He was loud and he was angry and he was coming my way. He had stumbled wildly onto the bus at the stop after mine, wearing a torn and muddy Army jacket and ragged cut-off shorts. His crazed eyes went from passenger to passenger, looking for signs of fear. As I sat there frozen in my seat, I made myself invisible behind the novel I was pretending to read.
I was in my mid-twenties and on a late night Metro bus, riding home from work in downtown Seattle. I worked at an employment agency during the day, and a couple of times a week, I’d walk over to Ticketmaster to work their phones at night. I’d finish up around nine, walk a few blocks to the nearest bus stop, and take a fifteen-minute bus ride home.
People-watching opportunities abounded on these late night bus runs. The riders were polar opposites from the regular nine-to-five commuter crowd. Blue-collar workers, street people, Mariners fans, college kids – you could ride the bus for free downtown, so all kinds did.
Waiting alone at dark, big-city bus stops, sometimes for half an hour or more, was frightening for this small town boy. I remember more than a few nervous nights, hoping that the street people would just pass me by without giving me a hard time. It was difficult not to stereotype; I often saw only the worst in these people. And this angry drunk who had just stumbled onto my bus represented one of my worst fears come true.
“What are you looking at? All you guys with your stuff and…you don’t know nothing. Nothing! What’s wrong? What’s wrong with you…huh…?” on and on he muttered and yelled.
With their Walkmans turned up full blast and their newspapers held up high, none of the riders around me dared to make eye contact with him, lest they become his next target.
At each stop, stunned new arrivals were greeted with a barely decipherable, profanity-laced greeting. I wondered if the driver would kick him off or call the police. It wasn’t going to be me, but someone was going to have to speak up and try to shut this guy up. I tried to ignore him, even as I found myself strangely drawn to the drama that was now playing out on our bus. I read the same sentence in my book again and again.
Halfway down Third Avenue, a blind man with a seeing-eye dog stepped on the bus, as if in a scene right out of a movie. Predictably, one of the only open seats left was next to the drunk, and that’s exactly where the blind man sat, two rows from me. Hidden behind our reading materials, we all braced for the worst.
“That your dog?”
“What’s his name?”
“Puppy on? Puppy on…? Puppy on what?” The drunk didn’t have a clue.
The man with the dog had a great attitude despite the drunk’s harsh tone. Patiently, he explained, “No, no, no…Pap-ee-yon. Papillon. It’s the French word for butterfly.”
The drunk was silent for the first time since he’d entered our lives. A thoughtful look came across his face as he considered what he’d just been told.
And then, slowly, the drunk turned toward the blind man and asked, incredulously, “Wait a minute…you mean…? Your dog speaks French…?!?!”
Spontaneous pockets of quiet laughter broke the awful tension that had been riding with us through the darkened city streets. Newspapers dropped. Some passengers actually made eye contact. The drunk didn’t even realize what he’d said. And a minute later, he stumbled off the bus when the ride-free zone came to an end. The show was over.
I guess it’s true – our expectations of others can affect the way people behave. We had all expected the worst from this guy, and we’d been getting it. But a blind man saw the drunk differently, and the result was a humorous and bizarre scene that this former late night bus rider has never forgotten.
For the rest of the bus ride home that night, though, none of us talked about it. Together we just rode on, silent and separate, noses back in our books. The smile on my face was of comfort to no one but me.