In my day-to-day life, mine is a simple existence – with a dog and two cats- comfortably ensconced in a Hermit lifestyle. Nonetheless, I am sometimes required to interact with the occasional humanoid because I need to eat, meaning that it is necessary for me to conduct commerce with local shopkeepers. On those rare occasions that I find myself having to go out, I can’t help but cross paths with people along the way.
My disabilities, being what they are, guarantee that every time I leave my house, I will be more likely than not to experience what I like to refer to as a “Bilbo Baggins” Adventure. What follows is a perfect example of this and remains one of my favorite stories about the sorts of things that happen when you’re mixing it up with random strangers on the city streets of my steel and concrete wilderness. And, before you decide that I am utterly daft for choosing such an oxymoronic title as “Kindred Strangers”… although I have been rightly called daft many times… bear with me -, if you keep an open mind for a couple of minutes, you just might be using this expression yourself by the time we are done here.
I needed to pick up a few supplies the other day, as opposed to a full shop and decided I would walk down to the small-chain low-end grocery store about a mile away. Thinking I would get a little exercise, I figured I would bring my small backpack with me, do a quick in and out, and be done in time to catch the next number 10 outbound bus. It sounded like a great idea as I was leaving the house, but by the time I got there, I realized this was not going to be a quick in and out.
It had only been a few weeks since I last visited that store, but everything – literally everything – had been moved around and rearranged. By the time I had finally found everything I needed, my bus was long gone. With 30 minutes to go before the next one would show up, I set my backpack and cane inside the covered bus stop, settled into one of the three narrow bench seats, and hunkered down for my restless rest. For what it’s worth, bus stop seats are nowhere near wide enough for the typical wide- assed people… such as myself… that normally find themselves needing to sit in one. Someone needs to look into that problem.
About 10 minutes later, a partially paralyzed gentleman… roughly my age… Approached the bus stop from behind me and a little to my left. Instinctively, I began rustling my stuff around and gave him a quick “good morning” before offering him my seat. He chuckled and told me it had taken him nearly 20 minutes to get himself in a standing upright position and walk the three blocks necessary to get down to the bus stop and that he needed a few minutes to rest before trying to bend himself into a seated position.
After a few minutes of polite silence, he asked me what time it was, explaining that he had brought some bananas to give to the bus driver and wanted to make sure he hadn’t missed her. He explained that the driver had told him she’d come by a fabulous new banana bread recipe but hadn’t had the time to go grocery shopping to get all of the ingredients she needed.
I gave him the time – about 20 minutes to go before she would arrive – and remember thinking to myself how cool that was. I mean, let’s face it, most of the drivers I have interacted with seem nice enough… despite the numbers of assholes they have to interact with every day… but how many of them make “real” personal connections with card-carrying members of the inner – city Assholes Society?
We sat there for another minute or two – neither one wanting to be the first to break the silence – when it occurred to me that I should ask if he’d made her promise to give him a piece in exchange for donating the bananas. He told me she had offered but that he’d had to remind her that his doctor told him he should not eat foods like banana bread because of his weight and his cholesterol. After a brief pause, he added that it had been poor lifestyle choices that had led up to his stroke in the first place and had gotten him where he is today.
At that, I started laughing, and the one-upmanship floodgates of War Story exchanges spilled over.
I told him that my own “poor lifestyle choices” had likewise repaid me in kind with my own strokes and that my doctors had given me much the same advice. I suggested, however, that men like us and at our ages had earned the right to draw a line in the sand and decide for ourselves just how much we were willing to give up in the name of longevity if all we got in exchange for our troubles was to live long enough to wind up drooling in a nursing home bed somewhere – in diapers – not even knowing who the fuck we were anymore. We both busted up laughing at that, and he started dabbing his face, saying almost apologetically that he hoped he wasn’t drooling while he was laughing. I smiled and reminded him that it was okay because my blind ass wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.
And then it was belly-laughing guffaws all around.
Right about that time, and before we had barely composed ourselves, some punk in his early twenties pulled up right in front of me on his bicycle and asked me if I had $0.75. I thought to myself, “Of COURSE I had $0.75 numbnuts… I’m sitting at a fucking bus stop waiting for a bus that only takes quarters, you dumbass.” I could have said no, but I couldn’t resist the temptations so, as I reached in my pocket for three quarters and handed them to him, I asked him to tell us – my new friend Rick and I – how his life was going to improve once he had the money. He told us that he just wanted to buy a cup of coffee and figured his chances of getting enough money to do that were better if he asked a couple of people for $0.75 rather than ask one person for a dollar fifty… and mumbled something under his breath about how unwilling people were these days to help somebody who was down on his luck.
That poor unsuspecting bastard had picked the wrong two old guys to be lecturing about being down on your luck.
Before I could stop him… not that I would have seriously tried… Rick leaned forward as best he could muster his body to do so and ask the kid if he had ever considered getting a fucking job. I couldn’t help myself and started snickering, but Rick kept going. He tried to soothe the kid by suggesting that he wasn’t trying to be an asshole so much as he was just trying to understand.
I have to give this kid props… he didn’t even blink an eye before launching into his obviously- rehearsed panhandler speech about having once had a job that he was fired from because he had to miss work to attend his weekly PO meeting (that’s parole officer for those of you fortunate enough to have never been on the wrong side of the law). I tried… I really tried to bite my tongue.. but as soon as I heard that, all I could say was, “There’s nothing worse in life than pissing off your PO,” and Rick and I completely lost it.
The kids shuffled off, mumbling to himself with his tail between his legs, and Rick and I were trying hard and failing miserably at trying to contain ourselves. When the bus lady finally showed up, we must have looked like a pair of siblings who kept making each other start laughing all over again, no matter how much each tried to get the other to stop until their bellies hurt or one of them pissed himself. I remember thinking that moment was a lot like those days when my brother or I would fart in church, cover our mouths, hoping to squelch the snickering, deny it when we got “the look” from the parental units, and start snickering all over again.
When the bus lady opened the door to let us in, initially showing the standard issue friendly smile, she took us in… first Rick and then me… and her face quickly became “the look” and was followed by the stern tone that always accompanies the question “what are you two up to?” and after that, there was no stopping either one of us.
Over the years since that first meeting, I have seen Rick several times, and each time we cross paths, it’s as if we have known each other our whole lives. Although each of us continues to hold the bulk of humanity in great disdain, there is some level of comfort in knowing there are people out there with whom you share far more in common than anything about which you might disagree.