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In the Back of the Bus
Ari Rosenschein


I listen to the inebriated couple talk loudly to each other from opposite sides of the back bench. The man wears a Bob Marley shirt and his hair in dreadlocks. His camo pants are dirty and sunglasses cover his eyes. A forty-ounce bottle in a brown paper bag rests between his thighs. The woman's hair is covered by a scarf and she nurses a bottle of beer. 

There’s been some ruckus at 3rd and Pike, a Seattle corner notorious for a flagrant disregard of both social and legal standards. I watch a crowd disperse as the bus pulls into traffic.

"Look at the way they act," says the man, shaking his head. "And you know when they interview a brother on television, it's always one of that type. Making trouble." 

“Trouble is right,” says the woman. 

I smile and fall into their rhythm. The woman sees me nodding and addresses her next words in my direction.

"You know what I'm talking about. What are you? You Italian?" Her eyes are filled with pain and kindness.

I could look away but I don’t. “Actually, I’m Jewish,” I say.

"So are we," she almost yells. 

The man puts his fist out and points at his Star of David ring. 

To those who know me, it would come as no surprise that I am engaged in a discussion about my ethno-cultural heritage with strangers on the D line. I’ve always been this way: open, friendly, disarming, talkative. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an act. I'm as calculated as a new student on the first day of school. See, I’ve trained myself to ward off dangers with words. Some people use humor to the same end, others affect superiority. Me? I’m the most motherfucking in your face non-judgmental positive dude you’ll ever meet. I’m this way so you'll like me and, with any luck, leave me alone. My practiced gregariousness is not a byproduct of extroversion. (I’d always rather drift away on a cloud of story or song.) No, this amiability an offensive tactic, honed as a reaction to years of bullying and social rejection. 

The woman continues, impelled by emotion, "We were slaves and your people, you were in concentration camps. They always go after the chosen people." 

“Haile Selassie and the lost tribe of Israel,” I offer, draining my shallow pool of Rastafari knowledge in one shot.

"Yeah, we're the lost tribe," says the man. "They even got Ethiopian Jews." 

“When I lived in Jerusalem, I had Ethiopian classmates,” I tell the couple, eagerly injecting a whiff of Old Testament into the conversation. “They were airlifted by the Israeli Defense Force at night. It was a whole thing.”

"You've been to Israel? Well that is just blessed." The woman sucks in her breath, then continues. "Remember when Whitney Houston took Bobby Brown to Israel. I can't believe she went and did that. That man!" 

I do vaguely recall a tabloid piece following that doomed couple around the Holy Land. “Yes,” I say. “That was a toxic relationship.”

The man shakes his head, looks out the window. 

She swigs from her can. "Talk about it,” she says at an obscenely loud volume.

I see the woman’s wheels in motion and worry she is just getting started. I've been around enough drunks to know when it’s time to steer us back to calmer waters. 

I’m right.

She points her finger at me. “You should see his ex. She's all kinds of crazy." 

Let me just say, I admire folks who can leave a pregnant pause in a conversation, who can sit with silence—ride the discomfort. Yet, while I appreciate their discipline, I cannot myself bear an awkward hesitation. Those alien lifeforms lack my compulsion to complete someone else’s thought or interject a question in the name of politeness. A stoic I am not. Anything can happen in a lull so I keep the ball moving at any cost. 

As I hinted, this tendency probably has something to do with being a child of divorce and moving around as a child. Start afresh a few Septembers in a row on a foreign playground and you learn fast that talk is survival. There’s no room for indecision—when the moment appears you grab it. Either that or you become vulnerable to teasing or worse: invisibility. Suffice to say, my impulse-chatter isn’t always pretty. 

“What’s your ex like?” I blurt. 

The man looks up at the bus roof. "She's on dialysis but I take care of her. She's living in San Francisco." 

Thinking fast, I tell him I know the Bay Area well, that I grew up in Palo Alto. 

The man lights up and starts to free associate. "Palo Alto! Stanford. I went to Berkeley."

"I'm from San Francisco," the woman chimes in.

"We went to rival high schools," he says.

“My friends and I used to go to Telegraph Avenue all the time in high school,” I say. “We thought it was the coolest.” 

This tickles the both of them and the woman starts to rock in her seat. "What you know about Telegraph?" she asks. 

"Where you going to now? Where you work?" the man asks me. 

I tell them I work at a local radio station and that we have a great reggae show on Saturdays. As soon as the word reggae leaves my mouth, I regret it. He has dreads so he must like reggae. Right. I try to cover it up and babble on about community events, free concerts, anything to offer a context for my comment. It is an elaborate apology. I'm sorry I'm white, sorry for all my privilege, my college education, my desk job, pocket money, cleanish clothing. 

