Behind the Yellow Line

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2006 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt


 The role of the mass-transit regular is as unappreciated as it is misunderstood. That segment of society, which through circumstance rather than convenience, gravitates toward and commits itself to public transportation, is not well regarded by that segment which does not. They are viewed, however unfairly, as a group to be pitied, and, as much as possible, avoided. Little do the short-sighted realize, however, the vital niche that is filled by this “pitiable” band. We stare at the horrendously overweight individual on the bus. We mock the homeless guy at the subway station. We shy away from—perhaps wisely—the guy arguing with himself on the train, but who among us takes the time to truly understand these individuals?

 What the unsavory, obese and psychotic commuter offers is vindication. The majority of us like to believe, or rather want others to believe, that we have a fair degree of social conscience, despite the fact that we can’t be bothered to do things like recycle, donate money to charity or go an entire day without driving our own vehicle. On the occasion—the tremendously rare occasion—that we self-righteous, auto-reliant individuals do venture onto a city bus or subway, the presence of an insane or offensive regular allows us to feel good about ourselves for all those times we choose not to take the bus or subway. Riding eleven city blocks alongside a man who can kill you with his own smell, even just once a year, goes a long way toward assuaging the guilt you would otherwise feel over clogging the worlds streets with your own private, ozone-depleting automobile. We should be thankful for the relief these transients—for lack of a more subtle word—provide, as we must come to respect and appreciate the planning it takes to ensure that at least one representative of the hopelessly grimy, angry and dangerous is present on every bus, train and street car, just in case one of us happens to climb on board.

 I am one who tries to take at least semi-regular advantage of public transportation, as I also strive to empathize with the public-transport dependent. Something happened late the other night, though, that even I, in my heightened state of sensitivity, could not help but marvel. I understand that the cross section of humanity to be found on a city bus at ten in the evening is likely to be exemplary, but the cast of characters on this particular bus defied reality. By my count, every working representative of the hopelessly grimy, angry and dangerous was present on this bus. Those that weren’t already on the bus when I boarded, got on shortly afterwards at the next several stops. Not an overly squeamish person, I was a little freaked out as the frequency of bizarre and frightening passengers went from noteworthy to extreme. After my initial shock, I began to wonder how impractical it was for the entire cast of mass-transit-stereotype society to board the same bus. Doesn’t the presence of sixty to seventy representative public transportees on one bus necessarily mean that there are sixty to seventy busses out there that have none? Sixty to seventy busses where all the passengers have a reasonable allotment of teeth and no one smells of bourbon. Everyone staring at one another unsure who are the really unstable among them. The whole experience is, in a word, really, really disconcerting. Think I exaggerate? Below is merely a partial list of the characters on my bus:

 The Principles:

 One 60-year old woman wearing a tattered Burger King crown.

 One lonely talks-too-much guy; who enthusiastically tells anyone who will listen about his day, his disposable-razor collection and how he doesn’t live in this part of the city but likes to bus down here because a particular 7-11 on this route has really good sandwiches (I am not making this up. I really met this guy, and he really had a bag of sandwiches). One insane, homeless, yelling-at-everyone guy.

 One insane, homeless, yelling-at-no-one-in-particular-but-still-yelling guy.

 One insane meth addict.

 One insane crack addict.

 One insane alcoholic. It may be insensitive, and is probably inaccurate of me to call these individuals as insane. I apply the insane label to anyone who does not meet my criteria for being not crazy. Though who am I to judge one who prefers narcotics to food, wears white after Labor Day and argues passionately with imaginary antagonists in public. One guy who looks normal, relatively, but who represents such an offensive olfactory presence that even the meth and crack addicts won’t sit next to him.

 One 300lb. woman with 4+ kids.

 One 400lb. man with no kids, but has no less than eighteen plastic shopping bags stuffed full of God knows what.

