summer days, revisited.
11 December 2009 § 1 Comment
I lived in south Florida for a while after high school. I had to commute to and from school twice a week through desolate cityscapes on trains and buses and cabs and feet. I hated it. I was determined. No one ever talked to me there, and not I to them. Sometimes the security guard on the train when he checked my ticket. Now and then, I’d want to strike up a conversation with him but never knew what to say. There were a few Wackenhut guards on the trains, but I was usually on when we has on duty – and I knew kind of a lot about him, because he talked to other passengers, and I listened to their chatter.
I would sit with my notebook, rocking side to side with the rhythm of the rails, my headphones in my ears – the small, earbud kind. This was about the time ipods were getting to be popular, with the white earphones – but I carried my discman still, ten or twelve CDs in my backpack, all in jewel cases because I was dumb and elite. I despised mp3s and everything they stood for. I wouldn’t listen to music most of the time, though, but if anyone paying attention, which they didn’t, would have thought I was. I made a point to look aloof, or to not smile when a joke was told nearby. I had to be hidden. I had to know my surroundings, and this eavesdropping provided all the answers.
Whenever I was headed home from school, at least at first, I’d get to West Palm around noon, walk from the station down Clematis to where the buses stopped, whether anyone flagged them down or not. I often missed it by a moment or two anyway – I didn’t feel like running through downtown with a laptop and textbook-laden backpack that could rip open at any moment – I’d had that bag since ninth grade and after a couple of hundred times making the south Florida trip, it was essentially in tatters.
Not too long after I’d started school, when I was still figuring out the notoriously unreliable public transport system, I found myself at a bus stop covered by the pseudo-Tuscany stucco architecture that became as bland as it was superficial there – an upscale theme to counter the fact that one was more often than not only a block or two from any given ghetto, a certainty that city planners have graciously veiled with brick sidewalks and elaborate signage and massive walls.
There was this guy in a wheelchair – he rolled around downtown and talked to everyone, and they all knew his name. He told me he was in Vietnam – just like everyone else around there, those vagrants asking for money, that menace to modern society! He never asked me for a dime – or a quarter, or forty two cent. Always in black clothes, and rather mobile for someone in a wheelchair, maybe a green shirt every now and then. He wanted to know what was going on around him, keep up with the world, right?
We saw each other pretty often for awhile, once a week, maybe twice if I missed the bus, and in ten minute intervals we were friends that sat on a bench and talked like human beings. He mentioned the war – once – after he said that he never talked about it – and then said he couldn’t talk about it. We sat in as much silence as a south Florida afternoon allowed before I realized he was crying. He tried to stop when I noticed, but it took awhile. Maybe we didn’t talk again that day. He could have wheeled away and I’m not sure I would have said anything – just get on the bus and go – that’s what we do here.
Another time I saw him – everyone knew his name but me, and by this point it would have been rude to ask it of him – but he didn’t know mine, either, so we were even – he asked if I was hungry. I probably said no. He gave me a brown sack with a sandwich and a banana in it, saying he got two from some charity down the street. They do it once a month or something. Here I was, some middle class white kid, accepting food from this guy most people would spit on, think homeless, worthless, go die alone, old man. It was one of the best meals of my life – here’s to you, social norms. Before I got on the bus, he pointed out his apartment to me; you can see Spanky’s roof from my toilet, he was saying.