Stuck

(This true story first appeared at the splendid TriMetDiaries.com.)

The twenty-something woman made a rookie mistake, standing within earshot of the old man in the flannel. She probably didn’t know, or maybe she enjoys gambling, but as soon as she planted her feet at the front of the #35, the clock was ticking. There weren’t many clicks before he spoke up.

“What’s that in your glass?” he asks, pointing at her mason jar.

She looked down as if to confirm her answer. “Chia milk.”

Chia milk?!” he asked as if he was expecting her to explain herself. She smiled and nodded, not elaborating on what chia milk is or where she got it. Her response was perfect – courteous, but direct. No loose ends for him to latch on to. She looked away, probably pleased to have expertly executed an efficient TriMet conversation shut-down. Unfortunately, those don’t work on the man in flannel.

I don’t hear what he says next, but I see her turn back to him as if she’s surprised he’s still talking. She’s courteously smiling as she listens, and over the rumble of the bus and buzzing of headphones, I get the impression he’s telling her a story – except all I can hear is a list of nouns, as if the story is about a trip to Home Depot and he’s listing the items he had in his cart.

“Drywall. Screws. Galvanized screws, that’s the kind you need. Sandpaper…” He’s delivering the words with so little enthusiasm that I suspect even he’s not interested in the story. I expect him to quit mid-list, but he perseveres. “Tape. Brushes. Not those sponge types, that’s not a paint brush. Steel wool…”

She’s still smiling, but it’s clear she’s laboring now, understandably concerned at how long his so-called story might be and clearly disappointed that her earlier exit strategy had failed. Worse, he’s done some sort of Jedi role-reversal move and mow he’s the one saying empty phrases that she can’t grab on to and bend into a conversational coda. She nodded along, looking for an opportunity to add a period to the man’s prattle, but for a dozen blocks, the barely audible shopping list continued unabated.

By the time we crossed the river into downtown, the woman’s smile was gone. As soon as we turned onto 5th avenue, she reached back to pull the cord. “This is mine,” she said sweetly, as if she wanted nothing more than to stay an listen but circumstances would not allow it. When the bus pulled up to the curb, she was out the door while her “have a nice day” was still hanging in the ear.

That’s when things got dodgy for the rest of us.  While I couldn’t begrudge her self-preservation, the aftermath of her exit was a chatty man, mid-story, with the momentum to finish it. As the doors closed behind her, he looked around the front of the bus to see if anyone had been listening, to see if someone wanted him to finish his riveting tale.

Everyone in the adjacent seats looked down at their books, phones, and laps, anything to avoid eye contact. I did, too, and kept my eyes down until I heard the man in flannel heave a disappointed sigh, resigned to the fact that his story would go unfinished.

Though I doubt the story had an actual ending anyway.

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