There’s nothing accidental about a chance conversation on a city bus, even on the commuter special heading west on Wilshire Boulevard before sundown on a Friday evening. When, from the back, a voice called out, “Hey, do you know how far it is to Westwood?” I became suspicious. No one, not even a feckless tourist, breaks the solitude — and the occasionally near-perfect interior monologue — of a bus ride. Whoever does is instantly marked as a crazy, a hustler, or worse.

The bus happened to be empty, with just six passengers, and when I’d gotten on, I’d noticed the man who was now asking questions. Dressed in a dark T-shirt, and what looked like penitentiary-issue blue jeans, he appeared impervious to pain, and capable of dishing it out. He was lean, and strong, and his eyes were intent, engaged. I pictured myself like Arthur Sammler, Saul Bellow’s lost, detached, bus-riding Holocaust survivor, thoroughly menaced by a pickpocket.

“In time or distance?” I replied.

By answering, I had issued an invitation for the man to move forward and grab a seat directly across the aisle. “How long before we get there?” he asked as he sat down.

And then, after I’d answered, he began his actual line of interrogation. “You know anything about cocaine?”

“Not much, really. I don’t like speed,” I said, hinting at my bona fides. Inwardly, I began sizing him up. He seemed too clean-shaven. I could see no tattoos. His blue eyes were clear. His hands steady. His teeth sparkling white. Who was this guy? Was he trying to draw me into a nickel buy, then handcuff me?

“The thing is,” he continued, “I smoke a rock, and, like, man, for five minutes,
I’m great. Then it starts. I hear voices talking to me. Inside my head. I take
another hit, and the same thing. I’m fine for a minute, then the voices start
talking again.”

Textbook schizophrenia. Too textbook. I suggested, rather disingenuously, that he was more likely to find an answer to the mysteries of coke at one of the research hospitals at UCLA than from a rube like me.

“You know, I worked on one of the big science buildings there,” he offered. “I was a carpenter, setting forms. But the meth got me. I made it through six stages,” he said, referring to a mason’s union apprenticeship program. “Just two more, I’d be a journeyman. When I was high, I would just drive back and forth to San Diego, all night. I would get in the car, with my credit cards, turn on the music — you know, when a song stops,” his narrative jumped, “you just kind of freeze. Where is that song? The next morning, I would see all these credit-card bills for all this gas and food, and I wouldn’t remember any of it. I’d drive there and back five or six times, 90 miles an hour, 100 miles an hour. I don’t have the Firebird anymore.”

“You grow up in L.A.?” I asked.

“Lakewood,” he said, as if that were elsewhere.

“Your dad a machinist?” Lakewood once thrived on defense-industry jobs, among them thousands of highly skilled machinists. My surmise wasn’t entirely far off.

“X-ray technician. Now he’s a radiologist. I don’t go back to Lakewood. I was married for seven years, and if I see her, it’s like chocolate on the hood of a car. Now I’m livin’ in the ___ Hotel” — I couldn’t quite make it out, maybe the Rosslyn or Madison — “and I can’t sleep. You close your eyes, and the guy next to you is stealin’ your stuff.”

By now the bus had sped its way from Fairfax to Beverly Glen. Westwood, his stop and mine, was coming up. “What are you doing in Westwood?”

“Panhandling. I already walked for eight hours today, delivering leaflets, for $25. That disappeared in five minutes,” he confessed. Still, he didn’t look tired, the way someone who’d been on his feet all day would. And there was the intimation in his comment on how quickly the money was used up. I structured my question carefully, thinking I’d avoid entrapment, if that’s what he was attempting.

“If you were buying, how much would a rock cost you?” No way could anyone construe this as a business transaction on my part.

“Five for one, two for 10, but I can get five for $25. Man, you know what I’d really like to do, though? Cook meth. Then I’d really make money.”

For a moment, he fell silent, then asked, “You don’t have any money, do you?”

“No,” I said, adding, unconvincingly, “that’s why I’m on the bus.” Guilt was beginning to supplant leeriness. I found myself becoming susceptible to his predicament.

“Hey, do you know if there are invisible people?” he at last inquired.

“I don’t think so.”

The driver announced, “Westwood,” and the man stepped into the well by the rear door, pulled out a comb the size of a large harmonica, and carefully neatened the whiskers of his blond handlebar mustache.

With a hint of self-loathing, I stepped off the bus and dipped my head toward
my shoulder, like a big-league pitcher glancing toward first base — as if he hadn’t
noticed my fear, and my arrogance. I was relieved to see him walking in the opposite
direction. No more questions.

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