The first day I saw him, others were ignoring him and, perhaps, the rest of the world meant little to him at this point. Certainly this part of the world, a bus stop near a doughnut-and-coffee place, its walls sticky red in the sun, with its pool tables and Pacheco. It was where T.V judges passing sentence inaudibly in the background made sense. In front, trucks roared by and grit lay in little heaps at the side of the road. There was nothing for the eye to rest on, and therefore, few places for the mind to find peace.
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The man was talking to himself, or perhaps, to someone I couldn’t see. I couldn’t make out the language, perhaps it was Bengali, or another Indian language, in which he was seemingly explaining himself, going through lists, and spitting. Little dry spits like a boy who has just discovered how to and keeps doing it to try to be a man, except he was a man, and had gray hair.
No one else seemed interested. Waiting for the bus was enough. Meanwhile, I watched. The man was middle aged, comfortably dressed in clean casual clothes, and occasionally he ran his fingers quickly through his hair, as if his scalp was crawling. He kept up a steady stream of talk that, whether he intended it or no, kept everyone at bay. He cast his eyes from side to side, and catching a glimpse of them I saw they were sad and tired, rather than crazed, and there were great distances in them. The hand passed through the hair again, and I could see the nails were slightly long but clean, so he cared for himself, or had others who would do so, perhaps family members moved by compassion, hoping to do all they could for this man.
What had brought him to this place from the distant land of his ancestors? Was it just curiosity, or love, or work which led him here only for him to find it slipping from him, causing this retreat behind a wall of soft, rapid murmuring? The harsh Californian light was directly overhead, making shadows shrink and picking out all the grit and rubbish underfoot. The lines in every face at the bus stop were visible and deep.
Was he in hell, or was he seeking a sweet place, as we all stood waiting for the number 19 bus. I pictured buses as they moved along country roads in India, kicking up dust and passing cars spattered with colored powder from the Holi celebrations. In a crossroads schoolhouse, seen as if through a thick wall of glass, an aging teacher stood by a blackboard covered in formulae, a beam of light illuminating tiny swirls of dust that continued in their orbits in front of his spotless white shirt. “Well…?” and the teacher leaned forward for an answer.
The bus arrived, and we all got on, proffering dollars or passes as we hurried for a seat. Again the man was ahead of me, so I kept seeing the clean hand running restlessly through the thick, graying hair. I hoped the man got home safely. Although no one showed any antipathy, I wondered how it would turn out if the stranger had asked someone for help.
Again, images came out of the air. Horns blared as a tangled mass of cars, bikes, and an isolated bullock cart moved off from a busy intersection. Under a huge poster advertising the latest romantic comedy, a youth had spread a cloth on the sidewalk, and joined by two companions, set up a brisk, trebly rhythm. They faltered for a moment, and the leader, hardly out of boyhood though he tried to be more, looked at his companions with a hint of irritation. The boy with wavy hair and taut grin started again on his little drum, and the third member of the company, a child playing a sort of one string harp, held his instrument aloft for a moment and shuffled around nervously. The leader struck a note on his lute, spun round on the toes of one foot, and howled out in anguish and a terrible solitude.
Passersby gave some coins; some left food, and some smiled and watched the impassioned pleas to God and charity under the fierce Indian sun. A hundred yards away, another sad-eyed youngster gritted his teeth and longed for lessons to finish, so he could escape from the crowded streets to play cricket.
Here on the bus there was much less to take someone’s thoughts from the grind of the mundane. Misanthropes informed anyone who was within earshot about the latest stand they were taking. Men who couldn’t fasten their trousers told everyone where they were going wrong. Others incessantly related minute details of their personal lives.
Where was the stranger now? Had he tried to withdraw to a far-off place, or was he just saying bad things about his workmates, the bus driver, and the library service? I saw his head move as he continued to talk, and the bus moved on. I got off before him, and I remembered him for a long time.
The other day I was going up an escalator, he was descending on the opposite side, and the moment I saw him I remembered the long wait for the bus the first time I had seen him. This time he was a little grayer, and wasn’t saying a word. The first time I saw him, I have strong suspicions, he was just having a bad day.
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