Homelessness is a problem of the past. New York City’s recent mayors made it policy to keep the trains free of filthy street people. “Give to these charities instead” advertisements on trains advise commuters who would like to give, but cannot, because it is not only illegal to do so, but also because there are no homeless to be seen. I often wonder where they have all gone. I sponsored a writing competition in the craigslist writers form just to find out. This is the winning story, written by rytis, who will receive the $40 cash prize. Rytis’ story will grace the top spot in wire hangers for a few weeks while I take a break and run away from the comforts of my blog. I’ll see you all soon. I’m on vacation. Stay tuned and enjoy this wonderful tale…
I was running as fast as I could, feet in full windmill tilt forcing long strides, cold air sucking into my lungs trying to feed me oxygen to go faster. I was chasing the No. 12 bus in a mad sprint and only a half block away I saw the last waiting rider board. Now I was down to a quarter of a block, and the accordion doors were starting to close. Noooo! Now I was at the back bumper of the bus, but just then the brake lights went off… and the bus began to pull away from my outstretched arm tapping on the dirty advertisement for the 11’o’clock news.
In the big vertical side view mirror I could see the bus driver eyeing me. No smirk. Probably concern that I would do something stupid like grab onto the bumper for a free ride, or take down his bus number for a later complaint to the MTA. But no sympathy or empathy or desire to halt temporarily and take on one more passenger was evident in that blank look. He couldn’t hear me, but I hoped he could read my lips as I fired off round after round of precision guided f-bombs. Yeah you, you f- well, you know what I said.
The driver was evil, pure evil, I decided. Any other day he would hesitate, wait until all the boarding riders were seated, scratch his left temple a half dozen times, burp, fart, and only then pull out agonizingly slow, cutting off some tiny Cooper Mini. But on those days I would have already been aboard the bus along with everyone else after complaining that he was twenty minutes late. Today, I was half a minute late and he was inexplicably on time. Murphy be damned.
The next bus wouldn’t be for forty minutes per the schedule (and probably twenty minutes late per Murphy’s schedule), so now I had to decide whether to lose an hour of my life or find another way uptown. Should I find an alternative mode of transport, or just sit down in the bus shelter and allow my racing heart to slow, swallow my bitterness at the unkindness of one more of the human race?
I looked around and the rest of the rat race didn’t care. Rumbling truck engines echoed ‘loser’ in their guttural growl, but I’m guessing that was just my imagination… I think. Damn damn damn damn damn. I didn’t know whom to be madder at – myself for dillying before leaving work – or the damn bus driver who probably left behind dozens of people every day trying to get home. May he burn in hell one eternity for each stranded rider. And I was glad to provide one notch on his fare card to eternal hell.
Some Iranian taxi drivers scrutinized me like buzzards, waiting for that slight hand gesture that said I knew I was dead meat and willing to capitulate $40 for a taxi fare. Sorry towell heads. Not today. I was still bitter from that taxi ride two weeks ago when we got stuck in gridlock and the driver refused to unlock the door to let me out (didn’t know they could do that). Actually, Iranians aren’t towell heads, Sikhs wear those turbans. But right now I wasn’t in the mood for political correctness. I had had a very long day and just wanted to go home and everyone else just f-off and leave me be. Damn!
The bus shelter was one of those partial plexi-glass walled contraptions with panels on three sides and the street side open. It only had one inhabitant at this time of the evening rush hour, an elderly woman who appeared to be one of those homeless bag ladies, a small shopping cart next to her filled with all kinds of plastic bags and other paraphenalia of life on the streets. Great. She probably hadn’t bathed in weeks and would be reeking, and I would have to sit next to her. Had there been a coffee shop or a cafe nearby, I could just wait in the cusp of civilization. But around here there were nothing but cold, hard facades of banks and nameless office buildings. No creature comforts where I could hide away for my lost hour of life.
The bench was fairly long so I decided to sit at the other end, hoping no odor would waft over my way. Which way was the wind blowing? I was tired and mad and just didn’t feel like dealing with any more situations today. She was looking down at some old, worn three ring binder pages, whether reading them or interpreting them like tea leaves, I couldn’t tell. I plopped my tired butt on the aluminum seat and immediately felt the cold of the metal seep into my buns. Obviously all of the other riders had stood rather than sit near this bag lady. My ass could tell.
I looked over at her and she quickly put away the white pages into the folds of her wool coat – a scraggly, worn thing with streaks of dirt, but probably not bad at keeping most of the November chill off her bones. She gave me a furtive glance like I was spying on her so I politely looked away.