But the man is involved in his own private storyline. "My daughter goes to Berkeley. She's gonna' be a doctor. She's a virgin. She ain't having no sex."

The woman jumps in: "I didn't have no sex until I was twenty-four." The man furrows his brow like he doesn’t want to hear this. She continues. "I'm forty-four now but I look young." 

I watch her stare out the window and try to decide if I agree.

"That's my black queen right there," the man says, looking over at the woman.

She looks back at him. "He takes good care of his ex and his daughter,” she says. “He loves them. He and I understand each other."

"It's because we're both from the Bay," he explains.

The alcohol comes off them strong and sour. It’s just after 9 in the morning. At this hour, I figure they’ve just left a shelter or encampment. They are drunk but lucid. I search their faces for who they want me to see: their old selves, in better days, when they had dreams. Don’t these two—with their drowsy eyes and innate harmlessness—deserve a better life than this? I wonder at what point people become invisible. 

The man looks off. "I just tell my daughter to keep doing good, telling her she can be a doctor."

“That's great,” I tell him. Keep it positive, far from alcoholic melancholia. This too, I learned from dealing with drunks at home and in the wild.

Our bus stops near First and Denny and my new friends stand up. It is now 9:15. I wonder where they will go. As he stands, I notice burn marks all over the man’s hands. The woman looks at me with soft, brown eyes. Her high cheekbones and freckled skin hint at a prior beauty. She walks over to me, bends down, and kisses the top of my hand. Her lips are cool on my skin.

"You have a blessed day," she says.

The two of them waddle off the bus into the Seattle morning. 

"I've seen worse," a bearded young man next to me says with a knowing smile after they’re gone. Tech sector, I figure. 

“They just needed to be seen,” I say. “You know?” I want him to understand these two weren’t merely homeless scenery, but real people with histories, passions and preferences, intimacies and irritations. 

He does not answer, instead returning to his Twitter feed. 

Maybe I’m just like this glib asshole on his iPhone. Do I think that because I work with other addicts in a twelve step program that I’m some man of the people, that I’m more in tune with the emotional frequencies of the fallen? I call bullshit on myself. 

My ancestors, the Jews, were God’s chosen ones, cursed to wander the desert and never enter the land of Israel. The lost tribe, the dreadlocked man had said. Yes, we were tribemates, but it had nothing to do with race, religion, or economics. Rather, we related because we were all on the same wavelength. 

Empaths, maybe? Certainly we were all soft-hearted. The couple wanted me to know they were not like the riff-raff at the bus stop—that they had families and loyalties. ("You should see the way he takes care of his ex-wife," the woman said. "He's a good, good man. She's on dialysis, you know?") The snippets they chose to share weren’t former glories, just anecdotes connecting them to my world: the domain of the seen.

I don’t tell my wife about the couple on the bus until right before bed. It is too much to explain. The kiss on my hand, the chaste daughter at Berkeley, Whitney and Bobby, the Ethiopian Jews. When I finally launch into the story, I get everything out of order and it sounds like our interaction was much lengthier than it was. She asks me how long the whole deal lasted.

"Oh, less than ten minutes. It's a short ride from downtown to Seattle Center."

On the bus, I told the man his daughter sounded like a great kid, that he should be proud of her. Now, as I explain it at home, under increased scrutiny, I’m less convinced there even was a daughter. Even the school rivalry bit seems suspicious. I’m starting to think that too may have been a composite memory, cobbled from TV shows and universal high school lore.

Not that my anecdotes weren’t a little apocryphal too. Certainly the repeated references to my Jewish upbringing were pretty heavy-handed. But then, our whole exchange was predicated on the assumption of each other’s virtue. I’d sainted them both: my very own idealized itinerants. They forgave my privilege stinking up the place.

Maybe Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown faced similar quandaries on their public pilgrimage to Israel. Did they feign interest in their cab driver’s East Jerusalem homelife? Probably not. I picture them bickering in the backseat, insulated from international affairs by their vices, their fame, their North American attitudes. And I wonder how much actual conversation Brad or Angelina made with orphanage workers or U2’s Bono with his UN escort or whoever. 

As I give the disjointed account to my wife, my liberal guilt spares me no mercy. I do note my consistency, however. Sure, I’m a people pleaser through and through—but I’m no hypocrite. My instinct is to preserve harmony. At work, at school, with the destitute on public transit. I may act like salt of the earth but really it’s easier. I can control things when they stay polite. 

"They were really sweet," I say. "I liked them."

Ari Rosenschein is a Seattle-based writer whose work appears in Meow Meow Pow Pow, Entropy, Lunch Ticket, P.S. I Love You, From Sac, Literally Literary, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles and works at KEXP radio as Development Communications Manager. A lifelong musician, Ari also records and performs with STAHV and The Royal Oui.