Here’s a transcript from an actual conversation I had the other day at the bus stop with a man I’m going to call “Oldest Man Alive” because, in short, it’s apt. I’d never seen Oldest Man Alive before — he’s no regular — and I feel fairly certain I will never see him again. However, I’m not sure if I’m glad or sorry about that latter fact, as this was certainly one of the most bizarrely interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time.
Scene: I’m standing at the bus stop in the afternoon waiting to go home. Oldest Man Alive begins walking very slowly towards me — kind of like a wind-up robot with no knees, tottering slowly and methodically from side to side, leg to leg. I’m not really looking at him — I’m just keeping one peripheral eye on him as he wobbles in my direction. He gets up very close to my right elbow and then speaks:
OMA: [in a barely detectable monotonous growl, speaking extremely quickly] Do you have a smoke? Do you have smoke? Do you have a smoke? Are you a student or a professor?
Me: Um, sorry. . . what?
OMA: You — you a student or a professor?
Me: [pulling headphones out of ears] Neither — I’m a librarian at the university.
OMA: No you aren’t. A university librarian. You. are. not. one. What do you know?
OMA: What do you KNOW? What do you know — IN YOUR HEAD?
Me: What do I know? Uh, well. . . Just enough to be dangerous?
The girl sitting on the bus stop bench behind me laughs at my response. She’s been watching OMA peripherally as well, I can tell. In fact, at this point, I look up and notice that most of the women at the bus stop have at least one eye on OMA and probably have for the last several minutes, just as I was doing earlier myself. Interestingly enough, most of the men barely seem to notice him, and this fact makes me think for a second about the marked difference between women and men’s instinctive reactions to odd people on the bus. Before I can delve too deeply into this thought, however, the girl asks me “What library?” and I don’t have time to respond before OMA continues. . .
OMA: [harrumphs] I know everything, you know nothing. You don’t even know how much a pack of cigarettes costs.
OMA: [startled] What?
Me: [pointing at sign on smoke shop across the street, shrugging] $4.19.
OMA: [starts to follow the direction of my finger but gives up quickly and returns his gaze to me] Librarian, give me enough to buy a pack of smokes.
Me: I’m sorry — I literally have no cash on me at all today.
OMA: [speaking so rapidly I can barely understand him] Then what’s in your wallet? What’s in your purse? WHAT’S IN YOUR WALLET?
Me: Just a bus pass and some cards.
OMA: You’re no librarian. You’re not. You’re a liar. Nobody has no cash.
Me: [opening wallet and showing him the utterly empty inside] You were saying?
Before OMA could come up with what I’m sure would’ve been a knee-slappingly witty retort to this, or perhaps just an extremely nonsensical and obfuscating one, a woman walks by us with a smoke dangling from her lip. I instantly become the human equivalent of chopped liver, and as he wobbles off to follow her, knee-less, wound-up, and doing the robot-totter from leg to leg, side to side, I can hear him saying, rapidfire again, “Do you have a smoke? Do you have a smoke? Do you have a smoke?”
About five minutes later, I got on the bus and when I looked out the window, he was standing in the bus shelter again, this time with a cigarette, victoriously puffing on it so hard and so fast I felt sure he was going to hyperventilate any minute. As he stood there gasping down that smoky air like he’d actually been drowning in all the clean atmosphere he’d been inhabiting just moments ago, I suddenly realized what he reminded me of — the nightmare-inducing (for me, anyway) Skekses from that old kids’ movie, The Dark Crystal. Same beaky face. Same hunched look. Same beady eyes. His grabby hands had overgrown, sharp nails on them, black with nicotine or dirt or both or worse. And I was torn between feeling sorry for him — for clearly he was a poor, somewhat senile old man with a nasty addiction that would no doubt kill him and soon — and shivering from the frisson of such a close encounter with a creature that once haunted my childhood nights with ferocity, beaks, and long, dark claws.
In the end, I did neither. Instead, as the bus began to pick up speed, I turned away from Oldest Man Alive, cracked my book back open, and reabsorbed myself in the capitivating lives of the fictitious.
I’m not sure what this says about me. Probably nothing good.