I wish I had a newspaper or something else to read. I had read all the billboards, store signs, and graffiti around here countless times before, and really was in the mood for something new. I glanced over at the old lady anew and she was back to reading her white pages again. I chuckled to myself wondering if she’d be willing to share a few pages with me. Suddenly a gust of wind kicked up and hit me full face on. Oh that was cold. I pulled up the collars of my leather jacket. Though I was warm with my lambskin, any exposed flesh definitely felt the cold wind.
Just then a light blue plastic grocery store bag blew across the street and into my chest. I grabbed at it, not wanting the filthy thing to hit my face. God knows where it had been and I didn’t want it touching the skin of my face.
I clutched it and balled it up, and was about to fling it away for the irritating thing that it was, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the old lady was watching me intently. It suddenly dawned on me – bag lady, bag. Match made in heaven. So I turned to her and offered up the bag with an outstretched hand.
“Caught this. Would you like it?” I asked, giving a nod toward the shopping cart filled with her assortment of white, clear, brown, blue, and many other colored bags.
She smiled. “No, no, you keep that. That be a good catch you have there. Good bag, Wal-Mart, best kind. I have plenty, you need some.”
OK. Not exactly the response I expected. And now I felt kind of awkward. Tossing the bag into the street would be kind of insulting. And I didn’t really want to keep the filthy thing. Actually, as I looked at it more closely, it really wasn’t filthy. So I balled it up some more and stuck it into my pocket.
“Let me show you,” I heard her voice say over the din of the traffic.
I looked over at her, unclear of what she was talking about. She took one of the bags from her shopping cart and with several deft moves of her gnarled hands expanded it out. “Like this, see?” she said without looking at me. First she flattened the bag with the back of her hand, removing all of the air. Then she folded it lengthwise several times into a long, narrow strip. Then she bent it in half, and began to roll it up, and finally rolled one open edge over the other to cover it up, somewhat like rolled up socks. Then she looked up at me with a wizened smile and displayed how small the bag had been compacted. I was amazed at her deftness. For such gnarly limbs she was quite limber.
I took my bag out of my jacket pocket, a huge wad the size of a softball, and stretched it out like she had shown. I imitated her moves, but of course I didn’t posses her skills. Though I too had reduced mine to the size of a golf ball, it wasn’t done as cleanly as she had, edges sticking out everywhere. I showed her my final product and she gave me a nod of approval. As I placed the resized bag into my coat pocket, I glanced over at her cart, and suddenly realized that if they all were that compactly packed, she must have thousands in there.
“Looks like you have quite a few,” I admired. She didn’t look up from her papers.
“Oh, I have a few. You can never have enough. They’re very useful you know.”
I nodded in agreement. Yes, I occasionally used them to line my waste basket next to my computer. I also put my sweaty gym clothes in them to keep them separate from the other articles in my carry bag. And they were great for dog poop scooping when taking my dog for a walk.
Her quiet sing song voice interupted my thoughts. “I use them as a liner in my hat. It completely keeps the wind out. I wrap them around my legs and they insulate me with warmth during the cold nights. I line my shoes with them, and it keeps my feet toasty in this weather. I can place three of them together, then take the long ones and tie knots to make a handle and I have a break proof shopping bag. I live in a shelter on D street, and I squeeze them into the edges around those drafty windows. They keep the cold out. I also wrap one around my coffee cup and it keeps it hot until the last drop. If the church gives me a few extra sandwiches, I wrap them and they stay cold even when in the sun. I even made a fingerless liner to put in my gloves. These bags keep me warm in winter. Without them, oh, I don’t know what I would do.”
This altered my opinion. I kept thinking of them as man made pollutants gathering in some giant cess pool in the Pacific, choking dolphins and pelicans. And if the State legislature ever passed the bill to ban them, had they considered what it would do to the bag ladies?
“I’m even sitting on three. These metal benches will seep all of the warmth out of you.”
“You’re right about that,” I answered, and decided to unball my bag and sit on it. Surprisingly, it did insulate some of the cold away.
We sat there for thirty minutes more, and surprisingly the next bus was on time. She didn’t get up, she just kept re-reading the same pieces of paper. I got up, and placed my blue bag in my pocket. I waved good-bye as I boarded the bus. She nodded back. As I went to my seat, I saw her pull out a bag from inside her coat, and place those white papers in them. I wonder if they were old love letters, placed in a bag of honor? I watched her for a long while, when I suddenly realized the bus was not moving. Now what?
Suddenly I saw from the back end of the outside of the bus a young woman come running up. Oh my god. The driver actually waited for a runner. As she climbed on, breathless, she plopped down next to me. The bus moved away and we both realized a cold draft was coming from a crack in the glass. A light went off in my head. I pulled out my blue bag, and stuffed it into the crack.
The young woman looked at me and smiled. “Well, that sure came in handy.”
“Yeah, these bags are quite amazing what they can do,” and the bus roared away.
Here is the link to Rytis’ blog….