Yeah yeah." Deep, booming voice.
"I'm hanging on. You drive like a baaeeee....you know."
I don't know, actually. Was he about to say "bat out of hell" or "bitch?" I'll never know. I suppose I would have preferred "bitch," with its vague implications of safe and conscientious driving. That's what I aspire toward, after all!
"I'm gonna sit up here, away from the naked guy," he informs those next to him. "I'm gonna sit away from the naked person, sit next to all you guys WITH CLOTHES ON, huuummm."
I look at the crowd up front. There are routes where this fellow would be out of place, and the commuters around him would be shifting uncomfortably in their seats, avoiding eye contact. Such situations are more awkward, and cry out a little louder for intervention, whether actually needed or not. But this is the 358, and he's right at home. Filling out the front seats are a gallery of earthy, lived-in faces, framed by laugh lines and soot, the burgeoning immediacy you find in the storied margins. No soft hands or designer suits here.
Our friend expounds for a moment about exposed male anatomy. There's no naked man anywhere to be seen. I don't recount the dialogue here unless I'm confident I can remember exactly what was said, but suffice to say he has the attention of those around him. I turn off the air conditioning- no need for that tonight anyway- to better understand the man. Then, very loudly, I hear him offer new information:
"THERE'S ONLY ONE NAKED GUY ON THIS BUS!"
I'm curious as to his thoughts on the matter. I ask, "is that too many or too little?"
"Only one ball-swingin' asshole on this whole thing."
The bearded African-American man next to him arranges his milk carton, filled with handyman's tools. "You're scaring the model citizens," he says.
"You mean the yuppies?"
"Them's peeps too."
"They can go back to yuppieville."
Comcast cable is expensive. My bus is only two and half dollars.
"Hey," says the drunk to me without looking over. I'm aware he's addressing me only by the increased volume of his amiable roar. "You go up to one five five?"
"I be happy to!"
He meanders up to me as we coast in smoothly, waiting out the red light at 155th.
"And I'll take that transfer," he says. I'd placated his request for one earlier by telling him I'd give it when he stepped out. He comprehends me in silence for a time, then says, "hey, you're pretty cool, bus driver."
I look into his craggy eyes and see his genuineness. There's a color to his voice that slices through the booze.
"It's good to see a young guy driving a bus."
"You know, I love it. I love talkin' to people, helping people,"
Then, loudly: "hey, why don't you gimme all the transfers! I could make money off that thing!"
"Oh, that's only on special occasions!" The gallery laughs along. "Yeah, that's just on Christmas and Christmas Eve!"
"Hey, I'm just playin' around. You're a good guy."
Green light; I pull forward, approaching the zone.
"I'll get out here." He turns back to the crowd and announces, "THE CRAZY GUY'S GETTING OFF!"
"Oh, you don't have to leave!"
"The wacko's leaving, everything's okay!"
"You can ride my bus any day!" I mean it. I'm getting to like this guy.
"Don't be lookin' at my ass now," he reminds the passengers, attempting a coy wiggle. "I know it looks good."
"Happy New Year!" I call after him.
He hears me, half-turning, switching back into truthful mode for a moment: "You too, happy New Year!"