A Portrait of a Man

A Portrait of a Man January 15, 2024

a bus stop with the word BUS stenciled on the ground
image via Pixabay


[Note: I originally published this story in 2017, but the link to the next page in my old two-page post has stopped working, so I’m publishing an edited and revised version as one page here.]

The man  got on the bus when Adrienne and I did, down town at the station with 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 this man 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.

“Whaddaya mean you have to count me as a no-show? It’s only three-ten. My insurance will pay for a whole appointment, but I gotta talk to her a little. I can be there by three forty-five.”

Another pause.

“Now listen.” He was still frightened and polite, but now he was also angry. “I was at community service until two-thirty. If I don’t show up at community service, I go to jail. My caseworker said she’d pick me up at two-thirty, but she didn’t come. Said she had an emergency. She’s always having emergencies. I was stranded downtown. I walked a mile and a half to the bus stop on only one leg.”

Everyone on the bus tried not to look at the man’s mismatched appendages. Apparently, that skinny leg was a prosthesis.

No telling how he lost it. From his age, I thought it likely that he was a veteran of the neverending war on terror. A low-income veteran picked up on some nonviolent offense– drugs, perhaps– and sentenced to counseling and community service but given no easy means to do both. It happens all the time. And if that wasn’t his story, you can bet the real one was equally tragic.

People ask me why I write about politics. I’m so much better at writing art pieces about the eerie half-abandoned streets of Steubenville, those sad rugged people and the things they leave behind.

The man listened to his cheap phone; then he responded, clearly furious but still soft and afraid. “What do you mean, you understand? Do you have one leg? I wanna to talk to my counselor. My insurance will pay you for a full hour, I’ll just see her for fifteen minutes, but I really need to see her! NO! No, you said you understood. Do you understand having one leg? Did you do community service today and walk a mile on one leg? I shouldn’t have to pay you because my caseworker keeps having emergencies. This happened last week too. She’s always having emergencies. I just really, really need to talk to my counselor.”

He must have been new to the task of trying to get mental health services in a small Ohio Valley town, if he was talking back to the secretary from the office of a therapist who took medicaid. You’d be better off screaming at a cop.

People ask me why I write about politics, when it’s so much more interesting to make art about human beings.

Sometimes I want to shake those people.

Don’t they understand what I’m doing?

I am not making pretty works of art for your entertainment.  I am trying, with every trick I know how, to show you the invisible people. People like me, my husband and my daughter; the people on the bus and the prostitutes at the Friendship Room. People you look away from because they’re the wrong kind of people. I am showing you people, writing icons of people, pointing madly at people and crying out “Behold, the children of God,” because these people are suffering. They are suffering because of the hardness of our hearts and heads, for lack of help society could have given them if only they’d seen, and been converted.

When hardness of head and heart are institutionalized, they’re called “politics.”  I write about politics because politics impacts the lives of the invisible people. The invisible people are always struck worst of all, when politics go awry. The powerful start wars. The helpless go to war, lose limbs, and come back needing therapy. The powerful institute laws. The helpless go to jail or community service, and it’s made as hard as possible for them. The powerful decide policies for healthcare and community service, and the helpless are lucky to get fifteen minutes with an overworked counselor. The powerful set the bus schedule, the helpless ride and try to look grateful. If they don’t, they get slapped down.

I got off the bus at my stop, praying under my breath. Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate the Lord fly in terror before the glory of His countenance. Let they compassion go quickly before us, O Lord, for we have become exceedingly poor. 

It’s not a remarkable story. But if this were a better world, it would be.



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