by Connie Miller
Connie Miller lives in Seattle and, like so many writers and artists there, makes her living producing documentation at a software company. She likes to believe her true work is writing essays and articles, which have appeared in Iowa Woman, Seattle Magazine, and other publications, and was fortunate enough to spend a month-long residency last November at the women writers' retreat, Cottages at Hedgebrook, where she wrote several pieces including "God's Fragments."
I try to be generous but, honestly, by anybody's definition, the guy on that crowded bus whose legs were pressing against my knees was a slob. There's just no way around it. He was a big guy, loose big, you know? The kind with a belly that sags over his belt. Not that he wore a belt. He had on some baggy tan corduroy pants and a red t-shirt, half tucked in. A pair of earphones hugged his skull. They were probably blasting something by Snoop Doggy Dogg but he wasn't paying them any mind. He was too busy holding forth at a Chinese woman about one-eighth his size.
Frankly, feeling the slob's legs rubbing against my knees and listening to his loud voice, I felt a little put upon. You try to give yourself some leeway, you know, a little breathing room, and so often you end up more hassled than when you started. I left work early that day, not something I get many opportunities to do, and since my mother wasn't expecting me until 5:00, I decided to take a slower bus-the one that exits the freeway at 45th and meanders through the university district-so I could stop at the Allegro Cafe and have one of their delicious lattes. But of course the bus was late. By the time it reached my stop, it was already crowded and there were a lot of us, including me, the slob, and the Chinese woman, waiting to get on. I managed to squeeze into one of the last available seats directly behind the driver and beside some old gentleman holding a cardboard box on his knees. A label on the box read Lord's Way Congregational Church. If he tries to convert me that will be the final blow, I thought to myself, then I pried my book out of my bag and began to read.
After years of living in one large city or another, I've developed my share of urban coping skills and zoning out on a bus is one of them. I can usually drop into my book or magazine and resurface only when we're approaching the stop where I get off. But even my well-honed defenses crumbled under the slob's verbal onslaught.
"I can help you get there," he was saying, loud enough for half of the county, let alone all the other bus passengers, to hear. "I've worked at the university for twenty years. I'm going to catch another bus after I get off this one. The 75. It runs right through campus. You can get on that bus with me and I'll show you where the dorm is. I've worked at the university for twenty years. I guess I know my way around by now. Ha Ha."
I mentioned that I try to be generous. Irritated as I was by the late and crowded bus, eager as I was for my few minutes alone with a latte, I felt a twinge of affection for the slob. He meant well. He was trying to help. Who could blame him for using the occasion of someone else's need for a little of his own self-gratification. We all do it. Some of us are just more subtle than the slob.
From the few words she could get in edgewise, I could tell that the Chinese woman couldn't speak English very well but she seemed to understand what the slob was saying. As he spoke, she nodded her head, her shiny, black, ear-length hair swinging back and forth like a pair of berserk stage curtains. In spite of the heat that made drops of sweat roll down the slob's face and pool above his earphones, the woman looked fresh and cool. Her blue-flowered blouse and gray checked pants could have just come off a hanger. In her right hand, she clutched a map of the university campus. With her left, she hung onto one of the balance bars on the bus. "You just get on the next bus with me," the slob said again, while the Chinese woman's hair bobbed berserkly. "The number 75. It runs right by that dormitory you're trying to find. I know right where it is. After twenty years I ought to know right where it is."
At the first stop in the university district, the bus emptied some and I could see a Chinese man sitting in the first seat that faces forward instead of sideways. He wore a white t-shirt with black Chinese characters on it. I heard the guy sitting next to him ask if he was from mainland China and the Chinese man nodded his head in a gesture exactly like the Chinese woman's but without the berserk hair.
I pegged the guy next to the Chinese man as a professor. He had that slightly superior look about him that people get when they know everything there is to know about some small area of scholarship. Before he and the Chinese man started chatting, he'd been reading a photocopied article and a pair of those sawed-off reading glasses perched halfway down his nose. While I watched, the Chinese man asked the professor something I couldn't hear and the professor answered by saying the name of the dormitory, the same dormitory the slob had promised the Chinese woman he'd find. "I don't know exactly where that is," the professor said. "I need a campus map." That made two things the professor and the slob had in common: the university and their loud voices.
The Chinese man dug around in the bag at his feet, muttering something about having a map. I was about to say that the Chinese woman, who I had decided was the Chinese man's wife, had the campus map clutched in her fist but before I could speak the professor addressed the bus at large. "Does anyone on this bus have a campus map? Someone must have a campus map."
The Chinese woman hadn't really heard the exchange between her husband and the professor because the slob was still holding forth about his years of service at the university so she was still clutching the map and balance bar. Then two things happened: A person sitting on the other side of the older gentleman with the cardboard box pointed out that the Chinese woman had the campus map the Chinese man wanted. At the same time, someone at the back of the bus ripped a campus map out of a class schedule and passed it forward, hand to hand, until it reached the professor.
"Ah," the professor said, "here's what I need." He began pouring over the map. The Chinese woman, meanwhile, turned away from the slob to hand the campus map to her husband, who was laughing and pointing at the map in his wife's hand and apologizing for the confusion.
"Here it is," the professor said, with great triumph, pointing on the map at the same dorm the slob already knew how to find. "It's right on the way to where I'm going. Just get off the bus with me and we'll walk directly to the dormitory." The Chinese man spoke some rapid Chinese to his wife who swung her hair and said something back.
The slob stared at the Chinese couple while they had their little exchange. He looked like Caesar must have looked when Brutus stuck him with the knife. He took a step toward the professor finally liberating my knees. "I know where the dorm is," he said. "I've worked at the university for twenty years. I'll take them on the bus with me." "You don't need to go on another bus to get there," the professor said. "I'm walking right past the dorm on my way to my office. I'll be more than happy to show them where it is."
Still clutching the campus map in her right fist, the Chinese woman stood watching the slob and the professor, an expression somewhere between amusement and concern on her face. "Everybody want to help us," she said. My stop was coming up so I turned to pull the cord that rings the bell. On my way around, I caught the old gentleman's eye. Under the circumstances, I felt I could break urban coping rule number two about never initiating a conversation with a stranger.
"They're both mad," I said, nodding toward the professor and the slob, who were still bickering over the Chinese couple.
The old gentleman smiled at me then spoke slowly and gently, almost as if English weren't my native tongue. "There's a fragment of God on this bus," he said.
We arrived at my stop. I got up, fed my bus pass through the machine that reads its magnetic stripe, and made my way along the crowded late summer streets to the back alley entrance of the Allegro Cafe. Crossing from the bright sunlight into the gloomy comfort of the coffee house, feeling the sharp musty smell of strong espresso crawl its way up inside my nostrils, I suddenly understood what the old gentleman had told me. We take different routes, I thought, as I gave my latte order to the barrista, but we all get where we're going in the end.