Thursday, August 14, 2008

On the Bus

In San Diego county people I don't know frequently tell me details about their personal lives within a minute or two of meeting me. This tends to happen in coffee shops, at bus stops and train stations, and on buses and trains. Probably if I hung out in bars alone it would happen to me there.

It's always been true that marginal people talk to me, especially if I'm traveling alone. In high school and college, there would always be a vaguely lecherous and lonely middle-aged man who would offer to buy me a soda while waiting for the bus/train and want to sit next to me. Now it's usually disenfranchised middle-aged men who want to tell me their problems. Occasionally some twenty or thirty-some guy will come on to me, but the moment I tell them I'm a teacher, they usually become intimidated. It's true I'm pretty and blonde and generally seem younger than I am. But this is California, and the world is full of pretty young women, many with blond hair. It has to be more than my physical appearance that causes these men to talk to me about their personal lives. I know that I don't appear threatening to anyone.

And it isn't just men, it's women, too. Usually, these women are also middle-aged, but they are more likely to be homeless or transient. The young men I meet are not yet homeless, and the middle-aged men usually have some kind of job (often a post-rehab transitional job). Both the men and the women are often on some kind of psychiatric medication (or at least claim to be). But I was talking about the women: the women are usually fighting with their husbands, boyfriends, sons, or all of the above. Often their husbands, boyfriends, and sons are the same young men or older post-rehab men that talk to me.

(Aside: the marginal women who talked to me in DC tended to be a lot more aggressive and hostile. I don't have an analysis of that difference yet, really.)

Both the men and the women frequently look like they've been beat up. Even the ones that look healthy look fragile. In fact, anyone on the sidewalk in North County looks fragile--pedestrians here always look like they're about to fall off the sidewalk and into the street.

For the past two days there's been a guy at the bus stop and on the bus named Bob (or Robert or Bobby) who has been telling me all about his DUI case and how he lost his license and his quest to find a lawyer. Bob grew up in San Clemente in the 70s and moved to Carlsbad about four or five months ago. He says he has family who work in law and lives in down town Carlsbad. That may be true, but if it's true, it doesn't make sense that he's taking the bus to see a lawyer or hanging out at the court house to talk to a public defender. Maybe he's lying. Or maybe his family give him some money to live off of and are happy that he's not homeless. He's got the clean cut 70s look of a man just out of rehab even though I don't think he's just out of rehab: new jordache jeans, new sneakers, and a new aloha-print short sleeve button-down shirt. He carries a rather beat-up legal pad and no pen.

This morning on the bus he asked if he could borrow my pen. The only one I had was my favorite purple one, but I lent it to him but said, "I'll need that back before I get off the bus." After I pulled the cord for my stop, he asked if he could borrow it for the day and I said no, but very nicely. The woman sitting next to him and across from me gave him her pen. She'd been trying to catch my eye the whole bus ride, so this was her opportunity to enter the conversation. She said that it was a good pen, but that the ink was permanent and would mark up a car or a shirt forever. "I broke up with my boyfriend over that pen," she said, and then went on to tell a story about accidentally marking up the leather seats of her boyfriend's car, and how he got angry, and how she didn't want to be with someone who got angry over little things, so she'd broken up with him, that morning, and that the pen was good luck.

Robert was looking for some good luck, so this seemed to make him happy.


Nada said...

OMG, I used to call myself a weirdo magnet, because all of the strangest possible people in San Francisco used to zero in on and talk to me. It doesn't happen so often now that I'm weary and haggard and in my 40s and jaded from living in Brooklyn, but I totally know what you're talking about.

Jessica Smith said...

that is a good story.

it's also good that you're not afraid of them. make for much better stories. and is statistically accurate. one of my coworkers is our age (your age) and rides the bus and has similar weirdo-attacks but is afraid of them so her stories are not as interesting. i try to tell her that statistically it's almost impossible that she'll get raped, it's pretty unlikely that she'll get mugged, and that she's in much more danger having a nice glass of wine with her boyfriend, to no avail.

i used to live two houses down from a halfway house, and that provided some good stories. i would pay the men to rake my yard (although otherwise the landlord would do it for free) or shovel the walk when it was snowing. they always had to tell their whole story before starting work. i am not sure what this is about, although i feel it too-- the need to have a story and to tell it.

mark wallace said...

This may sound weird, but I think it literally may have something to do with people's eyes. Some people's eyes look more like they're openly taking in the world, while other people's eyes look more shut down to it. If your eyes look like they're taking things in, that may seem like an opportunity to the marginal person who has probably long since realized that most people's eyes are closed to his or her existence. They notice you seeing them, and voila. Call me weird, but I think what I'm saying here is at least part of it.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Nada-It's good to know that other people have (and have had) similar experiences. It only takes a minute or two for the weirdest weirdo in a train or a bus station to see me and talk to me.

Jessica--No, I'm not afraid of the people who talk to me, or at least I've developed a pretty good radar of when to be afraid and when not to be. Sometimes I feel exhausted by them though. I'm fascinated by the way our lives literally rub up against each other. Many of the people who start speaking to me at the bus stop assume I'm either homeless or a student, and many of the Spanish speakers, surprisingly (since this never happens to me elsewhere), address me in Spanish. Public transportation is a unique world in North County. I know in New York that everyone is used to bumping up against everyone else. Here, no one is used to it. They don't seem to know it's happening when it's happening.

Mark--People generally do not approach me if I'm wearing sunglasses, it's true. As I was saying to Nada, it only takes a matter of minutes for a weirdo to spot me and talk to me. Of course, it only takes a matter of minutes for me to see them, too.