 One chemically-imbalanced transient couple with curiously defined responsibilities: the first is an absolute rag doll, slipping in and out (mostly out) of consciousness, and appears to be mere seconds from suffering a horrendous Jimi-Hendrix like demise right in the aisle. The other is equally grimy and appears as equally beleaguered, fighting his own battle for consciousness, though is determined to “keep it together” so that he and his partner don’t miss anything important.

 The Unibomber.

 One White-Rapper looking kid with really expensive shoes, poorly fitting team jersey and a screaming CD-player.

 One trio of black kids with expensive shoes who sit close enough to the white kid to chase the arrogant expression from his face. You notice with no small degree of satisfaction that he has also turned off his CD-player.

 One un-extraordinary looking guy, who was asleep when you got on, didn’t move an eyelash the entire trip and is still asleep as you get off, and about whom you question whether he is still alive.

 One teenage girl with a cell phone who talks incessantly and inappropriately loud, and who would be resentful if she knew you were “listening” to her conversation. One thin, stubbly-faced guy, who you probably wouldn’t even notice if he weren’t wearing a pair of Terminator-sunglasses, on a bus at ten in the evening; which he probably only removes to shower and sleep—if he does either—and is the one person here who honestly frightens you as you are pretty sure he is a genuine and capable serial killer. You can’t truly tell, because of the sunglasses, but you have an unshakable feeling that he is staring directly at you, and this is particularly unnerving as you know he is contemplating, nay, planning your grizzly and lingering death.

 An out-of-place elderly couple, for whom you feel a good deal of empathy and with whom you mistakenly make eye contact as you search for an island of sanity in the madness, only to realize that they have been fighting to keep from making eye contact with anyone and you have just scared the hell out of them.

 One youngish, notably clean guy with bright orange, green or pink hair, who dresses really nicely, but is likely not fulfilling his father’s dream that he become a professional athlete.

 A thousand-year old woman, who moves even less than the sleeping guy, about who you are trying to be respectful, but in whose presence you cannot help thinking about mortality.

 An unusually attractive woman, who, to your line of thinking looks woefully out of place, but with whom you do not make eye contact as you find extreme beauty intimidating. The one instance in which she does glance your way, you look away quickly, unwittingly scaring the elderly couple again.

 One indescribably dirty individual who could either be a coal miner or mud farmer, or both.

 An East German couple who you believe to be, and whose mannerisms confirm that they are lost, but who you make no attempt to assist as you bury your attention in the arm-rest graffiti, selfishly just wanting to make it out of here alive. You silently promise to feel compassion them later.

 One truly frail old man, who probably rides the bus everyday, in complete comfort, who now makes you feel quite the coward for being so scared.

 The only one missing from the procession is anxious, likely-lives-in-his-parent’s-basement guy who rides with a 15” houseplant in his lap. It’s either his night off or he didn’t get the memo that everyone is meeting on this bus this evening.

 The bus is filled beyond what I perceive to be reasonable capacity, and about the time I give up my seat to the thousand year old woman, I resolve to make my retreat. I get off the bus two stops early, favoring a six-block walk over a likely untimely death. Obliquely, I notice as a woman near the front grips her purse even more tightly into her body when I pass. Initially, I am insulted by this, until I take a look at myself. I didn’t shave today, my sandaled feet are dirty from earlier walking and who knows how significant is my own contribution to the bus’ noxious atmosphere? Who am I, sitting in my ivory tower, passing judgment on others? I’m too busy trying to be inconspicuous—invisible really—to notice how completely I fit in. So intent am I to separate myself from the freak show, I didn’t realize that I am simply another player, and a spooky one at that. One that frightens the elderly and makes hapless women clutch their belongings in panic. Walking home, I ponder my role as “the grungy, shifty-eyed kid who you can’t trust ‘cause he makes too much of a point to not get caught looking at anyone else.”

 Flush with new perspective, the actions of the paranoid woman on the bus are much less offensive, even understandable. Maliciously, though, I resolve that if I ever see her again, I am going to sit next to her.

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