A Landing Place

(Originally posted as a series on Twitter)

Every morning, my bus pulls up to the same stop to find the same older couple waiting. The woman, no great beauty, gets on.

As she walks to the back of the bus, the man, not handsome, walks the length outside, matching her pace.

When she sits, the same routine: they look at each other through the glass, they smile, he waves, she presses her hand to the window.

As the bus pulls away, she turns to face forward with the other passengers. And she is a bright light.

I watch this every day, craning to see both parties at the glass. And every morning, it makes this little thing inside me start to hum.

This morning, they were standing at the stop as usual. When it rains, as today, he holds an umbrella over her. She got on, I sat up.

I watched her inside, watched him outside, watched him smile, wave. Watched her not look back. She sat, a stone. The bus pulled away.

I called it a little thing before. Not an insignificant thing. I surprised myself, though, by starting to cry.

In my defense, I am very tired.

Still.

One always thinks there’s a landing place coming. But there ain’t. — Virginia Woolf

Sourpuss, A Life of Hard Etched in Your Skin

There’s a woman on my bus in the mornings who I’ve been calling “Sourpuss” for about a year now. She’s an older woman — if I had to guess, I’d guess about 70, but don’t make me guess. And she’s still working, at least part-time. You can tell by the things she has with her. A lunch, for example. Packed in a mesh bag I can see her shuffle around in her purse at times, each item wrapped neatly in squares of wax paper. Even the round fruit — an apple? — somehow wrapped perfectly in a square, something I would consider a sign both of good raising (that’s something you’d learn from a mother) and excellent geometric skills.

I started calling her Sourpuss for reasons that would become clear the moment you saw her face. It is frozen in perpetual frown. Mouth turned down, eyes squinted with permanent disapproval, cheeks and brow heavy with disappointment. And for a whole year, I’ve sort of avoided her. The energy that comes from her face makes me uncomfortable. Everything so impossibly scowled. Like nothing you could say would ever break through it. Like she’s all wrapped up in a Snuggie of hard-fisted anger. Her armor seems impenetrable. Her mood unshakable. Her face, her face, her face.

But then this morning something strange happened. I saw her laugh. She laughed! It was Russian Guns who did it to her (more on him in a later post). And since it happened, I have been absolutely dying to know what it was he said. What did you say, Russian Guns? (Because I bet you all the money in the world that whatever it was had nothing to do with Russian weaponry, and that is, I’m sorry, ALL you ever talk about.) But he did it somehow. He leaned toward her, not bothering to make eye contact, and an utterance fell out of the corner of his mouth into her lap — it was an aside, really. Then he paused before sitting back up, waiting for her response.

And that’s when it happened. All of a sudden, her mouth changed: her lips twisted up into a difficult but 100% intentional smile and her chest pumped quickly with a hearty chuckle. The rest of her face stayed completely frozen, but you could see her mouth and her eyes were laughing. Russian Guns could see it too. He sat back up with a tiny wisp of a grin, no doubt considering his work for the day all but accomplished.

And so this got me thinking. You know what, Metro commuters? I’m thinking Sourpuss’s face is not a face of unhappiness in the present. At least, not necessarily. This is a face that has endured something. There was something in Sourpuss’s life that made that crease between her brow so deep. That made it into a veritable Grand Canyon of hardship and strain. Whatever it was, it lasted a long, long time, long enough to etch permanent struggle into every edge of her features. What was it, my sweet, sweet Sourpuss? Did you lose someone who meant the world to you? Did you have a child who was disabled, who you had to watch fight so hard every day? Did you give up a dream? Did you stay in a job you hated because you thought someone needed you to? Did you resent that someone by the end? Did you resent yourself for resenting them? Did you realize something too late? Did you leave someone and regret it later and find it was unfixable? Or, god, Sourpuss. Tell me. Tell me, did somebody hurt you? Did somebody hurt you? Was that it? Was it a lifetime of struggling with the concept of “victim” that carved your face so deep?

Tell me what it was, tell me. Tell me. Tell me so that I can listen and respond by brushing your cheek gently with the backs of my index and middle fingers, cupped slightly into a curve, and tell you you are loved no matter what. Tell me so I can put my hand on top of your hand and squeeze it gently while I say to you, “But that’s past now. That’s all past. We can move forward now, there is still a way forward. We’ll go together. Let’s go right now.”

