One dollar each
Waiting for the 14 Mission bus off 22nd Street, this small wrinkled dude in a 49ers baseball cap staggers up to me and shoves two roses in plastic sleeves in my face hollering, “One dollar each!” Except he is so sauced it slurs out: “Onedollaeash!”
“No thanks,” I say, but he keeps asking.
“Hey . . . you want a rose?” He thrusts them at my face like plastic swords, stabbing. “Rose?”
“No,” I say firmly, but he leans in way too close. He may be five feet tall but his breath is 80 proof.
His week-long-bender booze breath hovers the air, an invisible cloud that passes over me like a bad intoxicated dream. “Rose! Rose!” he yells. His voice is raw and strangled as though escaping from a dark jagged crevice.
“Leave me alone please,” I say because, goddamn it, I don’t want a plastic rose. His face assumes a completely blank look for a moment.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “Really sorry.”
“It’s ok,” I say and turn to scan the street for the bus.
He taps me on the arm. “I’m really sorry.”
“Fine,” I say literally throwing up my hands.
He stumbles off only to return less than two minutes later. “Onedolleash?”
I’ve been in the city too long. I’m damaged enough and this nonsense isn’t helping. I turn to him and stand with my legs apart in a mean stance, give him the evil city eye. “No! Go away!”
He doesn’t budge. He stands there staring at me, swaying. I can feel my fingers curling into tiny fists so I just walk away. Just walk away down to the glass bus shelter where there are other people gathered. I feel good. I haven’t inflicted gratuitous violence on a drunk man. I am in control of my destiny.
He lumbers off, a wee Quasimodo, to a cluster of girls waiting to cross the street at the other corner. Well, at least that’s over.
Maybe I should have bought the damn rose. I have a dollar in my hand for the bus: the last dollar I have because it’s Thursday. One more day to go. It’s been a hard week, so at home all I have is a roll of quarters and two rolls of dimes lying on a coffee table fashioned from wooden fruit crates from what I’d gleaned under the seat cushions of the leopard couch. And a wad of ATM withdrawal receipts from the previous week. Many from bars.
The bus finally pulls up and the people shuffle in one at a time. I sit down in a sideways seat across from the bus window. Thirty seconds later, as though I am in some freakishly long Star Trek episode, the rose man materializes and sits down directly across from me. Oh Jesus Christ.
He leans over towards me as though he has never seen me before and slurs, “Onedollaeash?” I shake my head and look violently to the right. I put on my dark sunglasses to shield out all the madness and the rose men of the world.
After the bus lurches forward, he stands and stumbles back through the aisle asking in earnest, “Onedollaeash?” the only word he seems to know and repeats like a scratched 45. In his vacated seat sits a near empty 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor nestled in a crumpled paper bag, swishing around, next to a pink plastic sack of potatoes.
When he finally stumbles back to his seat holding the same two plastic sheathed roses, he sits down and grows strangely quiet. From behind the black little shields of my sunglasses, I look at him. He wears a matted, blue, quilted jacket, dime store sneakers and jeans too long so they sag over the tops of the sneakers. He is not an ugly man but rather an almost handsome one. Small but with a rugged tanned face leathery with age. Early 40s maybe. He has aged reasonably well, considering the malt liquor problem. It makes me sad for him. A deep longing sad. The fact that he isn’t completely hideous makes it worse somehow. In different clothes he could be driving the bus. Selling the bus. Directing the bus. He could easily do so much more; he probably didn’t and would never even know how much more.
And was more really better? In the window behind him I can see myself sitting across from him. I’m on my way home from my own job peddling a different product, not drunk but half-wishing I was.
He looks at me and speaks up again, slurring, “You look nice. Hey! You look nice.” He leans forward and takes a slug of malt liquor. “Tell me your name!” he erupts. His eyes are huge and violent. Beer drools from his mouth. “Hey! Hey, tell me your name!”
Can’t a girl just sit on a bus? Does she have to buy a plastic rose? I look away from him, silent, thinking my thoughts. I was no good at making things better. It would only make it worse to speak.
Instead my silence whips him up into a frenzy. He starts cursing and spitting in my general direction. I can’t win. When I get off the bus he throws his empty forty-ounce bottle out the window where it crashes on the street gutter in front of me. I look at the jaggedy glass slivers on the pavement lying there shining like fallen stars. What a waste.
I walk the six blocks home with his one word spinning over and around me. After me. “Onedollaeash.” A word that basically sums up everything that sucks about life. Souls for sale. One dollar each. I walk home thinking that in one way or another we all sell roses in the street.