The beggar sat beneath the overpass, next to one of the pillars that supported the highway above, and counted his take into a plastic McDonald’s cup.
Pennies, dimes, an occasional but intermittent quarter. Some he swept into a pocket with surprisingly lightning hands. Others he chucked back into the cup for future givers to see. To create a sense of, what? Pity? Largesse?
He was an older man wearing Walkman headphones. Not curly white iPod earbuds, but old, metal, foam-covered Walkman headphones.
He lit a cigarette and placed it on the concrete next to the pillar. He flicked a few more pennies in the cup. As he shifted to put the lighter back in his pocket, I saw a carabiner filled with keys hanging from his back pocket. What could a homeless man have keys for?
The light turned green and the bus lurched me away.
I was sitting backwards on the bus; that was the only difference. The only difference between a thousand other rides down a thousand other streets. On this one, the bus was just packed enough that I had to take one of those two backward-facing seats in the rear window.
Intersections that would have raced toward me slowly pulled away. Bus stops that would have shown me impatient waiters now revealed people wandering on the sidewalk, starting their path toward their destinations.
And cars that would have passed the other way in a glimmer now followed me for blocks.
A man pumped a fist clutching an Argentinian flag. Pump pump pump out the window to support the World Cup finals, I guess. He bobbed his head in the car as if to music. He pulled his arm in and cheered, dancing along in his car.
The woman next to him did none of this, just sat and looked ahead, not bobbing to the music.
Riding backwards brings to mind looking backwards, real great story stuff about false nostalgia and the allure of the past, easy to wrap up with a tidy Lot’s wife allusion.
I should have felt that stuff, but I guess I just felt sad.
It’s one thing to face your destination and see the world rushing toward you. It’s powerful. It’s nice. It’s good and even sort of makes you feel like you might be the center of attention. Everything there in that new, rushing world is there for you.
But this, this was loss. Buildings retreating, shrinking off into the distance. People I would never talk to, doors I would never enter, alleys I would never go down, all running from me. Cars blasting music I will never hear. An old man flicking coins into a cup, blocks away from me now.
I would never know about the keys.
Staring out the back of the bus, I could see how it looked as the world slipped away.