And tell me for one other reason too, please. Tell me so I can know what makes a face so permanently crumpled. Tell me so I can try to avoid it, whatever it is. So I can fix it before it’s too late. Because though you are beautiful, Sourpuss — and you are, you are so beautiful — the way you broadcast your life of hard every time you turn your face in my direction pains me immeasurably. Sourpuss, I love you, I love you, but I don’t want your creases. I couldn’t bear them. Not them too.

So tell me what it is. I’m the girl across the aisle in the black coat. Lean forward and whisper. Whatever it is. I can stand it, I will stand it, it will be withstood. I’m listening. My ear is tipped and I am waiting for your signal.

The crow flies at midnight. Say it, say it.

 

Dopplegangers

There are two women who ride my bus these days who look a lot like other women. I call the first one “Sara Gilbert,” and the second one “Chick from Matrix.” Sara Gilbert looks just like — and I mean JUST LIKE — Sara Gilbert (that girl from Rosanne and ER). It’s uncanny, actually. “Chick from Matrix” is a little less striking — she only looks vaguely like Carrie Anne Moss, and I’m not entirely convinced anybody else would make that connection at all upon seeing her.

Anyway, I spend a lot of time examining these two women out of the corner of my eye while on the bus. They always look extremely unhappy, and I have to wonder if it’s partly because they look so much like other people and thus are forced to struggle with identity issues every time they are have to field a comment about that. “Hey, anybody ever tell you you look JUST LIKE. . .” “YES. NOW SHUT IT.”

Or maybe they’re just unhappy because it’s oh-dark-thirty and they’re on a cold bus on their way to a dead-end job where their coworkers make Rosanne and Keanu Reeves jokes all day long behind their backs, and they are constantly having to look at their own faces in the mirror and wonder why in the hell everybody thinks they look so much like these other women, when really, can’t they see I just look like ME?

It’s an odd phenomenon — dopplegangers. I see them everywhere, and I don’t know if it’s just because I see more when I look at people than others do and therefore I notice repeated physical patterns everywhere I look, or if everybody else sees people who look like other people all day long too. Oddly enough, I never see anybody who looks like ME, though I have frequently heard from others that they see versions of me all around them, and that I am, of all things, actually a doppleganger of Mary Stuart Masterson myself. I wonder too if it’s normal never to see your own dopplegangers. If you have seen yourself from too many angles too many times, inside and out, to ever see any small piece of yourself in another.

That said, I am actually married to King Buzzo’s doppleganger (the lead singer of The Melvins), and I dated a guy who looks an awful lot like both Art Garfunkel and a guy who just made it through to Hollywood last night on American Idol. I also have a friend who gets the Keanu Reeves thing a lot, much to his great dismay. And every time I see Julia Roberts, I think of my sister.

Is it just me? Is this what everybody does when they are on a bus, walking out in public, mingling in crowds? Is it our nature to look for patterns in people’s exteriors? Is it our nature to try to find a familiar face in every face we look at? Or is it just a limited range of genetic combinations that keep repeating and repeating all the time in humankind? I find this phenomenon utterly fascinating. And sometimes it takes every ounce of strength I have not to gather Sara Gilbert and Chick from Matrix together on the back seat of the bus and tell them to cheer up — that they are both unique and also familiar, and that there’s something the rest of us find exceedingly comforting about that. Maybe I will. And when I do, I will end my speech by saying, “Hey, at least you aren’t that woman from my old bus who looked just like — and I mean JUST LIKE — Herman Munster.”

You see, girls? Things could’ve been much, much worse.

Po-Russky

Po-Russky is one of the few Russian phrases I know, and if I remember it correctly, it just means “speaks Russian.” I also can say please (Pozhalujsta) and thank you (Spasibo). And, of course, the ever useful “Ja ljublju tebja” (which sort of sounds like “Yellow blue bus,” and means “I love you”) as well as the ever more useful “Ja shozhu po tebe s uma,” which means, roughly translated, “You are driving me INSANE.”

I figured this little Russian lesson was as good a way as any to start off a post about The Russian. At the very least, you’ve learned something useful should the communists finally take over at long last, right?

