Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The City is a Strange Protector

This morning on the El (so many of my stories start that way these days) I was standing around, waiting for a seat to open up. It doesn't particularly annoy me to stand - the ride isn't very long and I sit down at a desk all day. All the same, there's a sort of sport to getting a seat; you have to hedge your bets about where to stand, which people to face (Did I hear him rustling his newspaper? Is he closing it in preparation to disembark, or just turning the page? And is that tarty woman applying more lipstick or reaching into her bag to get her gloves?).

A man finally stood up in my vicinity, freeing a space which I quickly made for. At the same moment however, a young boy sitting just behind the newly vacated seat stood up and headed for it as well. We both stopped and looked at each other. The spot he was leaving was next to a heavily corpulent man wearing the world's poofiest jacket - that is, it was 3/8 of a spot. I was just about to raise my eyebrow condescendingly at the kid (ok, I admit it, the El turns me into a monster) when I realized he was just moving to sit next to his mom. I stood aside and let him pass, squishing myself in next to the man made of down stuffing and Cheetos.

For the rest of the ride, I enjoyed sitting behind the little family I had discovered, hearing the kid's mother begin to scold him for not tidying his room, and then watching as they both dissolved into laughter over some whispered joke I was not privy to. When I was younger I spent a lot of time riding buses with my mother - not every day, or every week even, but more times than I can count on one hand. I remember it as bestowing a strange sense of security - we had gotten lost in the middle of the city, and somehow, just by looking at a couple of signs, my mother had put us on a warm crowded vehicle straight into the heart of familiar territory.

One evening, after shopping downtown for several hours, my mother and I had strayed too far from wherever it was we began, and it had started to rain. I don't remember how we got there - maybe we were dropped off, maybe we just made the long trek from my grandmother's house. Neither option would be out of character for my mom, who taught me by age six to walk faster than companions with legs three times my size.

We waited for what seemed like several hours at the bus stop, me swinging around the light pole and probably whining about how cold I was. To pass the time, my mother started telling me the story of Interview with a Vampire. Our family has historically had little to no compunction about taking young kids to adult movies, but for whatever reason I hadn't gone with her to this show, and I think I like the story all the better for it. She talked all night long, in the dark and the rain, and continuing on the soft seats of the bus (really: Seattle buses are nicely outfitted, even if they don't run enough routes) as the windows steamed next to us. When we got to the part where Kirsten Dunst's character burns in the sunlight, huddled against the mother figure of her afterlife, I remember feeling hollow and sad, but energized.

The story carried me through, and eventually we got back to my grandmother's house, where we spent most weekends, and had a normal dinner and evening. I probably read a book, or some of the Archie Comics that fill that house in voluminous piles (an aside: I swear I picked up at least 50% of my young vocabulary from the Riverdale Gang). But no matter how normal or even boring the day became, I've remembered that bus ride ever since, safe by my mother's side.

In the face of all that maternal goodwill, I feel like I need to provide a counterpoint for how bizarre and unsettling city life can also be. In this case, I can't help but think of the most hilarious thing that has happened to me in recent memory: walking to my office building, I pass several 7-Eleven-type establishments, and at least 2 or three bars. As I passed in front of a convenience store the other day, a man happened to be walking out of it, laughing out loud to himself. I pricked my ears up, because I felt like this was a man worth listening to.

Suddenly, providentially, he spoke! And these were his words:

"I aint' never gonna be good. I was born bad!"

And then he continued laughing, deep from his belly until long after I had turned the corner and walked away.

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