One of the downsides of riding the bus is I’m on someone else’s schedule. If I’m not at a stop at a specific time, or at least close enough that the driver can see me waving, the bus ain’t gonna wait around for me, especially in Nashville where the minimum wait time between buses is at least fifteen minutes and usually more. A little over a year ago when I was in Chicago I happened to notice that buses went by about every five minutes and there was the El that went by almost as frequently and I thought, what magical place is this? but that’s another story. Most of the time time isn’t a problem–I know when to leave work, and about when the bus will arrive–but then I have chance encounters with people on the street that make me wish I had a little more flexibility. For a long time there was a guy who stood on the corner across from where I work selling The Contributor, which is a newspaper written by and about people who are homeless in Nashville. It’s a way for them to earn money and find some support. I always felt guilty having to hurry by this guy and if I had a dollar I would stop and buy a paper from him, but mostly our interactions were limited to, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’d found a really good corner to sell newspapers, right at the intersection of two major streets, and close to a cluster of fast food places. A couple of them gave him free food in exchange for telling people how they helped him or giving out coupons with the newspapers. Sometimes he’d tell me he had a new issue and if I didn’t have a dollar I say, “I’ll get it tomorrow,” and the next day I’d make sure to have a dollar. After a few times he learned to trust me. And one day he stopped me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new issue and this one’s really special. If you haven’t got a dollar today take it now and you can pay me tomorrow.” I said sure, and then he showed me that he’d written the front page article. It was all about how he’d finally saved enough to marry his girlfriend. There was a even a large picture of the two of them, he in a suit and she in a wedding dress. I read the article on the bus. They were planning to move back to his home state, temporarily at least, so he could take care of some legal issues he’d left behind when he became homeless. I really made sure to have a dollar for him the next day, and to congratulate him; I already felt like I’d missed a chance to get to know him, and I didn’t want any lingering debts. He disappeared not long after that, and I still wonder sometimes what’s become of him.
I was reminded of him when I had a very different encounter last week. I was standing on a different corner, waiting for the light to change, and I had three or four library books in my arms because I was researching something and I still like to use old fashioned books to do at least some of my investigating. And a guy came up to me, in jeans and a denim jacket and a woven cap, and he said, “Hey, are you a perpetual student like me?” I just stammered out a yes, and before I could say anything else he walked away, and even though he was going a different direction I thought about following him. I wanted to say, “Hey, what did you mean by that? And could you please tell me everything about you?”
Instead, when the light changed, I crossed the other street and went on to the bus stop. I still regret not following him even though it would have meant being late getting home. How do you prepare for such an unexpected encounter?