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Can I Get a Transfer?

I don’t right now know which to blame, my brain or the city bus.

Each is, I think, equally likely to be at fault for my indecision as to whether we, humanity, exist as a great potential only befuddled and poorly educated, incompletely realized, or rather as a great blight, a pox, a cancer, a plague of rogue cells metastasizing within the body of Gaia.

My car is in the shop, so I am back on the bus. I don’t mind the bus, despite its bad reputation. Its schedules are unreliable, true; its patrons eccentric, yes. But I like surrendering my responsibility for punctuality (a responsibility, not a habit) to it from time to time. And not to be too exploitive, too imperial in my attitude, but public transportation today provides the kind of material Joseph Mitchell used to get in neighborhood watering holes. Plus, I like being able to devote the attention I usually have to expend on the successful merge to more rewarding efforts. It’s pleasant—moreover, it’s medicinal, like an inoculation—to begin the work day with some substantial reading. My cars, historically speaking, afford me this opportunity with great generosity.

The first day of my renewed relationship with mass transit began provocatively. A nurse in colorful scrubs stood next to me, each of us attempting to get as much off the front page of the newspaper as we could through the window of the machine. He spoke, giving voice to my own thoughts, as we both read the same headline indicating that American troops will be in Iraq indefinitely: “We ain’t got no business being there no more. The war is over, they tell us. We won. OK, so who’s shooting at them, then?”

I agreed and, briefly, we commiserated, expressing our mutual concern for the young men and women whom we were certain would prefer being somewhere, almost anywhere, else than stuck in the desert as targets. I made a comment about the level of fear, anxiety and frustration those service people must feel, particularly given the president’s recent macho posturing:

“ ‘Bring ’em on,’ he said. Well, they brought it on, all right. Ten injured the next day; two dead the day after that.”

I figured the nurse and I were simpatico, that he would get where I was coming from. Instead, there was a long pause while he mopped his brow and craned his neck, ostensibly in hope an air-conditioned bus was rumbling up the road as we spoke.

It was, I think, as much in hope that he’d soon be away from a seditious twerp such as myself.

“People think the president woke up one morning and said, ‘Let’s get over there and kick some ass,’ like he had nothing better to do,” the nurse said eventually, as if starting an entirely new conversation. “The man’s got advisors. These people know what’s going on. And it ain’t like they’ve got nowhere else to go. They got other offers, you know?”

The logic was curious, but the point was clear enough: The president is a good man, informed by the most competent and objective of experts. He does not act selfishly or capriciously, and they do not need to curry favor, maintain reputations, jockey for position, placate egos or service partisan ideological agendas to get ahead—they’ve got options. They could go work for . . . well, for whomever the nurse figured big-shot, brainiac policy wonk-types go to work for if they think the administration to whom they owe their professional existence proves to be, in fact, selfish or capricious. The Masons always have work, after all, and Skull & Bones pays in the middle six figures for yard work, I hear.

I didn’t push it.

This was a good guy, whatever his personal threshold for dissent. People are generally good, I realized. They understand pain, and they don’t wish it indiscriminately on others. The number of true sociopaths among us is small, I comforted myself. Talk-radio rhetoric may suggest otherwise, but people by and large are decent. I’m just a crank. So the guy’s got a somewhat less-pessimistic view of the whole ghastly affair than I—that’s only politics. We both agree that people shouldn’t have to die for exigencies of the state-big-business axis. That’s huge, and heartwarming. God bless the bus.

My second day on the bus, however, gave me something else to chew on.

When I boarded, I saw that several of the row seats toward the front were taken up by one man, an enormous man. He’s a guy I’ve seen around, usually in the parking lots of public places—shopping malls, grocery stores. He catches the eye because, though I’ve never been good at this kind of guesswork, he’s got to be 500 pounds. And he’s florid and very apparently unhealthy. I’ve seen him lying in the mulch of medians, his plastic shopping bags still gripped tightly in his hands. I’d guess he’s schizophrenic. He was muttering to himself and gesticulating dramatically, his fingers rolling off obscure perididdles.

“That’s gang sign,” someone at the back of the bus—where we all congregated—joked.

Thing is, it’s really not all that funny. Nor was the guy’s smell, which was the subject of much laughter and cruel bonding on the bus that day. It was the smell of sickness and neglect, not his neglect for himself but ours collectively for him, and we laughed at it like he splashed it on in misguided vanity, his eau de crazy fat guy. Like it was his choice. Like those shorts, you cow; or that mullet—you paid someone to do that to you?—you vicious, borderline feral, third-generation loser; or that tattoo . . .

My car should be fixed by the end of the week. I think it’s just routine brake work, I pray it’s just routine brake work. I’ve got to practice my merging. I could be better at merging.

—John Rodat

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