Hammer: Waiting on a downtown bus



It's 40 degrees and pouring rain, my parka is getting soaked, and the man coming up to me is drunk. It's 6 o'clock on an early-December Saturday night in Indianapolis and although there are plenty of places I'd rather be, here is where I am, being accosted by a drunk.

"Do you want to gift an old man some money so he can buy himself a candy bar?" he asks. "Just one old candy bar for Christmas."

He's about 55, light-skinned, a friendly face and big smile amidst a gathering of sullen, wet people at the bus stop. I give him the same answer I give every panhandler. It's a phrase carefully chosen from all my known alternatives and it almost always works.

"Sorry man," I say. "I'm short this week."

The phrase means not only will you not get money, cigarettes or a bus pass from me today, there's no point in asking me again for at least seven days.

My answer is exactly what the drunk man expects to hear, so he keeps moving, asking other folks if they would buy him a candy bar. Across the street, at the Sheraton, a sad-looking horse pulls a carriage designed for sightseers and tourists. The horse's blinders keep him from seeing us.

The man starts singing. "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." He doesn't know the lyrics so he makes them up. The rain keeps coming down.

"Later on by the fire," the man sings, "We'll talk and not get tired. I'll marry you, I'll marry you, walking in a winter wonderland."

A couple of teenagers, tall and skinny, walk over to the bus shelter. "Hey, O.G.," one of them says to me, "can I get a square off you?" He wants a cigarette.

"Sorry man," I say. "I'm short this week."

His friend pulls out a marijuana cigarette, thick and evenly rolled, the product of an experienced rolling hand. He lights it and the smoke wafts around me like incense, bringing back memories of old rock concerts.

"You smoke blunts, O.G.," he asks me, coughing as he exhales.

"Not for a long time," I say. Pointing at the federal courthouse building a block away, I say, lying, "I can't no more. They test my piss."

He seems to understand that line of logic. "What you got there," he says, gesturing towards my copy of Khrushchev: The Man And His Era by William Taubman. "You one of them Bible readers?"

I'm tired and I don't want this conversation, so I pull out my nuclear bomb.

"That's right," I tell young African-American teen. "Jesus said time heals all wounds. But we have to work hard to get the time."

He stares at me, a haze of smoke obscuring our views of each other.

"In Saint Matthew, you will see," I continue. "Start with Chapter 24 and read from 1 to 23. In our Savior's blessed words, He spoke and prophesized and told us of this great battle that is coming by and by."

All I'd done is cobble together lyrics from Marvin Gaye and Hank Williams Sr. gospel songs, but religious babbling is a repellent for your average pot-smoking teenager on the streets of Indianapolis on a Saturday night.

This day has been a battle, getting through work, worrying about my family, my finances and Christmas, but I'm winning at this point in the day. Minutes away is an aged biodiesel-fueled motorcoach owned by the city and whose sole purpose is to get me home, warm and dry.

The bus is running late. The man is still begging for money to buy a candy bar. He starts naming off brands of chocolate bars, perhaps hoping to coax someone into helping him complete his quest.

"Clark!" he says, triumphantly. "Milky Way! Almond Joy! Zagnut! Three Musketeers!"

"Mounds," someone in the bus shelter says.

"THAT'S RIGHT! Thank you! Mounds! Nestlé Crunch! It don't matter to me! I love them all!"

He starts singing "Winter Wonderland" again and wanders off to the bus shelter a block away.

My bus finally comes. My coat is shiny and my glasses speckled with rain. I swipe my card and sit down, trying to make sense of this city, those people, my life and how I got to this point in it.

My iPod baby monolith Shuffle is my traveling companion. I unsheath it, open my book, put the earbuds in tightly and hit a random song. Surprise me, Indianapolis, you've been doing it all day.

"I ride on a mail train, baby, can't buy a thrill.

Yes, I've been up all night, baby, leanin' on the window sill.

Yeah, but if I die on top of the hill.

And if I don't make it, you know my baby will."

I feel a vibration in my pocket. A text message. "Can't wait to c u."

The bus pulls away, leaving the State Capitol and the Circle Center Mall behind, heading towards home and everything it has to offer. Work's done. I survive once again.


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