But here’s the thing about The Russian: I have no evidence whatsoever that The Russian is actually Russian. I’ve never heard him talk, and aside from asking to see his Green Card, which seems unnecessarily intrusive, I’m not sure how else I’d be able to tell.

The Russian is named “The Russian,” though, because he LOOKS Russian to me. First, there’s his face, which very much reminds me of the face of a Russian scientist I used to work with years ago (and whom I had a major crush on, I might add — he was utterly hunkazoidal). And then there’s his body — not fat, but somewhat stocky and strong. And then there’s his taste in clothing — not quite right somehow, suggesting that he may be foreign.

And then there’s the real dead giveaway: his stoicalness. (Note: I actually prefer the look of the word “stoicness” there, but apparently, it is incorrect. “Stoicalness” looks ridiculous, though, doesn’t it? And it sounds ridiculous too — try it out. Nevertheless, stoicalness it is, as these days, with hunched-over grammarians skulking around every corner, it’s best to reserve poetic license arguments for when they are really and truly necessary. Say, for example, the next time I use the word “hunkazoidal.”)

Russian Scientist was also very stoic. And it was a very distinctive type of stoicalness, too — the same type I see in The Russian. Not just quiet, but disarmingly calm as well. Calm and quiet, but also firmly in control of the situation, though not necessarily willing to step forward and take action unless absolutely required to. Calm, quiet, and firmly in control of the situation, but also somewhat cautious, looking around as though suddenly aware that things are not going quite as anticipated. Calm, quiet, firmly in control, cautious, and very, very alert. All at the same time. All wrapped into one stocky, oddly-dressed package on the bus.

Also, though this is likely an ignorant thing to say, both Russian Scientist and The Russian look like solid men who have stood in long lines for hours waiting for loaves of bread or shoes. You would get stoic and calm and quiet and cautious after that, don’t you think? Do Russians still have to wait in long lines for food and shoes? I confess to not knowing much about Russia these days — I’ve been infernally confused ever since the USSR shattered and changed its name and broke regions up into other countries. Commonwealth of Independent States? But “CCCP” looked so much cooler on tee-shirts!

Anyway, The Russian is on my afternoon bus almost every day. That bus is usually quite crowded, and whenever it is that he is getting on (not at my stop, but at a previous one), he is usually left standing in the aisle. Since I’m typically the first person on at my stop, I often end up standing directly in front of him, looking back at him every time we hit another stop just in case someone is coming up behind us to get off the bus.

Yesterday was my first “conversation” with The Russian. It went like this:

[empty seat finally opens up — it is located directly between me and The Russian]

Me: Do you want to sit down?

The Russian: [mute, tips head in direction of seat, blinking eyes at the same time, symbolizing, “No, you take it.”]

This is typical for The Russian. I have seen him have other “conversations” with people on the bus in which they talk to him and he responds with nods, shaking of his head, weak smiles, or a look of stoic, calm, cautious waiting-ness. I have never seen his mouth open to let words or even the most basic of phonetic sounds come out. I find this intriguing. He clearly speaks English, as he not only seems to understand what people are saying to him, but also carries books and newspapers that are written in English. But why so quiet?

Is The Russian Russian? Someday I hope to hear his voice, and to discover that I was right about him. But then there’s the fear of finding out I was wrong — my God, what if The Russian turns to speak to me and what comes out is a Southern drawl? What if he’s from the OTHER Georgia, the one down there with Alabama and South Carolina? What will that do to my worldview, I wonder?

Aside from, perhaps, making me a little less likely to judge people simply by the way they stand in an aisle on a crowded bus, exuding serenity with a stoicalness unmatched by any other, wearing an odd-colored, too-short tie with a checked, short-sleeved, button-down shirt tucked unevenly into strangely ill-fitting, retro-colored pants. Hmmm. Food for thought.

Charts and Graphs

Last summer, I moved into a new neighborhood, and that’s when I started to take a smaller commuter bus instead of a massively packed regular-route bus. It was then that I really started to notice riders, primarily because the same riders tend to be on that bus every single day.

The first person I ever took notice of on my new commuter bus was Charts and Graphs. Figured it was probably about time I wrote something about her. I first noticed her when she irritated me with her early-morning giddiness. Our bus driver had announced that it was his last day on the route, and she broke into happy, grateful applause, practically bouncing in her seat (not happy he was leaving, but instead happily applauding his greatness). I’m not sure why that irritated me, but it did.

