This is exactly what I moved away from, I think as another blast of cold wet air pushes into the back of my legs, trying to move my umbrella up away from the tense torso it shields. The rain has dwindled to a drizzle as the grey sky darkens. For the tenth time in three minutes, I stretch my neck out like a giraffe to look down the street, as if looking for the bus will make it come sooner. I am thankful for the shelter, even if it isn’t solid, because of the positive psychological effect of being underneath something. The bus stop and I stand in front of a Valero, for which I am also thankful, because its existence gave me the opportunity to break a five for bus fare and buy a hot chocolate. Said beverage is presently my greatest ally in fending off the cold.
A bus comes from way down the road and my soul rejoices until it turns down a side street a mere 200 feet from me. That’s just mean, says my cold-averse little heart, and my shoulders slump some more. Must reduce surface area, I think. If I could sit in the fetal position without looking totally mental and, worse, getting all wet, I would. A car with a trash bag tapped around the back window passes and honks at me, and I roll my eyes. It’s almost dinner time at the convent. C’mon, bus.
Down the street, I notice a fellow wearing two coats with his hands shoved in his pockets heading my way. He has a yellow plastic shopping bag over his head like a bulbous do-rag, covered again with a ball cap. He stops walking and jumps up and down in place, shaking his shoulders and head around trying to warm up, then continues. I begin to suspect I will have company. Sure enough, Yellow Plastic Bag Head veers off the sidewalk and under my pseudo-shelter.
“Man! It is freezing, man, I am serious!” he says with a laugh, shaking his head the way we all do when we’d like to scold things that are not sentient beings, like the weather. At this point I make that split-second decision we all make when we encounter potentially odd strangers: make conversation, or avoid eye contact and hope the situation will go away. I go for a middle ground: leave my ear phones in, laugh with him, and agree.
“This is legitimately cold,” I say, which it is, San Antonio weenies or not. Meanwhile, I look for any clues that Yellow Plastic Bag Head is disturbing-odd and not just odd. He laughs, a very friendly, simple-hearted chuckle.
“It’s not supposed to get like this here, you know what I mean?” he says, and I decide I might as well take the plunge while I wait for the 524. I’ve gotten into this new thing where I make a concerted effort to be really focused on whoever is in front of me, without being distracted by other things or people. I figure this is a chance to forge my new virtue. I take out my ear phones.
“I know, this is exactly what I moved away from.”
“Where’re you from?”
A question I hate, because I never know how to respond without either talking too much or feeling like a liar. “Uh… before this, I lived in Maryland.” Even that is only half true. He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, the yellow bag flitting in the wind, scolding Maryland weather, and begins to dispel any concern I have that I will talk too much.
“Wooooo, man, you’re not kidding. It is cold up there! I been there, we passed through there when we were laying lines, and man it was cold. I been to New Jersey, too, man, I will not ever go back there. It was so cold, man, and I’ve been in some cold places, New Jersey is cold!” I would guess he’s in his late thirties or early forties. His face has the worn look of a paper bag that’s been used a few times.
“Yup. I went to school near there. I just keep reminding myself, ‘It’s colder up there, it’s colder up there’.”
“You’re not lying, that’s right. You know what else, the cost of living up there is crazy! I mean I was up there fifteen years ago, I’m a contractor, and we went for lunch, and a Big Mac, fries, and a soda, you know, a meal, was five bucks, and this was fifteen years ago, you know, so man. It was devastating.” He chuckles and shakes his head at New Jersey prices. A lot of San Antonians speak with a quasi-Spanish accent, even if English is their first language. Yellow Plastic Bag Head has a weird mix of that accent and the more stereotypical Texas drawl. He’s definitely odd, but not in a mentally-unbalanced way. He is eager just to chat.
“That’s crazy,” I say about the top-shelf Big Mac, and realize when I try to remember how much value meals are now that I’ve never paid attention to that particular detail of the universe.
“It is! You know what I’m talking about, you lived up there. I mean they gave us money depending on where we were, you know, what they call a per diem, but things were so expensive, we couldn’t make any money up there. It was devastating. This was fifteen years ago, I don’t know what it’s like now. And the drivers were terrible. You know what really tripped me out was the way we had to make left turns, the uh, what’s it called…”
“Yeah! I mean, you gotta go left to go right? That really tripped me out. That doesn’t make any sense, you know?”
“No, it doesn’t.” I laugh because he’s echoing every “New Jersey is the dumbest state” conversation I heard in college. “I like it a lot better here. The weather is great -- usually, you know. And the people are nicer.”
“That’s another thing, man, the people in New Jersey sucked. I never been flicked off so many times in my life! They’re real cold, they’re real hard up there, not just in New Jersey, I noticed it in Maryland, too. People here are a lot friendlier. They’ll help you out. And another thing in New Jersey, if you can believe this, you know what really tripped me out, was they don’t allow black people.”
“What?!” After the fact, I hope my tone sounded good, if that can sound good.
“Yeah, they get arrested just for walking on the sidewalk, just like you and I are right now, you know? They get arrested. We were working long the tracks laying fiber optic cable, along side the tracks you know, and our flagger – she would let us know when the trains were coming so we could get out of the way you know – well she was black and when we went anywhere she would get hassled by the police.”
“Really?” This, or something close to this, I can believe. I think he must be leaving out some details somewhere, but this is plausible. I have stopped noticing how cold I am.
“Yeah, and like I told you, we went to McDonald’s, and when we went she had to duck down in the truck. I mean that’s crazy, right…”
“…and we just couldn’t believe it. It was devastating.” Yellow Plastic Bag Head grins as the bus finally comes into sight behind him and doesn’t turn down the side street. I’m wonder if he’ll keep talking to me once we get on the bus. Having spent so much time lately in a continuous reverie, I kind of hope he does. The bus’s brakes whine as it approaches. “Oh well here’s your bus. I’m just killing time,” he says as I fumble with my umbrella and purse, trying to dig out my fare. “I mean you go ahead and get on, I’m just killing time. My wife passed away, I just like to get out of the apartment sometimes or I go crazy. I’m just killing time. It was nice talking to you.” He smiles one more friendly smile, genuine and kind and really thankful, and I’m stuck in my spot for a split second while I try to think of something to say, but the bus driver is staring at me. I scurry onboard, yelling over my shoulder.