Portrait of a Man

Portrait of a Man September 14, 2017


He got on the bus when Rose and I did, down town at the station with next to nothing else around. He was about my age, careworn, weather-beaten, more nervous than I’d expect.

Most people downtown look a little nervous, especially at the bus station, but he looked downright afraid, in a helpless way– not afraid like a cornered bear or a coiling snake, about to focus the nervous energy into an act of aggression. You see that sometimes, in the eyes of the poorest people downtown. I’ve felt it in my own eyes before, when I was more helpless than I am now. No one’s going to help; no one’s going to care whether you live or die; no matter what action you take to preserve yourself, the authorities will blame you. Your instincts take over. You brandish your mace, or your open carry, or your balled fist, and you stare people down.

This wasn’t that sort of fear.

The man was afraid in a different way– a  juvenile, helpless way. A way with all the fight beaten out of it. He wasn’t afraid like a cornered bear. He was afraid like an abused child with nowhere to run. His posture and expression were of an unseen authority figure who was going to stomp on him no matter what he did.

Then he moved, and I saw the block print on his bright yellow t-shirt: COMMUNITY SERVICE.

People sometimes ask me why I write about politics. “Just write your beautiful prosy pieces,” they say. “That’s why I read you. Tell us something about how weird Steubenville is again.

The man got on the bus behind us.  He moved slowly– one of his legs was much skinnier than the other, but I couldn’t tell the reason under his long, loose dress pants. In fact, he moved so slowly that I had maneuvered my thrift store bag, my daughter and the big plastic castle I’d just bought my daughter at the thrift store into our benches before he got to to the door.

“Does this bus go to such-and-such?” he asked, naming a local medical building.

It did.

“I gotta get to an appointment,” he said softly, “But I don’t have any money. Can I…”

I was about to pay his fare, but the bus driver let him get on for free.

He made his way to the bench directly in front of mine.

The bus idled in place for five minutes– it was set to leave the station at three-fifteen, but it had gotten there a little early. While we waited, the man took out his shabby old flip phone.

“I got an appointment with such-and-such at three o’clock,” he said placidly into the phone. “But my ride never came and I’m gonna be late.”

There was a pause.

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