I knew he was sketchy as soon I saw him clambering up the steps of the bus.
Slightly hunched over, the man slithered his way down the aisle, shifty eyes darting from seat to seat, pausing momentarily at my row to stare at the open spot across the way. Then, without even glancing in my direction, he slid in next to me instead. I discreetly surveyed my unwelcome new neighbor: He was bald, had bulging eyes, and looked like the kind of chap I'd expect to see headlining the 6 p.m. news after attacking a cashier at a grocery store for refusing to accept his expired coupon for fish sticks. Great, I thought. I’ll be able to say I knew him when.
I’ve taken enough Greyhounds, Bolts, Fung Wahs, and Peter Pans to know better than to indulge in chitchat with my fellow budget travelers. Greyhound seems to have committed itself to becoming the transportation choice of the supremely weird, and its customers tend to represent a diverse cross-section of the dregs of society. Anyone who’s ever spent an hour in the Boston line at gate 84 in the sweltering, cell-phone-reception-free underbelly of Port Authority surrounded by uncouth (and unshowered) aspiring passengers can vouch for this.
So it should come as no surprise that when this creepy, strangely jittery man made himself comfortable in the seat next to mine, I immediately began taking measures to avoid interaction. I angled my body toward the window, whipped out a book, and tried to look like someone who could not be bothered by conversation. Soon the bus driver made his routine announcements and we melted into the uptown traffic on Tenth Avenue, en route to Boston.
Clearly I was doing a lousy job of radiating “don’t talk to me” vibes — or he just didn’t care — because after five minutes my reverie was interrupted: “Will the T still be running when we get into Boston?” he mumbled. That’s a harmless enough question, I suppose, I thought to myself. “I think it’s open till 12:30,” I replied politely, and pointedly went back to my book. “I’m staying at the Motel 6 across from the Braintree station,” he murmured out of the blue a few minutes later. “Uh, you should be OK,” I assured him.
Worried that I may have been too friendly, I decided to make a phone call to avoid further small talk. I called my parents to update them on my ETA. But as soon as I hung up, my chatty seatmate was at it again. “So, you have family in Boston?”
Though my inner monologue can border on scathing at times, I’m completely incapable of actually giving anyone attitude to their face. So while Inner Me was shrieking, Don’t talk to me, I would much rather gouge out my eyeballs with rusty can openers than indulge in inane banter! When my mother warned me never to talk to strangers I’m pretty sure she was referring specifically to you! Outer Me simply answered, “Yeah.”
To be honest, Outer Me could have answered “My name is Beelzebub Bartholomew Jones and I like moldy cheese,” and this fellow would have considered it an inviting response, because he didn’t need much encouragement to succumb to a particularly acute case of verbal diarrhea. “I’m going back home after 10 years,” he announced. “I just got out of prison.”
Inner Me: Whaaaaat?
Just my luck. A convict finally tastes freedom after a decade, and I get to be the first woman he encounters.
While Inner Me started panicking, Outer Me was trying to figure out how to respond to this bombshell. Fortunately (or not), my felon friend didn’t wait for my reaction.
“I went in for vehicular manslaughter,” he volunteered. “It wasn’t my fault, though.” No, of course it wasn’t. “I had a seizure. There was a big ball of fire, helicopters, everything.” It occurred to me that his story didn’t add up; my lawyer friends later agreed that it was highly unlikely that he was locked up for that long unless there were other charges. “I’m not allowed to drive anymore,” he added helpfully.
As I sat there, digesting this unsolicited information, he continued to barrel on. “I’ve been estranged from my family for years,” he said. What do I look like, a shrink? “My mother passed in ’82, my father died while I was in prison. He left me money in his will, and put all my stuff in storage. Like the 30-inch three-color projection screen I bought at Lechmere for $3,000, right before I was incarcerated.” For a moment I felt a little sorry for him. Should I let him know how obsolete his beloved TV was now? And that Lechmere no longer exists? But I kept my mouth firmly shut. Inner me, blessed (or cursed, depending on how you choose to look at it) with a rather inspired imagination, was already busily conjuring up mental images of life in captivity with this fellow, subsisting primarily on fish sticks, and they now included visions of being forced to watch his mug on America’s Most Wanted from an outdated TV screen. How romantic…
Oblivious to the melodrama playing itself out in my mind, he soldiered on with his monologue. I was starting to feel like a priest taking confession. “I used to be a gas station attendant in Quincy,” he offered. “I made $700 a week after taxes, working 90 hours a week. I’m going to try to get that job back.” Good luck, buddy. “My apartment lease starts on the first.”
What do you say to that? Congratulations? Hope that pesky parole officer doesn’t get in the way of fulfilling your dreams? My phone rang right then, putting my mental histrionics briefly on hold, but unfortunately my savior was only able to keep me company for 15 minutes. Dreading what superfluous soliloquies lay ahead, I decided to listen to some music.
My iPod-induced barrier didn’t deter my newly free bus buddy for long. He’d been waiting 10 years to interact with someone not in state-issued uniform, and he’d be damned if he’d let a pair of small white earbuds stand in his way. “So,” he said, waving his hand in front of me to divert my attention back to him. "Do you think you’re older than me? I was born in 1962.”
Most people guess my age to be about 15. This chap thought I was pushing 50.
I seem to have developed a tendency to attract criminals. I once shared a hospital room with an inmate, one who also, much like my bus buddy, happened to be afflicted by seizures. She was cuffed to the bed, had constant companionship in the form of security stationed in our room 24/7, and subjected me to a nonstop barrage of blaring late-night infomercials, cartoons, and Jerry Springer. The highlight of this experience was probably when my sister, in an effort to entertain me, serenaded me with an a capella rendition of “Killing Me Softly” that was very well received by the prison guards. We didn’t note the irony of the song choice until much later.
Back on the bus, I was nervous as we approached South Station, wondering how this curious encounter would end. Will he ask for my e-mail address? Did they even have e-mail before he went to jail, does he know what it is? What if he wants to be pen pals? I hope he doesn’t follow me out to the car make a proposition of marriage before my poor, bewildered dad. But as it turns out I didn’t have much to worry about. Right when the bus eased into the gate he bounded off and blended into the chaos of the terminal, ready to be reunited at long last with his cherished TV.
And that’s when it hit me. My new friend had told me told me everything about himself — but his name.
This essay was published in the New York Press.