I often notice the people who ride the bus with me, just like I’m sure some of them notice me. Not everyone does. Some people fold in on themselves like an origami bird when they go out in public, seeing only their own devices, and out of habit, their stops. We all follow the code though: you keep to yourself. Don’t talk too loudly. Don’t take up more than one seat (two, if you have groceries, and the bus isn’t crowded). People who don’t respect the muffled quiet of the commute get away with it, of course, because when you follow the code, you’re not going to break it by speaking up, but we notice.
Halfway home from the store, the bus stopped for five minutes of scheduled break before the route number changed. If you’re going up the hill, there’s no point in getting off the bus and then back on, so the drivers let us sit until it’s time to go again. A man, with long greasy graying hair, wearing a dark grey sweatshirt, Cornell hat, aviator glasses, and jeans, plus a heavy-looking backpack, pulled the bike rack down from the front of the bus with a loud clank. He situated his bike, then boarded. Loudly, he asked, “Anyone got anything for sale?”
No one replied. Few looked at him. The bus was not crowded yet; we were waiting at Green St, in front of the library, for more passengers. Our driver was off getting a drink from the nearby coffee bar.
“Any chips?” the greasy man asked, voice still booming, as if the half dozen people sitting quietly on a standard-sized city bus might not be able to hear him. He sat down on a bench near the front, next a middle aged Latina wearing a red t-shirt and red plastic sunglasses, who scooted over a few inches, moving away from him as far as the seat would allow.
“I’m hungry,” he said, leaning toward her, by way of explanation. He wasn’t so loud this time, and he mumbled. She nodded as if understanding, with the half smile we women use to acknowledge people we wish would stop talking.
The man took off his backpack and set it on the floor with a tired thump. He scowled, looked around at the other passengers, and shook his head. We had failed him by not having food to share with or sell to him, and he would not forget it.
The bus driver got back on, and checked his machine to be certain the greasy man had paid the right fair. Satisfied, he let a few other people on, cheerful enough, though saying little more than everyday bus pleasantries. We gained a dozen Cornell kids as we rode up through Collegetown, where the scent of lunchtime restaurants landed in my nose and inspired my belly. The man said nothing, but his expression made it clear he’d noticed the same smells.
Our numbers diminished as we wound through campus, releasing students into the bright September afternoon one stop after another. The man stood for a moment as we passed the century-old Theta Delta Chi fraternity house, but sat down quickly again. He had perhaps two days worth of scruff on his computer, and his tanned face was sparsely but deeply lined. After the Thurston Hall stop, there were only six of us left on the bus, including him.
On holidays the bus takes a slightly different route than I’m used to. The change in route number is clear but I forget anyway, just enough that I wonder once or twice if we’re still going in the right direction. At Jessup, we lose the last student, and the red-shirt woman starts up a conversation with the young black girl across the aisle. She had purple hair and was going to the airport; the man leaned in, trying to grab a piece of the conversation, but neither women had any more to say, and he leaned back into his seat.
At the cemetery, the landscape became familiar to me again. I always know my relative distance from a graveyard.
The airport girl gets off at the pharmacy stop, which means she’ll have to wait an hour for the next bus if she wants to catch her flight, and I realize then that I may have misheard her. Who goes to the airport without luggage?
It’s not until we–my son and I–get off a few minutes later that the hungry man notices our grocery bags. We stepped off onto the warm asphalt as he opened a window and shouted,
“Hey, you have food!”
There are two cars idling behind the bus, and I’m surrounded on all sides by apartment buildings, but the bus isn’t moving.
“Ingredients,” I called back.
He shakes his head at me.
“Flour,” I said loudly as I raised the translucent bag containing 5 pounds of unbleached white. The noon sun beats down like a spotlight of discomfort. “It’s for baking.”
Whatever response he had was lost as the bus trundled forward, leaving us behind. The cars pass. A wispy cloud drifts in front of the sun. We head home, flip flops smacking against the new parking lot, to our little apartment, where no one has to notice us at all.
I wrote most of this as it happened on the bus today, and finished it when I got home. It is nearly entirely true, but it’s the way you tell a story that makes it creative, I’m told, though if you tell it well enough, it somehow diminishes the part that’s real. (Personally, I think the real parts are what make fiction work best.) As always, comments are appreciate. Thanks for reading!