Since then, what I’ve primarily noticed about Charts and Graphs is her love of, well, charts and graphs. Almost every day on the bus, when she’s not chatting with Nice Lady, C&G has a steno notebook out and is drawing up elaborate charts and graphs that make no sense (to me, anyway). I have often sat near her and sneaked peeks at her pad, and I never can figure out what the heck she is doing. Often, the charts will consist of multiple circles, overlapping, into which various things will be written. But though that makes one think instantly of a Venn Diagram (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venn_diagram), it’s not really what she’s doing. Things in the circles don’t seem to overlap with each other, or even relate to one another.

Other times, she will be scribbling things into a calendar book, but they aren’t calendar items — they’re more like to-do lists that don’t seem related to any particular date. I’ve seen her actually go through multiple calendar books — she fills one up with scribbles and then buys a new one.

At first I thought maybe she was just nuts. But a few times, I’ve seen her write logical lists of things. Things to remember to pack in her suitcase for a trip, financial goals to reach before retirement. The lists usually make sense. It’s the charts and graphs, some of which become quite elaborate, that are total mysteries to me.

I have to confess I’m really hoping that one day she sets her steno pad down on an empty seat and then forgets to pick it back up so I can go through it. Isn’t that awful of me? But by this time, after a year of watching Charts and Graphs scribble away, I’m absolutely dying for a chance to see what it is she’s doing that requires so MUCH note-taking and diagram-drawing. It doesn’t seem work-related. It seems like private life kind of stuff. What the heck is Charts and Graphs up to? I just can’t figure it out.

Anyway, now, a year later, Charts and Graphs no longer irritates me with her excessively sunny outlook. She’s become more of an enigma over time — less predictable, less cliche. Plus, the fact that Nice Lady likes her tells me she can’t be all bad or all crazy. Nice Lady, though very nice, doesn’t make friends with everybody on the bus (incidentally, she’s taken to calling me “dear” periodically now, which suggests to me she’s decided I’m a keeper). She’s discerning. I suppose that means Charts and Graphs is interesting to her as well. Strange what people do on buses to pass the time. Though I do prefer frenzied scribblings to nose picking. On the whole.

Frog-Face Girl, You’re the One for Me

FFG is not actually a girl — in fact, she’s probably in her 70’s, and her face and gravity have clearly been duking it out for some time. Gravity seems to be ahead by a nose — well, by more than a nose, to be honest — but I have to say, it’s only done her appearance good in the long run. I think if her face were younger, tighter, it would not be worth looking at twice. But her face now — if I could sculpt, I would sculpt the curved shapes and droops of her face. If I could paint, I would paint the shadowy creases and crags of her face. But I can neither sculpt nor paint, and now that I’m in the middle of this, I’m realizing I can also not do it full justice with words.

Suffice it to say, I spend a lot of time looking at FFG while she’s on the bus. And while I look, I confess I like to wonder about what her life is like. She must have an amazing life, mustn’t she? With a face that interesting and classy? Her husband must be a fascinating man, smart and affectionate. Hers is the kind of face that would inspire theories on the nature of the universe, so maybe he’s a physicist or a philosopher. Or a poet.

Or, I suppose it’s possible he sells insurance and comes home every evening beaten down and exhausted. As he comes into the living room and sets down his briefcase, he looks at his wife’s froggy face in the flashing light of the evening TV show. She sits stiffly in her chair, knitting things no one will ever wear, and he sighs quietly and thinks to himself, rrrrrrrrribbit!

He doesn’t know what he’s got, and she could do so much better.

I confess I worry sometimes about Frog-Face Girl. She’s not a happy person — at least, she isn’t when she’s on the bus. She just sits there, still and quiet, not opening a book or looking around but instead perching straight up on her seat with her hands crossed in her lap, pursing her lips like someone who wants to say something to a misbehaving child but doesn’t have the energy or motivation to actually open her mouth and speak.

