Saturday, 17 December 2011

Better Man

Public transportation. At its best it can move large volumes of people very quickly and cheaply. At its worst, it’s a dangerous mecca for unsavory types of all description, notorious for attracting the hobbled, the poor and the mentally ill. No problem for me of course. I, as a simple white boy from the countryside had once ridden the New York City subway by myself nearly as far north as Harlem. And this was before they started putting all the panhandlers in jail. To this day, I can’t disassociate the smell of urine from the NYC subway system.
In the olden days, when my travelling still involved youth hostels and public transportation, I was staying in San Diego for a week or two. My friend and I took a bus to mission beach (one time home of Eddie Vedder) to take in some of the sights. I’m not an expert on the neighbourhoods of San Diego, but I know that this particular bus wasn’t making any stops at the Ralph Lauren store. We did however, pass lots of malt liquor outlets, gun stores and thrift shops.
On the way home the bus was considerably more packed, putting us in close proximity with…well… people who ride the bus through dodgy neighbourhoods.
Sitting across from us was a very large black gentleman whom you would recognize. He appears in some incarnation on any public transportation you have ever been on. You know…the guy who wears army fatigues and two overcoats in July, talking to himself about aliens or the government or how he is married to Jennifer Anniston. His was clutching about six plastic shopping bags full to varying degrees with what I am assuming were most of his belongings. He also had a very large walking stick which functioned as a cane and likely doubled as his defense against those attempting to take his treasures. He was wearing a wool cap, despite the 75 degree temperature and his full beard was specked with bits of fluff, dried grass and other organic matter. I suspect he spent the day sleeping in a park somewhere, with his face pressed to the turf. He wasn’t in a full rant, but his deep voiced mumblings were enough to keep the seat next to him empty. This was the guy you did not want to make eye contact with, lest he should turn his attention to you and try to draw you into his world.  Most people were successfully ignoring him, so he may have been a permanent fixture on this route, known to the locals as Crazy Jim or whatever they called him. Just someone to be endured until your stop.
I was busy judging him when the bus stopped and picked up an even sorrier looking specimen. White, skinny and very disheveled, this guy looked like he had just woken up in the ditch. He didn’t have the veteran homeless look about him, but more that of the abandoned dog who has just taken a beating.
He had a few coins in his hand, but apparently it wasn’t enough, because the bus wasn’t moving. The driver wasn’t prepared to go anywhere until this guy coughed up the full fare. He was wobbling a bit as he dug through his pockets and made a show of patting himself down for any more cash. It became obvious very quickly that he didn’t have any more money, or if he did, he was not capable of finding it. As the moment stretched longer, and became more awkward, you could tell people were waiting for him to get off the bus. I remember thinking, why doesn’t the driver just take what he has and let him on? It’s probable that this guy’s only mission in life at this moment was  to get from A to B on this bus, but that wasn’t going to happen today because he couldn’t afford it. He wasn’t really prepared to give up because he still wasn’t making a move to get off the bus. The bus driver was getting a bit annoyed and you could tell he was ready to give this guy a shove out the door.
The big black guy across the way was still mumbling, partly to himself and partly to all and didn’t appear to even be aware of the standoff at the front of the bus. Then that deep voice became more coherent for a moment and said, “I got it…I got your fare.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins.
“I got that. I’ll get your fare.” He repeated a few times.
He raised himself from the seat, walked to the front and dropped them in the slot. The skinny guy acknowledged with a nod and took a seat right behind the driver.
 I don’t remember the rest of the ride home, but I will never forget what that guy did. You don’t have to be Mother Theresa or volunteer for World Vision. You can be a broke homeless man and still be a better man than I am.  Even after twenty years, I still wonder why I didn’t get up and pay for the guys fare myself.


  1. This is awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that Ian.

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