I took a bus from New York City to Boston on a Friday in mid-June. I planned to spend the weekend with my mother, who lives in Brookline with her boyfriend, and then join my father and my stepmother for a few days on Martha’s Vineyard, where they had rented a house for a week of vacation.
I stood outside the Tick Tock Diner on the loud intersection of 34th Street and 8th Avenue around noon. Cabs honked and double-deckers filled with tourists passed by. Vendors manned metal carts that poured steam and the scent of grilled meat onto the street. Women in heels talked on cell phones and, one after another, travelers bearing suitcases lined up down the far edge of the sidewalk to wait for the bus. It was hot and noisy. The driver, we were told, was running late.
As I waited, I watched as a man in uniform walk slowly down the block. He wore cargo pants and a loose-buttoned shirt, all the same shade of pale earth camouflage. It was an Army uniform, the same uniform I had last seen on Matt a few weeks earlier, when he had greeted me at baggage claim in the New Orleans airport. I had flown down to visit him on his last 5 days free before deployment. He had looked quite handsome.
This man, however, looked old and ragged. He had long dark hair, which was mangled and tattered. Scruff covered his face. His eyes were bloodshot and his teeth, yellow. He walked with a hunch, swinging his arms awkwardly around as he spoke in a garbled tongue. I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or delirious. He paused towards the intersection and looked at all of us waiting in line for the bus.
“What’r you doing here?” he cried.
No one said anything. After a glance at the source of noise, everyone looked away. I averted my eyes, too.
“C’mon, give me something,” he yelled. “Why can’t y’all gimme something?”
He voice was loud and grating. I felt embarrassed, and I wasn’t sure why. After a moment he grew quiet. He walked away slowly, heading east.
Later, as I sat in the back of the bus reading a book, I couldn’t get the image of that man out of my head. I wondered if he was a veteran. I wondered if anyone ever gave him something. I wondered if everyone’s first reaction was to look away.