I love Frog-Face Girl’s hair most of all. Oh, how I envy her hair. I’m utterly green with envy. Frog green. Toad green. She has long, wavy hair that corresponds perfectly with the curves of her face, and she wears it up in a loose bun with a large clip holding it all in place in the back. Strands fall down onto her shoulders, and it’s just so beautifully swept — so casual and yet so dignified, somehow. Her gray is more a very pale, silvery yellow and it’s there in streaks that almost look intentional. It’s exactly the kind of hairstyle I should be wearing as a librarian. But instead, I have extremely short hair, and it’s virtually impossible to make it look serious and knowledgeable. But Frog-Face Girl’s hair? Looks serious and knowledgeable to me.

I suppose I don’t have anything profound to say about Frog-Face Girl, now that I’m here. I simply find her fascinating and I wanted to try to put into words just why. I wonder what life would be like if one looked like she did. I wonder what she was like when she was younger, before whatever it was that gave her lips that permanent purse happened to her. I wonder what her hair looks like when it is down, after she’s woken up in the morning and padded into the bathroom to brush it and put its clip in place. I wonder if her husband looks at her the way I do, with such an intense appreciation for the way her face looks in the early morning sunshine. That sounds like a weird thing to say, really. But if I were a man, I honestly don’t think I’d be able to take my eyes off her. Heck, I’m a woman, and I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. I don’t know why, but I feel somewhat passionately curious about Frog-Face Girl.

I wonder if someday I’ll get the opportunity to sit next to her and strike up some kind of conversation. Would she talk to a wrackin’ frackin’ young’un like me? Or would she just tip her head, tighten her mouth, and turn her straightened back in my direction, staring out the window instead, her face unhappy. Her eyes stern.

Frog-Face Girl, I have only two words for you: Don’t settle.

Tone-Deaf Singing Guy

At first, I, like many others at the bus stop, was kind of annoyed by TDSG. Shut UP, already. I’m trying to read my book and enjoy the glorious weather! But after a couple more ridiculously awful verses of “Dan Tucker,” my emotions began to shift.

As Tone-Deaf Singing Guy paused, cleared his throat, and then started back up with an absolutely brutal assassination of “Jesse James,” I started to think about how great it must be to be him at that moment. To be able to sit down on a bench at a crowded bus stop, pull out the lyrics to your favorite songs, and let all your enthusiasm and love for music burst right out of your mouth and into the air. To not even care what the people around you thought, but instead to be completely consumed by the moment and your joy and your intense affection for a set of songs you had probably known since you were a child.

Maybe TDSG thinks he’s a great singer. Maybe he knows he’s terrible. Maybe he’s just plain crazy. But haven’t you ever listened to your MP3 player in public and been suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to start dancing up the sidewalk, singing your heart out along to some rockin’ tune that just started running up the wires into your ears? I know I have. But my god, I’d never actually DO it. Because I know I’m bad. And everybody else would know I was bad too. And what could be worse than being stared at, or laughed at, or, heavens to Murgatroid!, being written about in somebody’s bus blog!

Yet, listen to this guy. He is literally one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard in my entire life. But despite that fact, when my bus finally pulls up and its doors open, I actually hesitate for a moment. There’s another bus in ten minutes — should I wait for it? Because I’m suddenly smitten with TDSG. I want to see what he’ll do next. I want to see how much longer he’ll be keeping this up. I want to keep watching him. I want to keep standing near him and be fully infected by his gumption and his enthusiasm and his happiness. This guy is having a great day, and combined with the weather, I can’t help but want to stay here in my sunshiny spot and bask in all the cosmic and karmic rays I suddenly feel coming at me from every direction.

And now I’m thinking: is this not exactly what music is supposed to be about? The sharing of passions and feelings and histories and affections and a lust for life and all the complexities that go along with it? After years of piano teachers and classical theory, as well as thousands of hours spent listening to every kind of sound I could get my hands on, I suddenly realize I’ve just been taught one of the most important music lessons of my life. By a big, unkempt guy sitting on a bench at a bus stop, letting his soul spill out into the streets like the puffy black gusts of exhaust that billow out the back of my bus as its doors close, I sit down, and it all becomes clear.

I’d love it if Tone-Deaf Singing Guy turned out to be a new regular. Maybe next time, he’ll take a few requests? But in the meantime, I’m looking forward to getting my own copy of the new Springsteen album. Every time I listen to it, I hope I’ll be reminded of yesterday — its sunshine, its breezes, its characters, and its epiphanies.

Eh, we should all be so lucky.