For Madmen Only

The 74 bus pulled up to the curb and opened its doors in welcome. A few steps took me inside to the warmth and familiarity of the same short trip, made many days at the same hour to pick up my kids at school. I paid my fare with a plastic card and took my seat in the isolation that marked my time alone and loafing for the day, with nothing to do but ride.

The time was entirely my own for once this day, but like any bus many of us greeted each other small fragments of intimacy. There was the man with long unkempt blonde hair who kept to himself until he got off by the Salvation Army. His seat was then taken by the woman who got on at Cooper’s Market with an armload of diapers again, but never a toddler in tow. We all had stories, but shared only what we had to.

Further down West Seventh a woman climbed on I had seen many times. Her short dark hair peaked out from under a warm but unattractive knit hat, and her coat had the look of poverty falling out of every seam. But it was her butterscotch skin that gave her a look of beauty above her unfashionable clothes, a color of all the races of the world joined together. There was a small mystery in all of this, a series of stories that added up to a life. I only knew one part of it as she took the only open seat left, next to me.

“I’ve seen you before on this bus,” she said as I moved over.
“Yes, I’m on my way to get my kids.”
“They can’t ride by themselves?” She made herself more comfortable as the chill fell from her coat.
“No, my youngest is seven. I’ve seen you as well.”
“Yes, I take this to St. Kate’s”
“Forgive me for eavesdropping, but I remember hearing you say that you like the work of Hermann Hesse.” My heart stopped a moment as I took a gamble at being so forward.

She stopped a moment, and her dark eyes gradually brightened. “Yes, ‘Narcissus and Goldmund is my favorite book! I really loved it!”
“I’m more of a ‘Demian’ fan myself, but they are very similar.”
“You’ve read a lot of Hesse?”
“Everything he wrote, I think. My favorite author.”
“Mine, too! The way he expresses the conflicts within his characters and makes everything so real It changes the way I look at the world.”
“I think all good fiction is about changing the way the world looks.”
“Oh, I agree! The struggles that Goldmund goes through are both inside of him and outside, and realizing that makes the whole world more connected.”

We chatted about the themes of her favorite Hesse for a while, letting it spill out as if we might never have a chance to meet another person who understand what we were saying. It certainly had been a long time since I had. But as my stop loomed, I had to steer the conversation a bit.

“Have you ever read ‘Steppenwolf’?”
“No, I haven’t. I heard it was violent.”
“It’s a difficult work. It takes the same themes to a steeper and darker place.”
“I think I will read it.”
“Just don’t get too put off by it. Your reaction to a book is as important as what the book says.” I was pontificating, but I had a point to make.
“What do you mean?”
“Writers, good writers, have an opinion about reality. They find themselves hopping on and off of it in ways that they feel they have to explain.”

She looked at me with a hard stare, as if I was getting deep behind those dark eyes and understanding something about her that I probably wasn’t supposed to. A bus is a place for small details about our lives in public display, not close confidences.

“Are you a writer?” She asked after a long pause.
“I peck at the keyboard. I think I have something to say.”
“I’ll pick up ‘Steppenwolf’ and see what I think of it.”
“I think you’ll like it. This is my stop. See ya around.”
“Yeah, see ya.”

She moved aside to let me past, and with my thanks to the driver and a few steps I was back through the doors and into the cold. I smiled at my small attempt at playing Harry Haller. The bus rumbled off and I was alone again, my time only my own for a little while longer.

We never did exchange names.

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