I climb up through the hatch onto the top of the schoolbus, it is only 9:30, but the ninety degree day is present in the metallic roof that I crab walk awkwardly across. I walk with a cordless drill to bore a hole through the roof of the bus and feed antenna wires down. In six minutes the shade provided by the garage will cause the temperature under my thighs to plummet, making my thin coating of sweat uncomfortable and out of place.
WMMR is blaring from speakers hidden in the rafters, and behind the racks of orange goop that is used to remove axle grease from stained hands. Six days of this and the jockeys have begun to lose their personage. Their voices and chosen sounds have morphed into a thick tube of harsh noise. The songs they play are familiar, and only occasionally unfortunate, but I cannot approve of the way that they bay at me. The jockeys past glories of attendance always seem to take place in massive arenas named after companies buying time between those twelve minutes of music. The radio, competing as it does with the pneumatic removal of engine bolts, is turned up to a level that permeates every tissue in my body. My objective up there is simple, but comes in fits and starts. With several minutes between steps, I found a sort of meditation is necessary to dull the onslaught of such stimuli coming at me at so early in the morning. There are two sources of distraction however that I am mindful to never miss. The bus yard mechanics.
From their bacteria-eroded shirts to the lumps of flesh that they cover, these two gentlemen are grotesque. I do not enjoy being judgmental in this way, it is simply necessary for you to understand if we’re to continue that these men are interesting to look at. They remind me of two Mervyn Peake characters as they monotonously move the buses to and fro, screaming at each other over misunderstandings that seem uncomplicated from my perch. The height of the bus obscures me from them, and even when on their level neither have shown even the slightest interest in me. This is just as well, for it allows a more honest glimpse into their lives. While working, they are masters of their craft. A true tandem weaving in and around the massive engines. The squabbles and fussing seem to be triggered merely by proximity to each other, like molecules in a chemical reaction.
As I lay down my drill, and begin sweeping the metal shavings from the fresh hole, I feel the entire bus tilt to the right. One of these men has boarded the steps leading up to the drivers seat where my father sits twisting wires. His girth is half in, half out of the bus as he fails to clean his hands with a filthy rag. His raspy voice pierces outwards and though I cannot hear my father’s end of the exchange the brief pauses tell me everything. My father was raised by quakers, and has firm, unspoken beliefs about politeness and tact. He is not the sort of man to be crude around family, let alone strangers. This makes the juxtaposition between him and the mechanic spouting John Waters dialogue all the more noticeable. I sit cross legged and in my mind’s eye imagine the face of Tim Matlack struggle to remain professional as he is bombarded with words like “cunt” “faggot” and “other hole”. The mechanic raises his voice over the din of another bus being hoisted high in the air, and then does not lower it once it stops. This man’s bawdy jokes have no punchlines.
Moments after the man leaves, I secure the antennae, and climb down through the emergency exit hatch. My father looks tired. He slowly turns a screwdriver while looking through the windshield at nothing. I sit and wait for him to speak while the smells of my childhood waft up from their plastic sources. All four screws secured he turns to me and says “Alright, go get the volt meter. Black toolbox.”
I hop off the bus and zz top plays me to the car parked outside the hangar. As I open the back, I take in the sight of forty school buses all lined up, glistening in the morning sun.
While living in Brooklyn many years ago, I met a gentleman in Washington Square Park for an hour who I think about fondly and often.
I needed sixty seven cents to put into my bank account because it was overdraft. The trying expenses of living in NYC when you do not have a big-boy job cease being shocking after two months, and the rest of your time there is a scramble devoid of all emotion. The balancing and tight pinches are inevitable and attempts at griping or levity become meaningless on a long enough timeline. I wasn’t going to have money in my pocket for another three days, so with the day off and roughly seven hours before I would incur a fee, I headed to the largest park near my bank to debase myself for change.
I didn’t have much of a plan, but I kept chewing on the idea that someone would throw a few dimes my way for what I was vaguely calling “a spectacle”. Scanning the ground for loose coins (which the buskers all snatch up by nine in the morning), I walked to one of their many benches, pulled a surprisingly clean pizza box out of the garbage, and got to work making my sign.
I was folding the edges of the box back so that the white side would be supported facing out, when a gentleman doing card tricks approached to inquire why I was taking the box apart and re-assembling it. I explained that I only had a pen on me, so the thin black lines would pop better on the contrasting white rather than the muddying grey. He sat down on my bench, and we began an hour long conversation that broadened my understanding of human beings.
Immediately he lamented his inability to procure cigarettes the day before, and that he was going to resort to bumming one soon. I casually offered that I couldn’t help because I do not smoke. He informed me that he knew. Seeing my curiosity piqued at his confidence in the matter he explained that smokers have telltale physical marks on their fingers, lips, and eyes. My youthful skin betrayed none of these, and he turned my attention to the swarming mass of humanity billowing to and from the fountain. Scanning the crowd, he began to mutter observations while sizing them up one by one. “Non-smoker. Non-smoker. Smoker, but he won’t give me one. Non-smok…Aha!”
He got to his feet, and like a cornerback matched his pace with a tall woman walking quickly past us. After a brief back and forth, the woman flashed a smile that clearly labeled his words as cheeky, reached in her purse for her pack, and handed him a smooth tube of unblemished paper. He put the cigarette in his mouth, thanked her, and began heading back to me.
I could honestly write about our entire interaction, but we’d be here longer than an hour. The point is that this was just the first of a series of interactions that burned this man permanently into my experience. My time with him in that park felt like we were two-fifths into a film where the protagonist meets his magical negro. Except that this guy was white, and that for me to be a protagonist I am pretty sure I require an arc of some sort (I was overdraft again four months later). The point is that he seemed to be operating on a different wavelength than the rest of us. He had a calm, laser-guided sense of purpose and perspective. From coaxing squirrels to jump into his arms without food, to discovering that the woman on the bench next to us was listening to our conversation and taking notes for a school project, he had a bead on anything and everything that grabbed his attention.
He eventually gave me a dollar, and I left to sort of my finances, but the most intriguing thing we discussed is his relationship with coffee. One day he decided that from that point forward, every morning he is on the earth, he gets a cup of coffee. He said he had been operating under this understanding for thirteen years. He just put that out into the universe. If he spends the last of his dough on cigarettes, or gives his bottom dollar to some moron in a park, he will stand in line at the one dollar coffee cart and shamelessly ask every single person to buy him a cup until someone does, or the vendor gives him a cup to get rid of him. This relatively straight forward act of mooching made me fall in love with this mysterious stranger. Even without evidence, this man’s determination was not something I questioned for even a moment. He simply carried it with him. I love that. He made his daily cup of coffee an immutable part of reality. Like a metaphysical law. Every day that this man wakes up alive, he is getting a cup of coffee. I will never forget him, though his name left me before I even got to the bank.