He was the first person I ever saw who, after begging for money “to get on the bus,” got on the bus.
I didn’t give him any money. I was in a mood. It was an angry, jovial mood. It was a dangerously friendly mood. It was a post girlfriend fight mood. I wasn’t a jerk and I was hell-bent on proving that to the first person who came along. That person happened to be Jeff.
I liked Jeff as he called out to me by the bus stop shelter. It was early October, soon enough in the fall that a short-sleeved shirt was all that was needed, late enough that the shelter ad featured Frankenstein’s Monster (it was sipping wine).
And there was Jeff as I jaywalked to the stop, holding in hand the bottle of wine I would bring to the out-of-work journalist party. He waved me over and started asking about me.
Here are the notes I texted myself as soon as I could discreetly do so:
wrong side. knees. smell. blue polo over gray t. black jeans. white stains. black imax cap imax in blue. jeff.
The “wrong side” note was because he said he needed to get to Division and Cicero, but took the Division bus east from Hoyne. “Knees” because they were dusty and stained. And, yes, he did smell. I’ve smelled worse. He smelled like earth and smoke.
We talked as we waited for the bus. He shame-face admitted he lived at a place called “Haymarket,” but I didn’t know what that was. He smoked, the little ligatures and curves of the exhale curling around the black cap, blue shirt and curious white stains on his pants.
There I was, little reporter-boy me, out of work and out of luck and taking a whirl on the 1,001-story project I’d had in mind for years and there I was talking to a real-life begging drug addict from a halfway house! (I looked Haymarket up later.) I was so proud. This would be great. This would be awesome. Look at that, white stains on the knees. I can describe that! Little curls of smoke. No, what’s a better word? Ligatures! Wait, is that like a curlicue or is that when they smoosh letters together? Eh, it sounds good either way. One down. 1,000 to go. God, where will I find the other people? 1,001 stories is a lot. I need more folks, man. I need more folks.
As I thought, no, not thought. As I obsessed over how to describe his every motion, gesture and item of clothing, I realized I had stopped listening to him.
He was telling a story about three young guys who talked to him. They complained to him. They told him their stories, not just listened to his. What was the term he used? “Shared their trials.” Shared their burdens? Shared their something.
I don’t remember the wording. I was too busy folding this man into my pack of 1,001 to do something so boring as to pay attention.
Jeff choked slightly for words. His eyes started to tear up under Frankenstein’s wine-addled gaze in the bus stop shelter. They shared their trials.
“Why was that so important?” I asked.
He looked away from me and said, “It made me feel like a human being. And that doesn’t happen very often.”
Jeff won’t remember me, thank God. He’ll remember the three guys who treated him like the fourth, not the one who looked at him as a specimen for an artsy blog.
Those men cared about him. I just needed him.
Written in October 2009