Crazy Man on the Bus
One of the many benefits of eschewing automobiles in favor of public transportation is the general absence of murderous sociopaths suffering from “road rage.” The downside is sporadic encounters with people tuned into frequencies only they can hear, folks we commonly call “crazy.”
They’re not nearly as dangerous as an angry commuter texting behind the wheel of his Lexus, but crazy folks can be frightening when they don’t seem to understand they’re on a city bus, let alone Planet Earth. And when we humans are frightened, it’s usually amygdala time, a million-year-old choice between fight and flight.
In our calm moments, we rationally understand that when you’re confronted by someone who doesn’t comprehend who you are, why you’re here and where you’re going, the best choice is always flight. That can be hard to see when you’re blinded by adrenaline.
The other day, around 6:30PM, I was on a crowded 217 Metro bus going down Fairfax Avenue. Salmoning through the standing passengers, I was able to find an empty seat in the rear, on the elevated back bench, the middle seat peering straight down the aisle. The observation tower.
Scanning the passengers: boys, girls; men, women; different hairstyles, different colors; some with phones and earbuds, some with their thoughts; everyone heading somewhere important to them, like home. Four rows up, on the right, wearing a yellow short-sleeved shirt and dungarees, a man is inspecting a flashlight with remarkable attention, the kind you might observe in a child learning how to take apart a car engine. He’s 35, I would guess, Latino, skinny, unshaven but not unkempt. And he can’t quite sit still.
Beside him is a young man wearing a cap cocked at an angle and large headphones connected to his phone, which he’s thumbing through sullenly. The young man is trying not to look at Mr. Yellow, who has begun to murmur and giggle to himself. The flashlight, it seems, provides him with great amusement. He’s laughing louder and bouncing softly in his seat. I can sense annoyance radiating from the hip-hop kid, whose growing exasperation is starting to show. “Who needs this crazy shit when I’m just trying to get home?”
Just then, Mr. Yellow pops up out of his seat, his eyes flashing, his grin widening. He regards the entire bus and locates a recently vacated seat directly across the aisle, where he plops in, hoists his flashlight to face level with two hands and freezes. For an awful moment I feel he might chop down on another passenger with his light, a black heavy-duty version a little smaller than what a police officer carries.
Instead, he turns the flashlight on and starts to shine it at what appear to be highly specific, pre-determined spots on the ceiling and the floor. Only he could say why this is happening. Then, still grinning and giggling, Mr. Yellow shines the light at the hip-hop kid, who slumps in his seat and ignores the intrusion – until, eventually, the beam circumvents his headphones and catches the side of his eye.
As the kid rises to his feet, I feel an impulse to rise with him, to intercede, to explain. “He doesn’t know what’s happening,” I want to say. “Don’t hurt him.”
The kid takes one step toward Mr. Yellow and turns sharply left, up the aisle, toward the back bench. I make room for him to slide into the corner seat. “It ain’t worth it,” he says, shaking his head.
“Right on,” I tell him. “You handled that perfectly.”
“Yeah. You don’t know what he went through.”
“And he probably doesn’t know who you are. Or even that he’s on a bus.” We chuckle together, and I feel like everything is quite all right.
Two pretty young women engaged in animated conversation take the seats across from Mr. Yellow. Here we go again, I think. But he’s not interested in them. Mr. Yellow’s is looking now at me, smiling with far more intensity than the situation probably warrants, unless I appear to him as a kind of comic vision of all that tickles and delights him. That, I decide, would be pretty cool, being able to make people laugh without even trying.
I meet his gaze. I smile with him. He raises his flashlight and begins to aim it in my direction. I slowly, very slowly, shake my head “no,” still smiling, still holding his gaze, still finding it all frivolous and fun and silly. He mimics my head shake and puts down his flashlight.
I smile. He smiles with me. He now raises a single finger to his lips, making a “shush” gesture, suppressing laughter.
I nod. He nods.
He repeats the shushing. I nod. He nods. And repeats the gesture. This time I merely hold his gaze, continuing to smile, continuing to telepathically tell him (and to reassure myself) I mean you no harm, I am not a threat and I do not fear you, I mean you no harm.
We breath together once or twice, and he returns his attention to the flashlight. Two stops later, I get off the bus, and when I turn back he’s looking through the window at me, smiling with all his teeth showing, shining his flashlight in my general direction.
As I stroll home from the bus stop, I consider turning what happened into a brilliantly synthesized essay about our American inability to walk away, our predilection for conflict, especially with people we don’t really understand, a kind of microcosm-macrocosm analysis of what fuels our national pugnaciousness and national insanity, something worthy of Lewis Lapham or Adam Gopnik, something ingenious and enlightening.
Instead, I laugh out loud like a crazy man and replay the entire bus ride in my head, thinking thoughts no one else will fully understand, including me.